Images from the Depression offer lessons for today

A black and white photograph of men outside of a pool hall.
Gordon Parks (1912-2006), Pool Hall, Fort Scott, Kan., 1950, gelatin silver print, 11 1/2 x 19 inches.
Courtesy of the Shogren-Meyer Collection

Many people throw around the idea that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Now, two Minnesota art collectors may be putting this to the test.

They have lent a huge selection of Depression-era paintings and photographs for a museum exhibit at the Hillstrom Museum of Art at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. They hope people will enjoy the show, but also look a little differently at the world today.

The first painting in the show, "Industry, Work, Society and Travails in the Depression Era: American Paintings and Photographs from the Shogren-Meyer Collection," is a gigantic sunflower by the acclaimed early 20th century painter John Steuart Curry.

A painting of a large sunflower in a field.
John Steuart Curry (1897-1946), Russian Giant, 1929, oil on canvas, 26 x 20 inches.
Courtesy of the Shogren-Meyer Collection

"It's kind of a little bit of a happy-go-lucky harbinger of the doom and gloom of the rest of the works," museum director Don Myers said. "Because it's very positive, it's from 1929 before the stock market crash."

The show is a dramatic display of 96 images collected over four decades by Dan Shogren and Susan Meyer. Both studied history in college, and then worked in industry. Shogren said as they began collecting, they were drawn to images of the Depression era.

"And we related to that, I think, especially some of the industrial scenes because we started comparing what we see today with some of the scenes from the ‘20s, the ‘30s and the ‘40s," he said.

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The collection has a healthy representation of art and artists from Minnesota. There's a photograph of men standing by the door of a pool hall by St. Paul native Gordon Parks. There's a dramatic painting of an enormous iron ore pit on the Mesabi Range. The Hillstrom's Don Myers said the image is both beautiful and concerning.

"It's hard to kind of go back and forth between worrying about how the land has been torn apart, and seeing the beauty of how Tom Dietrich has portrayed this deep mine near Virginia, Minn,” said Myers.

Nearby, there is a sobering painting of a group of miners standing round a man injured or maybe even killed in a work accident. It's called "The Price of Labor" and Myers said it potently combines horror and beauty.

"You have this very harsh subject matter, but you have all these brilliant almost happy looking colors in the background," he said. "And I think it makes the message all the more strong because of that."

There are slightly more photographs in the show than paintings. Dan Shogren said the photos tend to be grittier, but the painters were often explored the same ideas and issues. That interested them as collectors.

"In many cases we see the same subject, one photographed, one painted," he said. "We like to look for images that will complement each other."

Several times in the show, photos and paintings of similar aspects of mining or physical labor hang side by side.

One dramatic example is a painting of a gigantic crucible filled with molten iron which hangs next to a photograph not just of the same subject, but almost exactly the same composition.

There is a photograph of a family sitting around a table doing piecework hanging next to a painting of another family similarly engaged.

There are dramatic images of the dust bowl and its impacts, too.

Susan Meyer said while the images are from the past, they are also make a viewer think of the present.

"It's so obvious that history runs in cycles and repeats itself," she said. "So, when you understand that and study history, you begin to wonder what's going to happen in the future."

That will likely come up during a talk given by Dan Shogren at the Hillstrom Monday night at the show opening. The show will also host a reception for the annual Nobel Conference Sept. 24.

With today's concerns about climate change and the possibility of a recession, the images in the show can be taken as warnings. However, museum director Don Myers said that should not discourage visitors.

"Some of these compositions and images are so beautiful, that I don't understand how you cannot be taken away by them.”