William Gropper (1897-1977) Painter, cartoonist and lithographer
Blacklisted: William Gropper’s Capriccios, the exhibition on display this spring in the Ellen Philips Katz and Howard C. Katz Gallery, came together through original research by Block Museum Graduate Fellow John Murphy. A PhD candidate in art history, Murphy spoke to us about curating the exhibition, which is on display in the Ellen Philips Katz and Howard C. Katz Gallery through August 11.
William Gropper, Patrioteers, from the portfolio The Capriccios, 1953–56, lithograph. Block Museum, Gift of Evelyn Salk in memory of her husband, Erwin A. Salk, 2001.21.38.
How did you come to develop this exhibition?
This exhibition developed out of an interest of mine in art and leftist politics. William Gropper was one of only two artists, along with Rockwell Kent, to have been targeted by the Joe McCarthy witch-hunts in the 1950s. The Capriccios is a unique and powerful response to his experience of being blacklisted.
Why were you interested in Gropper’s work?
I became interested in Gropper’s work through his association in the 1930s with leftist cultural organizations like the John Reed Club, which I’d been researching for The Left Front: Radical Artists in Red America, 1929–1940, an exhibition at the Block Museum scheduled to open in January 2014. He rejected the idea of “art for art’s sake” and believed that artists needed to be actively involved in the social and political issues of their own time. As a famous (and sometimes notorious) political cartoonist, Gropper believed that art had the power to persuade, provoke, and educate. That aspect of his work fascinated me.
What process did Gropper use to make these prints?
The Capriccios is a series of 50 lithographs, a form of printmaking popular in Gropper’s time. It was in many ways a political medium, in the sense that lithographs could be made and sold relatively cheaply and so reach a wider audience than paintings or other kinds of prints. But the Capriccios, following Goya (who was a master printmaker as well as painter), also makes a claim for printmaking as a fine art, able to express complex themes and ideas.
How were these prints disseminated at the time they were made? How did critics and the public react to them?
After being blacklisted, galleries refused to exhibit Gropper’s art and his work as a political cartoonist dried up. Fortunately, a group of friends and patrons rallied around Gropper to help sustain his livelihood and work as an artist. They gave him the funds to produce the Capriccios, which he labored on for three years “to express myself on the Inquisition of our times,” as he put it. But once Gropper finished the series it was essentially ignored by critics and audiences alike—almost certainly a consequence of the blacklist. Now the Block Museum is exhibiting the entire portfolio for the first time in over fifty years.
What happened to Gropper after he was blacklisted?
I should allow Gropper to speak for himself since the effects of being blacklisted were professionally and personally traumatizing for him. He wrote to a friend in 1964 that being blacklisted meant “that I cannot get a job as teacher or janitor in any school, institution, or government building. Neither is any of my work to be sent on international shows. Of course, with it goes the concentrated effort to keep my name out of publications, books, or work of any kind, and believe me they do a thorough job.”
Which is your favorite print from Capriccios, and why?
It’s difficult to pick a favorite since I’m convinced the power of the Capriccios comes from the cumulative effect of all 50 lithographs seen together. But I was especially struck by a print called Nucleus Gods, a terrifying vision of a nuclear apocalypse. In addition to being an inventive and disturbing image, it is also a reminder that the 1950s was not simply the wholesome age of I Love Lucy and happy nuclear families—the threat of nuclear war was very real and immediate.
Is there anything else you want visitors to know about Blacklisted?
The main thing I hope the show makes visible is that art can be a compelling means of political protest, not just personal expression. Though I doubt Gropper was flattered by the attention from McCarthy, in many ways the experience, though traumatic, confirmed Gropper’s ideas about art: That it could be political, that it could be powerful, that it could even be perceived as threatening to those in authority.
What other projects are you working on for the Block Museum?
In many ways, Blacklisted: William Gropper’s Capriccios is the unofficial prelude to The Left Front, which will look at radical artists from the 1930s who put their art in the service of revolutionary politics. Gropper was a major protagonist in this movement, and there’s something poignant about looking at his activist art from the ’30s. He was unaware then of what his political commitments would lead to—public humiliation, personal and professional trauma, and the blacklist. But the 1930s finds him and his comrades deeply engaged with their historical moment, trying to use their socially-conscious art to improve the world around them. That theme still carries through in the Capriccios, but it’s a bleaker, darker vision of the world based on Gropper’s personal experience.