Editor's note: The following catalogue essay was reprinted in Resource Library on May 1, 2008 with permission of the author and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center directly:
For the People: American Mural Drawings of the 1930s and 1940s
by Patricia E. Phagan
During the 1930s and early 1940s, a flowering of mural painting took place in an economically depressed United States, resulting in thousands of murals decorating the nation's buildings. With little private patronage and an art market that had collapsed, a great many artists lived precariously, though the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project and other initiatives were soon established to employ them. Artists competed to create murals in post offices or other government properties, and they were paid, through public or private wages, to paint murals across the country in various venues, including museums, hospitals, high schools, housing projects, colleges, music halls, even ships and nightclubs. At the same time, artists sought to connect more with the everyday public, as in Mexico where painters created murals for a government-supported revival of wall painting.
American muralists in this era generally followed an academic model of preparation, making a series of different kinds of drawings, including sketches of individual figures, compositional studies in black and white, and also in color, studies squared for transfer to a larger composition, and full-scale drawings, or cartoons. For the People presents around thirty drawings, paintings, and sketchbooks used in preparation for making murals during this period as well as numerous archival photographs of completed works and paintings in progress. Interest in acquiring these mural drawings for Vassar College began over thirty years ago, and, now, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center has in its permanent collection over sixty preliminary sketches for murals of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal era, many by Connecticut artist James Daugherty. While a majority of the works in the exhibition comes from the permanent collection of the Lehman Loeb Art Center, there are notable loans from public sources and private collections as well.
As a theme for the exhibition, "For the People" suggests democratic, open values directed toward every citizen, a social ideal closely aligned with the New Deal notions emphasized during the period of the 1930s and early 1940s when national identity played an overriding role in American culture. During this period of a devastating depression, the identity of the nation became of overwhelming concern, especially for President Roosevelt's New Deal administration with its broad work programs to aid the unemployed and re-build faith in the nation's democratic ideals. Artists, writers, musicians, actors, photographers, filmmakers, folklorists, and others employed by the federal government or working on their own documented or interpreted American life and its regional cultures, traditions, and histories. Especially in the early 1930s there was a controversial movement in the art world to define American art in terms of realistic representations, with no suggestion of cubism or other European-based modern styles. These issues concerning national identity were invariably tied to audiences. Who were the original audiences for these murals, why were particular themes chosen, and how did artists go about conceptualizing their designs? Answering these questions for the works on view in the exhibition is integral to understanding them. In essence, where a mural was placed provided the audience and the strategy for the work in question.
The most popular aesthetic approach to the American mural during the 1930s and early 1940s was the depiction of the American scene, the painting of everyday American subjects in an accessible style. American scene subject matter was chosen for artists in the federal government's early and brief program, the Public Works of Art Project. Here, unemployed professional artists were paid for making art for non-federal public buildings and parks. Indeed, everyday subject matter and a clear-cut realism became the predominant mode under all of the art projects, including the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture (with later name changes) which sponsored murals and sculptures for new post offices and federal properties under the Treasury Department's purview.
A group of drawings in the exhibition are examples of this American scene way of interpreting the everyday world, in its present or past. It includes Milton Bellin's large, full-scale chalk drawing from 1940, Office Scene (Fig. 1), rooted in illusionistic realism. A painter, printmaker, illustrator, and consummate draftsman trained at the Yale School of Fine Arts, the New Haven-born Bellin moved in other career directions in later years, and his art of these earlier decades is not widely known today. He was interested in murals early on, however. Around 1936 - 37, after graduating from Yale, Bellin assisted James Daugherty on that artist's American scene murals for Fairfield Court, a new housing project in Stamford.
Bellin made Office Scene as the cartoon for a mural in the entrance hall of the main building (Davidson Hall) at Teachers College of Connecticut (Central Connecticut State University), in New Britain. Generally, murals at this time were painted in oil on canvas or tempera onto a plastered wall. At Teachers College, Bellin painted linen with white shellac, traced his cartoons onto the fabric, then painted the traced lines with black and white tempera, and finally brushed in the colors with oil paints. In later years his paintings were taken down, and the finished panel for Office Scene is now unlocated. In the five-panel series, the artist stressed the importance of education as a life-long process and the themes of industry and science, the fine arts, physical education, and business education. In Office Scene, the design for his panel on business education, the artist portrayed women students busying themselves with duties or lost in reverie, a mood indicative of an introspection entering American art in the late 1930s and early 1940s when the drawing was made. As artist-in-residence while working on the murals from 1937 to 1940, Bellin chose models mostly from the college population, his main audience. His salary was paid by the WPA's Federal Art Project, which was designed largely to put artists on relief to work, while according to local news reports his supplies were purchased with monies from the Classes of 1937 and 1938.
