Painting DejaVu

Every once in a while you look at a painting and recognize similarities, in feeling if not structure. Sometimes these similarities are obvious, and sometimes they are not so obvious.

A obvious example, or what seemed obvious to me anyway, was a painting in the Butler Museum of American Art. William Gropper’s “The Youngstown Strike” reminded me of Picasso’s “Guernica.” It would seem this similarity may have been intentional as Gropper related the events.

“The Youngstown Strike” is one of the most gripping social protest works of the period. The painting was apparently prompted by the extended strikes staged in 1936-37 by workers at the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, Youngstown, Ohio. During these years chaos frequently reigned throughout much of the city. In one incident, following a savage confrontation with police guards by workers and their families, the police tear gassed and shot at the workers; two strikers were killed and twenty-eight injured. The positioning of figures in Gropper’s painting make anything other than an intentional similarity unlikely.

If you didn’t pick up on it yet, random events come up randomly and sometimes songs sound similar even when the writers are unfamiliar with another’s work. The problem with my theory is Guernica and the Youngstown Strike were painted in the same year. Instead of one work being based on another, the similarities were the result of a zeitgeist gripping the age.

Picasso’s painting of course shows the horrors of war, and for what at first may seem like an odd parallel has even been compared to Davinci’s “The Last Supper.” Guernica depicts the Nazi German bombing of Guernica, Spain, by twenty-eight bombers, on April 26, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The attack killed between 250 and 1,600 people, and many more were injured. (While living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, Picasso suffered harassment from the Gestapo. One officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, “Did you do that?” Picasso responded, “No, you did.”) While the Youngstown Strike event happened in 1916, Gropper painted it in the depths of the Great Depression in 1937.

Guernica was initially exhibited in July 1937 at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition. Perhaps he saw Guernica in a magazine, but it doesn’t appear Gropper was in Paris. In 1937 he was in the American West witnessing the dust bowl.

Another example of similarities in paintings may be a bit more of a stretch. At the Westmoreland Museum of Art show on John Sloan, his painting “Election Night” somehow brought to mind Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Its not so much Sloan’s dark painting of gritty New York that recalled Renoir’s colorful work, but they way the characters interact-or avoid meaningful interaction. Each painting has a general good humor about it and yet to each individual character it doesn’t seem to matter whether another is there. Renoir’s work is slightly different in that some characters are interested in others, only that other has a mind somewhere else.

Many of the Sloan works are from the Delaware Art Museum and are currently on display at the Westmoreland. The Youngstown Strike is permanently at the Butler.

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