This is a very different era from the one in which William Gropper rose to prominence. It is no longer fashionable to say things in art. And it is dangerous to have a social conscience. Painting has escaped or been diverted from social concerns by concentrating on form. Wether or not prosperity is the mistress of aestheticism, both seem to have won the day. In America's greatest contemporary school of art, abstract expressionism, de Kooning looms as a demi-god to the disenchanted because some idea of pain and depth, some recognition of the essential difficulty of life, emerges from his struggle with form.
William Gropper never lost his social conscience or his conviction that "the artist's function is to be aware of life and conditions of the times." He still satirizes the blustering Senators and the martini-drinking set that crowds the chic exhibit halls. On the other hand, he retains compassion for the little east side tailor who emigrated to this country lie his own grandfather. Yet, both in moods of satire and compassion his color has become more strident. "I am having a ball with color," he says, and this above all seems to be his concession to the Formalistic art of our time.
In some sense, Gropper began in the modern tradition. His great master has always been Daumier. He has himself been called the American Daumier. Perhaps, however, he doesn't quite come up to the classic quality of this master. These logical depth nor the plastic subtlety. Yet Gropper has obviously caught much of Daumier's spirit in his broad caricature style and monumental figures, in his simplification and grasp of essential gesture, and even in his themes. The other influence to which Gropper is indebted is Goya. Gropper is currently doing a series of prints entitled Capriccios, the way Goya did. The themes are aloofness, confusion, man being eaten by machines. when they don't look like Thomas Hart Benton, these prints take on a quality of pathos that is masterful. Figures in the Fog is one of the best.
An extensive series of wash drawings done in Bulgaria make up a large part of the current exhibit. They indicate one way Gropper has accommodated his social consciousness to a new era. These drawings capture the very different mood of these people, wine growers and shepherds. A few simple lines delineate their oriental features and the plodding routine of their life. The artist is also sensitive to the different background of this country, the tall mountains and peculiar lighting.
Gropper does not always use the lessons of his mentors with their subtlety or sureness, but he approaches being a whole artist more nearly than many of his contemporaries. Perhaps his friend Joe Jones summed his achievement up best when he wrote, "I don't know whether he is a great person or a great artist. What I do know, and I think needs to be known of anyone, is that his day by day examination of himself, society, and his work is approached with a single idea of understanding."
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