Andrée Ruellan's sunny entry (Fig. 2) for the Section's Forty-Eight State Mural Competition evolved through a love of light and color and the direct observation of people that was at the heart of American scene painting. The Treasury Section administered open, anonymous competitions for murals, with highest quality set as the chief criteria, although well-qualified artists could be awarded work without competing. In the case of this competition, the Section invited artists to submit designs for one of forty-eight post offices across the country in a locale familiar to the artist. According to the call for entries in the Section's Bulletin, subject matter could be about the postal service; area history and interests; local industries; or leisure activities, farming, and landscape. In Ruellan's idyllic competition sketch of 1939 for the Delhi, New York, Post Office, different generations symbolically engage in activities across a farmscape lively with dense brushed colors. The narrative would have connected directly to the rural Delhi public in the foothills north of the Catskill Mountains. Ruellan lived in Shady, about sixty miles southeast, just outside of the art colony of Woodstock, New York. A painter trained at the Art Students League in New York and active in Parisian art circles, she melded contemporary American subject matter and post-impressionist principles with landscape, a favorite Woodstock approach. Ruellan made her sketch expressly for the lobby of the Delhi Post Office, over the Postmaster's door, though another design, by Mary Earley, was selected.
Though the realist American scene approach predominated in mural painting in the U.S. in the 1930s and early 1940s, some of these same painters made mural studies that, paradoxically, derive from other ways of seeing, including political and humorous cartoons and European modernism. Seen in a broad light, New Deal murals inspired by European modernism were but a small part of the overall output of American wall paintings during this period. Such is the case, too, with murals that espoused political points of view. However, largely because of the make-up of the holdings in the permanent collection of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, the straightforward American scene works in this exhibition are outnumbered by mural studies that draw upon these other traditions of the cartoon, politics, and modernism.
Closely related to the American scene approach is the area of cartooning, since early twentieth-century American cartoons and the roots of the American scene are both found in magazine illustration where so many artists received their early training. The highly readable shapes and lines of political and humorous cartoons became a staple of American magazines and newspapers in the 1920s, a golden age of American cartooning, and they made an impact on several artists whose works are in the exhibition. For instance, in 1934, Daugherty made a cycle of murals for the music auditorium at Stamford High School, commissioned by the PWAP. Exhilarated at being involved in this national program, he wrote to its director that he and other artists were excited to "take a practical vital active part in pulling the country out of the ditch...." Daugherty drew early compositional studies for some of these murals that reach back to his days as a cartoonist at the New Yorker where as "Jimmie the Ink" he created spontaneous drawings dense with scenes, patterns, and caricatures. For instance, Music (Fig. 3) has a quick, jumping rhythm that celebrates a plethora of differing forms of American music. Its cartoon style underscores its jarring cadences. The finished oil painting featured Daugherty's audience of students and faculty as models rendered in a lilting montage of realistically executed figures and scenes. The entire series, which included panels on New England history, the world outside of school, and school activities, was given the title Democracy in Education.
Like Daugherty's murals for Stamford High School, the vast majority of American murals during this period were made with themes tied to regional or local history, contemporary life, or the land. In the nationwide anonymous competition announced in 1941 for painting the history of San Francisco for the Rincon Annex of the San Francisco Post Office, Anton Refregier chose a range of historical scenes for his extensive mural series for this progressive city. A member of the John Reed Club, Refregier had contributed cartoons and illustrations to the leftist magazine New Masses and to union newspapers, and he had also created cartoon-books on the disputed legal cases of Tom Mooney and the Scottsboro Boys. In his working drawings for the Rincon Annex murals, this social realist sometimes relied on the cartoon language of traditional political symbols to hone his design. In one compositional sketch on view (Fig. 4), Refregier featured a stock capitalist figure overpowering a bearded San Franciscan during a riot over the Civil War, an issue that troubled business interests, Refregier implies. This subject brought up the history of slavery in the U.S., just one of many controversial issues Refregier confronted in his murals in San Francisco. In the completed panel, Riot Scene, Civil War Days, the artist transformed his webs of pencil lines into flattened bursts of brick red tempera and smoky tones of black, the painted figures not far removed from his concise cartoon style.
