Social Realism

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


In the 1930s, the rise of Fascism and the Great Depression prompted a turning away from abstraction and towards realistic styles. A need for socially conscious art emerged. Urban realists documented the human cost of political and economic tragedies. Many were Marxists but became disillusioned with Communism after the Moscow show trials (1936-1937) and the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Nonaggression Pact in 1939.

Inspiration came from the Ashcan School and Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera (1886-1957).

Ben Shahn (1898-1969)

Painter and photographer, depicting victims of miscarriages of justice.

Years of Dust (c.1935)
Shahn worked for the Farm Security Administration and recording the conditions of the rural poor in order to agitate for Federal assistance.

Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)

Photographer. Blended reportage with biting social commentary for enduring inter-war images.

At the Time of the Louisville Flood (1937)
Characteristic of the Social Realists’ blend of reporting and social commentary.

Works Consulted

The Art Book. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1996.

Dempsey, Amy. Art in the Modern Era: A Guide to Styles, Schools & Movements. NY: Harry N. Abrams Inc., Pub., 2002.