Private collection, Missouri
James Meikle Guy was an artist and a political activist, and used his art to reflect his strongly held beliefs. He painted in a Social Surrealist style during the 1930s, creating a rather unique manner that combined the manipulations of pure Surrealism with social commentary and criticism.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1908, Guy studied at the Hartford Art School with Albertus E. Jones (1882–1957). Guy began exhibiting paintings at the Wadsworth Athaneum in the late 1920s. In 1931, the Wadsworth happened to hold the exhibition “Newer Super-Realism,” which was the first showing of Surrealism in the United States. Here, Guy would have encountered the work of Salvador Dali, Giorgio de Chirico, and Max Ernst, an exposure that clearly had profound effect on his artistic sensibility.
By the time Guy moved to New York City to continue his studies at the Arts Student League in 1932, he was already politically active and helped produce a labor play titled “Strike” in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Once in Manhattan he joined several political organizations, including the John Reed Club, a organization founded by staff members of The New Masses to support leftist and Marxist activity. While Guy agreed with the political sentiments of his fellow members, he admitted to having “trouble in the Club over the ambiguity of [my] images.” (Quoted in Isabelle Dervaux, Surrealism USA , 25). Guy simply wasn’t going to paint realist pictures of raised fists or stony portraits.
On the Waterfront represents a potent combination of Guy’s political sensibilities and artistic finesse. A lone clear-eyed and stalwart young man walks with purpose across the foreground, a strikers billboard around his neck. The hero of this image is set in direct contrast to the avarice and cowardice taking place in the background. A corpulent policeman guards the scene, and strike breakers or scabs with their wobbly gaits, red noses, and generally shifty appearance loiter in the background. A storm brews over a background scene of a sinking ship while blue skies shine on the other side of the composition, a dichotomy typical of Guy’s interest in the power of contrast.
Guy’s paintings of the 1930s were focused on “national problems: unemployment, worker’s rights and bureaucratic control (Ilene S. Fort, James Guy , n.p.). Another work of this period, Public Education #1 from 1937 (illustrated ibid ) also features a brave young worker set in contrast against corruption, avarice and greed, a favored theme in the troubling years of the Great Depression.