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Ever wonder where the art is stored at the WFMA, and what's in there anyway? Join MSU associate professor Todd Giles as he unlocks the vault!

 


 

 

Mabel Dwight

In the Crowd (Faces in the Crowd), 1931
Lithograph

Edition of 32
Cream wove paper
Signed & dated in pencil
Printed by George Miller

Collectors Circle purchase, 2021


The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

~ “In a Station of the Metro,” Ezra Pound (1913)

 

[Transcript]

Hello and welcome to The Vault Unlocked. My name is Todd Giles and we’re here to take you inside the collection vault at the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas. In this episode, we will take a close look at Mabel Dwight’s 1931 lithograph titled In the Crowd (Faces in the Crowd).

Mable Dwight (1875–1955) was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and grew up in New Orleans and San Francisco; in the latter, she studied at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art. After some time in Europe, she moved to Greenwich Village in 1903 to establish herself as an artist. It wasn’t until she was fifty-two years old that she learned the art form of lithography; within seven years, she had completed seventy-one prints. She was, it seems, a natural printmaker.

By the time Dwight came to the medium in 1926 while in Paris, lithography’s status as an art form in America had risen from mere magazine and newspaper illustration to that of fine art due in large part to the work of artist-illustrators such as Joseph Pennell and George Bellows, both of whom are likewise represented in the WFMA’s permanent collection. George Miller, who printed Dwight’s In the Crowd (Faces in the Crowd) in 1931, also played a large role in lithography’s rise in stature by opening a lithographic printing studio in New York in 1917. 

Although many of Dwight’s prints tend to gently rib American ‘types,’ if you will—the goofy, the sanctimonious, the dullard, the up-and-comer—with the onslaught of the Great Depression, we see a handful of more socio-politically engaged works such as Derelicts (1931), Banana Men (1936), and Buried Treasure (1939) which depict the plights of the downtrodden. Dwight was socially and politically progressive, but like most Depression era artists, she needed to put food on the table, so where lithography was concerned, she stuck with what she knew she could sell to periodicals such as Vanity Fair

According to the authors of Dwight’s catalogue raisonné of lithographs, most of Dwight’s prints found their genesis in the quick sketches the artist made of people she saw out and about in the city. “Typically,” they tell us, Dwight “caught faces, characteristic expressions, gestures, and poses, then turned these surreptitious sketches from life into stock characters. . . ” (Robinson & Pirog 15). This is certainly evident for most of Dwight’s work, especially those prints which most obviously present Americans in all our satire-worthy glory, whether at the picture show, Coney Island, the circus, or at Central Park.

In the Crowd does something different though. Indeed, it stands alone in Dwight’s oeuvre. Here we see a tightly-cropped portrait of six individuals of diverse racial and social backgrounds—two flappers, a working man in checkered flannel shirt, a young man fresh from the country in straw hat, a well-fed man in a bowler, suit and vest with a watch chain. With the exception of the two women in the foreground who appear to be together, the others are very remote from one another; what they all share in common are the looks of despair on their faces.

While at first glance one might assume the men are looking at the two passing women, upon closer examination they all appear to be looking beyond the women at someone or something before them. Are they listening to some soapbox Billy Sunday proselyting on a street corner? Waiting in a bred line? Or are they just random folks on a bustling Greenwich Village sidewalk—simply “faces in the crowd”? We don’t know. For this viewer, though, In the Crowd does something that only one or two of her other 110 prints even come close to doing: it moves me. Although these might in fact be stock characters, there’s a depth here, a sense of loss not seen at this level in any of her other prints. As a Depression era work, In the Crowd is Dwight’s equivalent to John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Walker Evans’ Allie Mae Burroughs, and Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother rolled into one.

Perhaps returning to the Ezra Pound epigraph which opened our discussion can shed some light on the work—or at least help situate it within the larger Modernist discourse of the era. According to Pound, an Imagist poem like “In a Station of the Metro” attempts to capture, in as few words as possible, the “precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.” For Pound, it was not so much a matter of painting a picture in words, but rather a question of a poem’s energy, of capturing the tension between inner and outer worlds.

Similarly, In the Crowd seems to capture the rapt attention of these people at the very moment when something simultaneously clicks inside, whether it’s someone they are all listening to, something they are watching, or something they are all feeling. In other words, the “outward and objective” appears to become something “inward and subjective.” It’s in their faces; however they wear it—anger, disappointment, blankness, shock, grief—there’s a well of emotions here that so very adequately captures the nation’s struggles and despair during the Great Depression.

Thanks for joining us as we unlock the vault at the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas. To learn more about the WFMA our current and upcoming exhibitions, the permanent collection, as well as sign up for our e-newsletter, visit wfma.msutexas.edu.

 


Works Consulted

Robinson, Susan Barnes and John Pirog. Mabel Dwight: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Lithographs. Smithsonian Institution P, 1997.

Schrader, Stephanie et al. True Grit: American Prints from 1900-1950. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2019.


In the Crowd (Faces in the Crowd) from the Permanent Collection of the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas

 
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