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Looking at 1934: Lily Furedi's Subway
June 18, 2009


Lily Furedi's Subway, part of the exhibition 1934: A New Deal for Artists

The other day while taking the Metro (that's D.C.-speak for subway) to the Smithsonian, I spotted something on the floor below the seat across from me. When I got up at my stop, I took a closer look and noticed that it was a little two-sided brush. Too small for even the smallest artist (though I recently learned that Mughal miniaturists often used a brush made of no more than one or two squirrel hairs), it was a brush for applying makeup—some blush or eyeliner, perhaps? Throw in a little lipstick, and that's pretty much as far as my makeup vocabulary will take me.

Growing up in Brooklyn, and later on, attending grad school in Manhattan, I became something of a connoisseur of the subway. I'm sure all New Yorkers (even those who've left) feel that. As a young person, the subway meant freedom. Getting older and heading to school and work, however, it meant rush-hour crowds, stifling hot platforms in summer, and enough crowded cars to make even the most tightly packed sardines feel free-range.

Often on the subway, there would be a woman applying her makeup right there on the train. I always thought it was magic to watch this rite performed in public, usually done in a hurry. As an experienced subway observer, you look but kind of don't look at the same time. Call it Subway 101.

In Lily Furedi's homage to the New York subway, part of the current exhibition 1934: A New Deal for Artists, I'm captivated mostly by the woman applying lipstick on the far left—so much that I want to create a narrative for her. Unlike most of the other women in the car, she doesn't wear a hat, but rather wears her hair in a style Martha Graham often wore, called "squash blossom." (Graham copied this style from American Indian women she met in the Southwest.) It also reminds me of Princess Leah at the same time. I wonder then, is the woman in the painting a dancer on her way to rehearsal, or perhaps a performance? This I do know: Martha Graham and her contemporaries were as much products of the times as were the visual artists represented in 1934. Dancers responded to the challenges of the day through movement, turning the art form on its head.

But here's the rub: when Martha Graham talked about those times, she said that after a rehearsal uptown, she had to choose between buying lunch and taking public transportation back to her apartment in the Village. She always chose lunch. Unable to afford both, she walked back home. So perhaps the woman in Furedi's painting is not a dancer. Maybe she's about to get off at the next stop and enter an office, the theater, or meet up with a date. Hopefully, she won't drop anything on the floor...

Related Material:
1934: A New Deal For Artists exhibition slide show
Add your own images from 1934 to American Art's Flickr group

Posted by Howard on June 18, 2009 in American Art Here


Interesting to read the artist's description of the painting. Really never noticed the fact of the makeup, but did think about the Princess Leah hair style. Choice of colors make it appealing to me.

Although I have never been on the subway to get to work, I remember, while visiting NYC, riding a subway to get from one place to another. It is really interesting to observe the riders and try to figure out why they are on the subway or where they are going.

I can reminder that it was so routine to many of the riders. They would get on, read the newspaper, work on their Blackberry or their computer, or just sit there and countless thoughts in their head. No one really talks to the person next to them. It is something like this picture: everyone has a task at hand and that task has nothing to do with the other passengers on the subway. Very interesting. It is almost like the are all characters from a story with different roles they will play when they get off of the subway.

Studying people is always interesting to me. The painting held my attention and made me think about the people. The lady putting on the lipstick was interesting. I was wondering "Where was she off to?"

Looking at the painting made me realize that people back then are not very much different than people today. We are still hurrying to get somewhere, still applying makeup in subways, still trying to find the latest information (guy reading newspaper in painting). It also shows people communicating with one another on the subway, which people still do a lot of today.

I think this painting is a reflection of everyday life, even though the setting is in the past...

This is quite a lovely post. Thank you for your insight as well as your reflection on the artwork; I genuinely hope I get a chance to see this exhibit in person.

Very nice painting, I like the perspective and the colour composition.

I found this picture very interesting. It gives you a little glimpse into their everyday life. The person that really caught my attention was the man in the dark suit with his instrument. He made me want to know more about him and where he was heading.

Wow same. Interesting to read the artist's description of the painting. Really never noticed the fact of the makeup, but did think about the Princess Leah hair style. Choice of colors make it appealing to me.

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