The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940

The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art
Northwestern University
Evanston, IL

In the wake of the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, artists united with writers and other cultural producers to make socially-conscious art. The artists created art aimed to promote the causes of workers’ rights, racial equality, and international peace in the tumultuous decade between the World Wars.

The exhibition, The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940 at the Block Museum at Northwestern University, chronicles a fraught moment in American social and cultural history when visual artists joined with authors, poets, journalists, and activists to form a “left front” against the looming threats of world war and fascism.

With the goal in mind to reframe the connection between artists and their political ideals during this “Red Decade,” The Left Front focuses specifically on artists with Chicago roots. Drawing deeply on the Block’s collection and Special Collections at Northwestern University Library, the exhibition includes 130 prints, painting, posters, and rare books that reveal the relationship between Chicago artists, their art, and the city’s radical political history.

The Left Front has provided opportunities for students and the public to engage in a learning environment about an era that had both local and national impact. Outreach in the community was done through public lectures, theatrical performances, poetry recitations, film screenings, and an accompanying newspaper-style catalogue that is distributed free to the public citywide.

The Left Front is the first exhibition to focus specifically on the visual arts legacy of the John Reed Club (JRC) and the American Artists’ Congress (AAC). Participation in these two organizations helped unite artists and create politically charged art in an era of hot-bed politics. The Left Front not only tells the story of the relationship between art and leftist politics in the American 1930s, but highlights how these artists saw themselves as members of a political community of like-minded cultural producers and activists.

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