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Social Commentary

"Art is the lens through which I experience the world. Art is the medium to present the human condition. . . . love, fear, bewilderment, pleasure, distaste, brotherhood and all the subtleties that we all know . . ."

--- Alton Tobey

Social commentary was an important dimension of Tobey's work. He was strongly driven to contribute to public awareness of human atrocities and suffering. One interesting anecdote about one of Tobey's first paintings about human atrocities in 1938 can be read on a web page about Hartford CT history.

In an effort to reach people in a visceral and non-intellectual way, he composed powerful visual statements that elicit immediate emotional reactions from viewers of these paintings and dimensional works. Sometimes his topics were specific to circumstances, but they often made telling statement about the world or about the ills of society in general.

Many of his statements were published as prints and posters, reproduced from original paintings created by Tobey. Tens of thousands of these prints were distributed throughout the world to bring attention to the work of Martin Luther King.

On Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day, January 15, 2007 the painting Tobey did for the 25th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, in addition to two other drawings of the Kennedy brothers with Dr. King were posted on this site on a separate page honoring Dr. King. Four other drawings of the Kennedy brothers are also on this page, which can be accessed by clicking here.

Other paintings by Tobey on social affairs were never published as prints and exist only as original paintings, but deal with social issues that the artist felt it was necessary to address, such as the one below, that he created at the age of 23 after a major flood devastated his home community of Hartford County, Connecticut in 1936. The complete story of the creation of this painting can be seen on the web site of Grapefruit Moon Gallery, (see below) present owners of the painting.

After The Flood, 1937
Tempera on wood panel, 36x60

Available from Grapefruit Moon Gallery

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Here you see the artist's statement about dictatorial power�big, brawny and frightening with a child-size head and brain; and a gun hole for a mouth -- begging the statement: "I am all powerful, I dominate and terrorize without concern or awareness of any implications or repercussions."

Our Hero
#357. Acrylic on canvas 48 x 36

#574. Oil/acrylic on canvas 48 x 72
In this painting Tobey makes a statement about the side effects of isolation and harshness that the technological developments of the latter half of the 20th century have brought to society. Seeing the tiny, bewildered diaper-clad infant crawling beneath the cyanic metal behemoth of machinery, we can almost feel the overwhelming morbid chill of technology as it dwarfs humanity.

Tobey elicits a moment of pause with this physical synthesis of bull and toreador in a single figure, leaving the viewer to contemplate what this extreme sport might say about our humanity. Interconnectedness, triumph and deathly competition connect together in this enigmatic visual play.

#011. Oil on canvas, 24 x 36

#012. Oil on canvas, 20 x 30
This painting was a visual stimulus to the heated debates ongoing in the 1940's about theories of Creationism versus Evolution.

Again Tobey makes a statement with the surprising choice of the head of a simian atop a body reminiscent of Auguste Rodin's The Thinker.

In 1943, after learning of the death of the Four Chaplains, who sacrified their own lives to save their crewmates after the USS Dorchester had been destroyed by enemy fire at sea, Tobey created the painting below to memorialize their fate.

The Four Chaplains, 1943
#709. Gouache on paper
8.5 x 10

Der Schrei

Tobey developed an entire series of works, entitled Der Schrei (The Scream), in his own words to ". . . protest man's savagery. Besides the Holocaust haunting me, I include also the daily bombardment of obscenities in the newspapers -- Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Somalia, Ethopia -- on and on. The headlines seem to be drenched in blood!"

Tobey is seen in the photo above standing in front of a wall of these paintings at one of his Der Schrei exhibitions in the early 1990's. The artist was vigilant in assuring that these paintings were seen in the United States, Europe and South America. Twenty of these paintings can be seen on his Der Schrei Page on this website.

#443. Oil on canvas
24 x 40

#448. Oil on canvas
36 x 26

#019. Oil on canvas
24 x 32

Spanning the stylistic modes of a century of fine art, a few of Tobey's early works are shown above. Powerful and elegant examples of post-impressionistic periods, each expresses a different form of social interaction. The one on the left depicts the inequity of the powerful domination of an indigenous people by an invader; the one to the right portrays strife; and as a social reprieve, the joy found in music soothing the human soul can be seen in the center painting. As a young man, Tobey was already very involved in social commentary in his work as an artist. At one point, back in 1938, while working on a painting in public he was even forced to stop by the police. An account of this incident can be found on a Hartford, CT website.

#050. Oil on canvas 38 x 22

This social statement, an egg tempera painting by Tobey, looks beneath the extreme elegance of costume in the scene and reveals beneath their finery and trappings, coldhearted, aloof and removed bourgeoisie ignoring the plight of a pitiful downtrodden beggar.

#601. Acrylic/mixed on masonite 41 x 60

#052. Oil on board 52 x 30

#600. Acrylic/mixed media on canvas, 24 x 36

Tobey with his
Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse
#373, Acrylic & mixed media on canvas
62 x 22
Tobey's dimensional works spanned some six decades beginning with his early collage period of the late 30's and 40's.

Above we see Tobey's visual social commentaries as subjects in varying styles -- the tortured animal suffering the pain of the picadores intended to weaken him in the bull ring, and two views of Christ's brutal crucifixion (above center and left).

Much later with his Curvilinear style done in relief, upper right is Assassination of a President, from the perspective of the assassin assessing his victim through the sight of his rifle.

Tobey was also very active in many artists' advocacy groups and other arts organizations during his lifetime, including Artist's Equity of New York, The National Society of Mural Painters, The International Arts Association, The American Society of Contemporary Artists and others.

He was also an outspoken activist for the art world - 35 years ago he was lobbying the President of the United States for a tax issue that is now a very hotly debated topic. The 1970 letter below, which he wrote to President Nixon effectively brings to light the inequity faced by artists who are unable to deduct fair value for any artwork they donate to charity or to museums. According to U.S. tax law that was revised only in 2006 -- painters, photographers and other visual artists who would have wanted to donate one of their works of art to a charitable or other non-profit organization can only deduct the cost of their materials. If anyone else were to donate that very same work of art then they could deduct the full value of the Art...a vast inequality for the artist!

This letter of Tobey's to President Nixon in 1970 reads: "Dear Mr. Nixon, I enjoyed the photo of you and Mr. Andrew Wyeth. The idea of an exhibition in the White House is great. But if Mr. Wyeth were to give one [of his paintings] as a gift to Muscular Distrophy, all that he could deduct would be about $25. for materials. If you were to give the same painting to the same source, a probably deduction of $25,000 plus would accrue. I cannot grasp this enormous inequity. Perhaps you could get someone to explain this gulf to me. As a board member of a half-dozen art organizations, of probably 3000 or so members, I and they would appreciate some enlightenment. We are perplexed."

On April 3, 1970 Tobey received a reply from an Acting Commissioner of the Department of the Treasury stating that he would write further in the matter at an early date, but to our knowledge, he never did receive a follow-up reply.

#442. Acrylic on Plywood, 24 x 24

The Tiger
#275. Oil on board 48 x 72

But the artist is not without his lighthearted side. -- Here we see a few less serious, playful works: Tyrannosaurus, and his daughter's and granddaughter's favorite, The Tiger, made with common objects - string, hair-combs, an iron hot plate and assorted other found objects. Even a vigilant social advocate needs a rest now and then. . .

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Tobey The Man

Master of Realism

Beyond Realism

The Alton Tobey Collection

Judith Tobey, David Tobey; Directors

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