Dawn of a New Age: The Immigrants Contribution to Arts in America | An Exhibit by the Special Collections Research Center Special Collections Research Center
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John Vassos
William Lescaze
Adolph Bolm
Louis Lozowick
Miklos Rozsa

In America we assumed our place as a nation practically at the time of the industrial revolution. We had no artistic tradition except those of the mother countries where the old order was shortly turned into the new. Furthermore, the material needs of life absorbed all the energies of our people. As we expanded and became prosperous the genius of leadership was absorbed in the development of our natural resources, the expansion of our railroads, the opening of our mines, the felling of our forests, the building of our factories and organization of our industries. Naturally, under such conditions, we looked to the old world for our artistic leadership.


[From Art in Industry (1929) by Charles R. Richards.]


Welcome to our fall exhibition, Dawn of a New Age: The Immigrant Contribution to the Arts in America. In keeping with the theme of migration chosen for this year’s Syracuse Symposium, Dawn of a New Age introduces five artists who arrived from Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. All were prominent in their respective fields, and each of them created a dynamic vision for a new America. The Special Collections Research Center is blessed with a rich assortment of the papers of immigrant artists, largely as a result of Chancellor William P. Tolley’s collection-building program of the 1960s. Dawn of a New Age tells the stories of Adolph Bolm, dancer and choreographer; William Lescaze, architect; Louis Lozowick, artist; Miklós Rózsa, music composer; and John Vassos, illustrator and industrial designer. The exhibit covers their beginnings in their respective countries, how and when they immigrated to America, and how their work here influenced American culture.

Early in the twentieth century, there was a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants, mostly from Europe; historians refer to that period as an “age of mass migration.” In the century’s first decade, more than nine million immigrants entered the United States, over two and one-half times the number of the previous decade. They came to escape religious and political persecution; they needed work and—especially in the case of artists—greater freedom of expression. Not everyone welcomed these “new people,” who would be competing with established citizens for jobs. Some feared that the infiltration of foreign artists would interfere with the development of uniquely American art forms.

The years between the two World Wars brought enormous loss and uncertainty, but also invention and creativity. New economic, social, and political conditions challenged traditional mores in art, literature, religion, social organization, and daily life. The modernist movement made some of the methods and practices of the past seem obsolete. The exchange of ideas among people from different cultures and the unprecedented overlapping of media broke down the borders of art both in America and in Europe. The noted international artists Picasso, Chagall, and Matisse designed sets for the Ballets Russes; Salvador Dali created scenes for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Spellbound; and the artists Louis Lozowick and John Vassos designed theater sets, created department store displays, and experimented with graphic and advertising art in addition to producing work in their own fields of art and industrial design. The architect William Lescaze created a transatlantic style of architecture and contributed to industrial design and design in general. The artistic hubs of New York and California bustled and brought vibrant new artworks to the people.

Looking at the wide variety and the sheer mass of the accomplishments of immigrant artists, we can only wonder where the fields of art, music, dance, industrial design, and architecture would be today had these artists stayed in their homelands. As President Jimmy Carter said when describing our country, “We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.” All five artists became naturalized American citizens and started families in America. On a personal note, the curators of this exhibition, both born to parents who emigrated from Europe, feel a strong affinity for these artists who, like their parents, braved a hostile sea to begin a new life in the United States for themselves and their families. [Gallery]