Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Happy Birthday William Gropper

William Gropper.  Your brother's blood cries out (1943).

Happy Birthday William Gropper
by Samuel D. Gruber

Today is the birthday of William Gropper, born in New York to immigrant parents on December 3, 1897, and one of the most prolific, hard-hitting and influential American radical artists in the interwar period.  Though as a committed Communist he disavowed religious Judaism, during World War II and after the Holocaust he acknowledged his Jewish heritage by producing suites of drawings including Your brother's blood cries out (1943) and, in 1970, the series of twenty-four color lithographs on Jewish village life called The Shtetl.  Gropper died in 1977.

William Gropper. The Shtetl (1970). From Syracuse University Special Collections Research Center.

Syracuse University has a large collection of Gropper works in the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) and I often take my students to see these. Gropper's work is part of the University's large holding on radicalism, including American Communism.  In the 1920s, Gropper began work as a staff cartoonist for the Yiddish Morning Freiheit.  His many scathing cartoon attacks on capitalism in the Freiheit often included variants of typical anti-Semitic stereotypes.  He also was a regular contributor English language left-wing publications such as the Daily Worker and the World.  He was a founder New Masses,  to which he contributed some of his best political work, including, after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, attacks on Hitler and Nazi aggression. 

Your brother's blood cries out (named for Genesis 4:10) was probably published in 1943, after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  It was one of the more explicit works of art during the Holocaust by an American artist.  Gropper was not a witness to the ongoing atrocities, but unlike other artists of the time who preferred to reference Nazi brutality obliquely through metaphor and mythological themes (Lipchitz), or through powerful but abstract imagery (Picasso), Gropper used his skills as a cartoonist to depict immediately recognizable scenes of oppression, humiliation, suffering, and finally resistance.  He drew on a long tradition including classical art and Goya's Horrors of War prints, but most notably on the many photos, prints and paintings by Jewish artists of Jewish suffering in the pogroms of the early 20th century and during World War I.  

Matthew Baigell has pointed out in his essay in Absence/presence: Essays and Reflections on the Artistic Memory of the Holocaust (Syracuse Univ. Press, 2005) that the scene of the burned synagogue, where plundering German soldiers carry off a menorah  recalls of the Arch of Titus relief from Rome.  The pile of corpses, however, comes from Goya, and perhaps from well known photos of the Kishinev and other pogroms.  Between 1953 and 1956 Gropper produced a series of 50 lithographs he titled The Capriccios, which are direct homage to Goya's works of the same name. 

Here are photos of the eight prints of Your brother's blood cries out, taken from the set in the Syracuse University Special Collections Research Center.  They are important works for the study of Holocaust Art, but are rarely illustrated in their entirety (for those who want their own set, I notice that there is a portfolio for sale on Amazon.com).  In addition to his prominent role as a political artist, we can remember William Gropper as an artistic "witness" to the Holocaust.





1 comment:

Jennifer said...

He was my great great uncle. His sister, Tobias "Tillie" Gropper was my great grandmother. Of course, Harry Gropper and Jenny Nidel were my great great grandparents. We even have a Western Union Telegram he and Sophie sent my great grandmother upon learning of my great grandfather's passing.