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Art & Science: Curiosity of a Modern Time



Reginald Marsh (1897 – 1955), Mad Men of Europe, 1940, Watercolor on paper, Collection of John and Susan Horseman.

Reginald Marsh (1897 – 1955), Mad Men of Europe, 1940, Watercolor on paper, Collection of John and Susan Horseman.

One of our present exhibitions, Modern Dialect , showing from October 19, 2013 to January 5, 2014, highlights paintings from the 1930s and 1940s; a period of time we traditionally experience in terms of economics and politics.  The “New Deal” and World War II define a shifting society, a changing America during the times of the Great Depression and war.  A time of dichotomies from bread lines to burgeoning industry, from rural to urban living; dualities that even touched the history of our Museum.

It was at this time in the 1930s that William Lyman Phillips (landscape architect; 1885-1966) was working for the Olmsted Brothers firm and designed the Olmsted Gardens (1931) for Waldo and Clara Cummer.  As the decade progressed and the call for private estate design decreased, Phillips was called upon to lead projects for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  With the CCC he built federally funded projects including Greynolds Park and Matheson Hammock, as well as Fairchild Tropical Garden.

But I was curious, what else was happening?  Beyond and within government programs and private endeavors, what technological advances were pushing industry along, not only processes but what was new?

Scotch tape was new, originally marketed for packaging of bakery goods and displaced by heat sealing, scotch tape soon became popular in a failing economy to repair torn books, damaged window shades, toys and clothing; extending their life for a lot less than the replacement cost of the item.  A certain Clarence Birdseye perfected the process for quick freezing food and packaging it for the first frozen dinners.  A method he started to research in 1923 with a $7.00 investment.  Neoprene, a synthetic rubber, and nylon (and subsequently nylon stockings) were invented.  It is interesting to note that nylon was a result of a search for synthetic fiber that could replace silk.  A commodity mostly supplied to the United States by Japan, a country whose trade relations with were deteriorating.

The 1930s also saw the invention and building of the first jet engines and helicopters.  The polaroid camera, and teflon were invented in the thirties and first sold to the public in the forties.  The ballpoint pen and canned beer were introduced; and on the streets and roadways, cat’s eyes (road reflectors), parking meters, and drive in theatres made their first appearances.

The 1940s, of course, is known for the atomic bomb, but silly putty (a failed attempt to make synthetic rubber), the Slinky, and the Frisbee also made their debut.  The modern color television system, the microwave and the mobile phone were all invented along with Velcro, Tupperware, and cake mix.  The manufacturing process for Penicillin G Procaine was invented making this antibiotic readily available.   The computer age was being pushed along with the development of software computer control, the assembling of the first electronic digital computer, and the development of the transistor.  Even the World Wide Web was being foreshadowed; in 1945 Vannevar Bush predicted that “wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex (a device with compressed information) and there amplified”.

The art world was also seeing change during this period.  New pigments became available, due in part to a growing chemical industry.  Art in the U.S. was also experiencing new ideas, from within and from without.  In Germany, politics closed the Bauhaus, a renowned arts and design college whose core concept was based on reimagining the material world to reflect the unity of all the arts.  Many of the displaced Bahaus artists found their way to the U.S. and in turn placed influences on style and philosophy.  In the U.S., the Federal Art Project (FAP) served not only to employ citizens, but to beautify the environment for the public, raising the spirits of people.

Overshadowed by the immediacy of the times, it is hard to see these advancements pictured in the images on the gallery wall.   But, just as individuals were struggling to make their way by changing location and work, so was industry and business.  As individuals sought new skills to survive, industry chased innovation.  Perhaps science was part of and an answer to the contrasts of the time, both a hungry member of the bread line and a preserver of food with frozen food technology.  A worker facing unemployment and a job creator producing new products like neoprene and nylon. As part of a society struggling with difficult times, yet, looking to make the best of things, technology and science, tried new things and when the results were not quite right, repurposing a synthetic into “Silly Putty”.

So, my curiosity partially satisfied about the creations and ideas that flourished during this period 60 to 80 years ago.  Some that seemed to be decades before their time but obscured by the economics and politics; I know wonder what is hidden behind the images of our time?

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Director of Art Education

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