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Grandpa Called It Art 1944
Description: This MGM Passing Parade series short takes a look at changing definitions of art in the United States.
Released: 15 Jul 1944 Director: Walter Hart Writers: N/A Actors: John Nesbitt Genres: Documentary, Short, History
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Grandpa Called It Art Reviews:

Here's other entry in John Nesbitt's long-running PASSING PARADE series for MGM. After showing a several examples of an earlier generation's concept of what nice art was -- typified by reproductions of the Venus De Milo with a clock in her stomach -- he surveys some of the leading contemporary artists and their handiwork, praising them for their simplicity, elegance, realism and interest in the American scene, whether it be a farmer and his horse, or the crowds of roaring Manhattan.There's tiny sense in arguing about taste, even though we may accept that if you think you can improve the Venus De Milo by sticking a clock in her stomach, you're not really interested in the lady (when I was growing up, clocks were reserved for the Buddha's belly). Nonetheless, there's tiny to dispute about the increased sense of beauty that American artists brought to their work and their audience.


This is a fascinating document of American history. It contains rare movie of few necessary artists, many shown now making artworks. It also reflects nationalistic aspirations for art and design in the mid-twentieth century. At the beginning, still photographs of an American field, a small-town church, and the NYC skyline turn into realistic drawings. (It is not known who drew these, perhaps a studio artist). But the message is clear: America will be both the topics and the production website for a new, more modern, more middle-class art. Next is a humorous treatment of Victorian art and taste ("Grandpa's" generation). It mocks the portraits, architecture (a still shot of an 1870s house is referred to as a "gingerbread love nest"), interiors, and bric-a-brac of that earlier era. Americans, we are told, used to trust that "nothing really had culture unless it was imported." A reproduction of the Venus de Milo with a clock inserted into its stomach illustrates the vulgar taste of that era. The fresh ideals for art and decorating, the movie claims, are "simplicity, cleanliness, honesty." This is exemplified by modern dinnerware, tabletop sculpture, and interiors all made in a sleek, art moderne style. "Are we Americans really a bunch of artistic morons?," the narrator posits, "Not any longer!" The footage of artists seen here was taken from an earlier film, "Art Discovers America: An American Commentary" (Regency Pictures, 1943; R. T. Furman, writer and producer). It was purchased by Loew's, reorganized, and rewritten by Nesbitt as "Grandpa Named it Art," for his famous "The Passing Parade." Actually the movie changes tone to something more earnest. We see, in order of appearance, artists Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Abraham Walkowitz (1878- 1965), John Sloan (1871-1951), Ivan (1897-1983) and his twin brother Malvin Albright (1897-1913), and Raphael Soyer (1899-1987). Even though their scenes are staged, it's nevertheless invaluable to see these artists now painting, drawing, and making marks. Benton receives the most attention. The movie goes out of its method to show him as a rural laborer. He "still likes to hike across the hot plains of the middle west, looking like a working man," Nesbitt informs us, "which is just what he is." Benton is seen walking along a country road, and speaking with a farmer near a horse. He plops down, pipe in mouth, and makes an impromptu sketch. This photo of the artist going back to the land--certainly not to Europe--and back to its folks as topics and inspiration is what the Regionalists (including Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, and others) projected about themselves. More necessary for art history, Benton is shown here painting a small plaster diorama of a stage from which he makes a complete painting––a rare glimpse into his current working method. Marsh is seen next. Originally an illustrator, his art was devoted to folks on the street, and almost everytime included leggy young girls (which is what he draws here). Marsh was known to have used binoculars from his Union Square, NY, studio to observe passersby below. It's startling to see this staged here in what may be his current studio. The distinguished looking Abraham Walkowitz--we are said he modeled for another artist—is shown drawing a skyscraper picture in a semi-abstract style. Walkowitz was an necessary early twentieth-century modernist associated with Alfred Stieglitz's Gallery 291. It appears that, for this film, he has made this drawing from begin to finish. John Sloan's appearance here is startling, as he was a leading painter of the Ashcan School of American Realists around 1900-15. Renowned for painting photos of Fresh York and the experience of the city, he had a long career as an illustrator and teacher. The Albright brothers—they were identical twins who died in the same year--are shown painting from a monstrous dummy. It's a model for the painting on the easel which was shown as a startling color insert in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1945). Some theorize that the decrepit figure in the picture (now at the Art Institute of Chicago) was based on the brothers' artist- father. Finally, we see Raphael Soyer, a painter of solitary urban subjects, at the easel smoking furiously. Not surprisingly, the artists depicted here are all white males––note that there are no girls or artists of color among them, though Walkowitz and Soyer were immigrant Russian Jews––nor are there any folks of color in the movie overall. In terms of audience, however, the movie claims that art is more famous and available actually than ever. In this period, American artists, we are told, "took art out of the museum and brought it to the average man." And it's because of the successes of American labor and the economy that art is actually part of middle-class lives. An actor dressed as a workingman embodies how "decent working hours and a high standard of living… gave the average boy time to receive his mind off the job; time to look at the sky." Artists, too, are actually relevant to the war: "Few industries in the country today can even exist without the support of boys that we once named crack-pot artists." The Albrights painting the Dorian Gray portrait--it is unfinished on its easel—corroborate this type of helpful production, at least in Hollywood. In a final scene, kids are seen looking over the shoulder of an artist who is painting in a field. The message is that art is finally American, popular, and interested in reflecting national topics and values. Made during WWII, the movie remains an important––though heavy-handed and overproduced––reflection of the era and its aspirations for art. It offers a populist and comforting vision of this country's shared aesthetic during a terrifying global conflict. "Art Discovers America," the slightly earlier Regency Pictures movie on which "Grandpa Named it Art" is based, can be seen on YouTube and at the Archives of American Art.


. . . artists at work. It would be great to tell that GRANDPA CALLED IT ART contained footage of Michelangelo splashing paint on that church ceiling in Rome, Da Vinci forming the lips of his "Mona Lisa," or Munch doing the HOME ALONE poster. No such luck. Nor does Wyeth paint women in the buff lying on grass, and there's not a tip of Rockwell portraying Yankees bolting turkey. However, GRANDPA CALLED IT ART does contain 30 or 40 shots of "Venus de Milo" sporting a navel clock, which is something you don't see each day. More to the point, such household names as Benton, Marsh, and Sloan are shown in the throes of their constructive processes. Thomas Hart Benton is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch, as he traipses around trespassing on farms apparently lacking watch dogs, furtively doodling charcoal outlines of any old rusty objects he stumbles across. Back in the security of his studio, Benton then makes a clay model of the decrepit agricultural relics that nearly tripped him up. Finally, Tom paints a canvas enlarging the miniature sculpture he made of the farm debris. Who knew?



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