Heroes Through the Lens of the Depression: “Beyond the Surface,” Through February 26 at the Figge Print
Art - Reviews
Written by Michelle Garrison   
Saturday, 31 December 2011 06:48

Abe Lincoln Enters Coles County, IllinoisArtists use certain visual cues to make a portrait feel heroic: bright, clear lighting, a low viewing perspective, strong or kind facial expressions, adoring masses, flying flags. These techniques cast the subject as trustworthy, powerful, and revered.

This is not how Charles Turzak did it. The print Abe Lincoln Enters Coles County, Illinois at first glance seems a traditional heroic portrait. A younger Lincoln stands in the center of the composition. The distant clouds appear to part behind his head, giving the effect of a halo and drawing our eyes to his face. He leans slightly to the left, muscles taught, in a pose seemingly moments away from action. He clutches an axe. His open collar, bare feet, and rolled-up sleeves suggest a hard-working everyman.

But the rest of the print seems more conflicted. Lincoln stands in a field, surrounded by felled trees and stumps, as far as the eye can see. They lay at angles, not in orderly piles – as if on a battlefield. Lincoln’s face, seen in profile, appears stern. His eyes are completely obscured by shadow, emphasizing the hollows of his cheeks. The clouds, although parting for his head, appear dark and stormy. The felled trees are both progress and destruction, and the scene is both glorious and anxious. This is a portrait of a man who has accomplished much, but at great cost.

Abe Lincoln Enters Coles County, Illinois is one of 12 woodcuts in the Figge Art Museum’s Beyond the Surface: WPA Works of Charles Turzak exhibit, which runs through February 26. The black-and-white prints, all approximately 14 by 12 inches and created through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during 1934, are in the style of graphic realism and represent events, places, and individuals specific to Illinois. While they elevate the worker and recognize important historical figures, they also reflect the darker tone of the time.

During the Great Depression, the federal government created a series of programs intended to improve the economy, including the WPA. Thousands of artists were hired to create work for display in government and public settings.

Charles Turzak was one such artist. Although he was of minor importance nationally, his roots and work in Illinois make him locally significant. He was also a shining example of the success of the WPA in developing career artists. This suite of prints was commissioned after Turzak’s work on a post-office mural in Lemont, Illinois, and it established black-and-white woodcuts as his preferred visual language.

Tank WorkerWe see another heroic portrait in Tank Worker. A heavily muscled man stands in the center, one hand clutching a wrench, the other a vertical rail. The viewing angle is low, making the man appear powerful and commanding, standing on high.

Turzak manipulated line and value to move the viewer’s eyes upward, giving the work a dynamic quality, and an exaggerated sense of space. The man, with his raised arm, draws our eyes up to the large containment tank in the background. Various tubes and rails emanate from the tank, adding to the vertical sweep.

He also utilized large areas of solid black and white to create alternating arcs, framing the worker. The outer edge is black, implying a walkway stories above the man. The white light of the distant ceiling frames the large black tank. The man appears illuminated from below, composed mostly of white values, bright against the dark tank.

This portrait presents the worker as strong and significant. The setting, however, seems dark. The extreme lighting and absence of other workers make his position seem lonely and foreboding. He looks downward, to the side, seeming concerned and distracted. Although hard at work, this man appears to have additional concerns.

Fort Dearborn MassacreFort Dearborn Massacre combines portraits into a narrative scene of villain, hero, and victim. This image depicts a tragic event during the War of 1812, in which local Indian tribes ambushed and killed the Fort’s unarmed residents, despite the intervention of some Native Americans on their behalf.

The villain of this tale is largest in the composition. A hostile warrior stands in grotesque celebration, arms spread, with a weapon in each hand. In the background, the fort burns, sending spirals of smoke into the air. The smoke behind the large warrior contains wiggly lines that echo the villain’s form, like vibrating energy.

In the bottom of the composition we see a woman, infant in arms, being protected by another Native American. His hand is raised, blocking an ax being swung by an enemy, invisible to us, outside of the composition. The hero’s calm face and subtle movement place him in direct contrast to the intense energy of the villain. The hero is also relatively small in the composition, taking up only the bottom right quarter. This narrative image glorifies the altruism of the hero yet represents the overwhelming odds of his situation.

Capt. George Rogers Clark Takes KaskaskiaAnother narrative portrait is Capt. George Rogers Clark Takes Kaskaskia. This print depicts Clark and his soldiers liberating the town from British rule during the Revolution. Clark is center in the page, leading a line of militiamen bearing rifles and an American flag. Their rifle stocks form parallel lines, echoed by the white stripes of the large flag above. The repeated vertical stripes of the logs composing the fence and buildings of the fort contrast with these horizontal elements, giving a grid-like stability to the composition.

Despite this supposedly being a happy event for the citizens of Kaskaskia, all onlookers in Turzak’s image seem worried, if not outright terrified, about their liberation. The lower left corner is filled with the faces of an anxious and astonished crowd. The lower right corner contains a priest, looking at Captain Clark and with a hand touching his lips in inquisitive concern.

Vandalia 1824Vandalia 1824 presents another snippet of Illinois history: a failed attempt to convene a state constitutional convention in Illinois to legalize slavery. Turzak illustrates the opposing sides vying for voters’ attention in this imagined, dramatic tableau. Dark clouds in the background are composed of repeated horizontal strokes, giving an appearance of movement and energy. What was then the state capitol dominates the top of the composition, hinting at the political nature of the scene.

In the middleground, we see a faceless crowd of marching protesters, with a banner reading “Vote on the ?” A bald man in a long coat stands in profile, glancing over his shoulder at the viewer. In his hands is a document that he studies closely. His posture and expression seem suspicious. To the man’s left is a kneeling slave, his wrist shackled to a chain leading off the page.

In the foreground are two worried-seeming voters, writing on a single large ballot. The voter on the left glances back at the slave while the voter on the right looks down, a man in a top hat looming over his shoulder. Turzak increased the feeling of the voters’ anxiety by placing them in the bottom right corner, with all directional forces of the composition leading our eyes to rest on the ballot. The moral heroes of this scene – the abolitionists – are indistinguishable from their pro-slavery counterparts. It is unclear in this depicted moment if they will be victorious.

Turzak’s depiction of American heroes is fascinating because he does not present them using the conventional visual language. He infused them with subtle strength through their poses and actions yet used facial expressions and compositional elements to suggest vulnerability. Beyond the Surface gives modern viewers American history through the lens of the Great Depression – hope in the success of altruistic heroes, yet concern for their potential fallibility.

Michelle Garrison is a mixed-media artist who teaches art and design at Geneseo Middle School. She can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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