In the 20th century, social realism developed in response to the social and political turmoil of the inter-war years. World War I and the Great Depression inflicted pronounced inequality and hardship. Around the world, social realist artists sought to portray the lived experiences of society’s marginalised with frankness, believing that art should serve a social purpose. Internationally, artists such as Käthe Kollwitz, Edward Hopper and Dorothea Lange captured this, building on the social realist centring of the working classes by French artists Jean-Franҫois Millet, Honoré Daumier and Gustave Courbet almost a century earlier.
In Australia, a loose coalition of politically motivated artists, including Yosl Bergner, Noel Counihan and Danila Vassilieff were committed to painting the experiences and struggles of the everyday. They drew on subjects from their inner-city Melbourne surrounds, painting workers, dispossessed Aboriginal people and the urban poor, and creating images that reflected the ongoing impact of the war and Depression while capturing their subjects' humanity, dignity and resilience. All were members of the Contemporary Art Society (CAS), established in 1938 in opposition to the perceived conservatism of the Australian Academy of Art. Newly arrived from Europe, Bergner and Vassilieff introduced their Australian contemporaries to the urgency of expressionism and socially motivated art, influencing other members of CAS, including Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker, who would later all emerge as some of Australia’s best-known artists.
In 1944, Bergner, Counihan and another CAS member, Vic O’Connor, included a statement in the Contemporary Art Society Sixth Annual Exhibition catalogue outlining the aims of their art as social realists:
Each seeks to create a democratic art combining beauty of treatment with a realistic statement of man in his contemporary environment. Believing that art is not a passive factor in life, we strive to create an art which will influence men towards the solution of their universal problems.