Other artists in the exhibition also looked to cartoons for inspiration. Lewis Rubenstein, a professor of art at Vassar College, on the faculty in 1939 and from 1946 to 1974, relied on his cartooning roots when making quick sketches of incidents in a national hunger march to Washington in 1932, seen here in a sketchbook and in a copy of another sketchbook on view (Fig. 5). Rubenstein had graduated from Harvard University in 1930 and after returning from study in Europe wanted to experience first-hand the economic desperation of the time, with close to twenty-five per cent unemployment in 1933. From Buffalo, New York, the artist had published cartoons in the Buffalo Evening News when he was a teenager in the 1920s, and he had contributed cartoons to other sources as well, including the Harvard Lampoon. In Europe, Rubenstein had learned the painstaking fresco technique of painting with pigments onto wet, soft plaster. At Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, in what is now the Straus Center for Conservation, he inserted sketch-like violent episodes from the march into a representational, Signorelli-influenced fresco devoted to this event that he and Rico Lebrun painted together in 1933.
Politics became an important stimulus for several artists represented in the exhibition. Rubenstein, for instance, represents a groundswell of artists in the early 1930s concerned with the desperate plight of so many fellow Americans. Traditionally, artists on the political Left were concerned with class-conscious social, political, and international issues and the role of art in addressing them. With dire economic conditions so visible during the Depression, many more artists, poor and affluent alike, empathized with the struggle among workers and debated art's relationship to society. Like Rubenstein, they voiced their concerns visually through their art, with paintings, murals, drawings, cartoons, sculpture, prints, posters, and illustrations in magazines.
With the Popular Front, formed in 1935, artists in the political mainstream and on the Left joined together to oppose dictatorial political forces in Europe, many of them forming the American Artists' Congress and creating easel paintings and magazine illustrations that voiced their opposition directly or indirectly. Several artists represented in the exhibition, including Bellin, Refregier, Rubenstein, and Marion Greenwood, made antifascist and antiwar murals, and a few mural studies on view address these topical issues. For instance, Rubenstein made veiled references to German Führer Adolf Hitler and fascism in the vigorously painted frescoes he executed for the entrance rotunda of the Germanic Museum (Adolphus Busch Hall) at Harvard University in 1935 - 36, commissioned by director Charles Kuhn and funded by Mrs. Morris Loeb. In the north wall's lunette painting, based on a Germanic Niebelung legend, Rubenstein injected willful power and menacing oppression into the central figure, a Hitler-like Alberich, who wears Nazi-style boots and breeches and carries whips. In the east wall's lunette mural, he painted a fight between gods and giants, some with gas masks, based on the Ragnarok legend of a period of duress and conflict before the end of the world. A sketchbook on view contains related drawings and preliminary ideas for the panels on the Ragnarok legend, including a sketch of a struggle presumably between the god Thor and the serpent Jormungand (Fig. 6) that recalls the Christian legend of St. George and the Dragon.
A polemical painter, Refregier executed a section on the topic of World War Two in his San Francisco murals, showing Nazi book burning, concentration camp prisoners, and a symbolic, vehement confrontation between Nazis and Allies. A study (Fig. 7) for this strident cubist and surrealist painting closely resembles the completed panel with its brilliant orange. Refregier's provocative subjects for his San Francisco murals, including the trial of labor activist Mooney, accused of bombing a Preparedness Day parade in San Francisco 1916; violence against Chinese workers; and the longshoremen's and general strike of 1934 stirred intense criticism from the public as he was painting them, resulting in numerous changes having to be made. Controversy continued after the entire series was unveiled, with a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing convened in 1953 to consider their removal, but the proposed joint resolution never came out of committee. Indeed, at this time of intense anti-Communist and nationalist fervor in the Capitol and across the U.S., differing audiences in California were pitted against one another, one faction favoring a glorifying "Americanism" and attacking Refregier's murals as subversive, and the other supporting freedom of expression, upholding the artist's right to represent factual history, and backing the art world's strong view that the murals had merit and should be saved.
While these political murals were made with American audiences in mind, the exhibition includes studies for murals created for Mexican audiences, by Marion Greenwood, who became engaged with the social conscious ideologies and federal art patronage of that country. Her very first mural in Mexico, at a hotel in the tourist center of Taxco, represents scenes from the local market and provided a way for the Brookyn-born artist to learn fresco techniques, including transferring a design to the wall. It was followed by her mural at Morelia at the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo which had its beginnings in the sixteenth century. With this painting, executed in 1933 - 34 with support from the university, she wanted to create an original work using her strong feelings of sympathy and empathy toward the indigenous people of the area. Her months of researching and sketching ended with around a thousand drawings depicting Tarascan Indian life in and around nearby villages. The ancient, national identity of the Tarascan Indian and the way they lived were essential themes for her in this mural, Landscape and Economy of Michoacán. A dark sketch (Fig. 8) is the final design for the wall painting located along a second-floor arcade facing a courtyard at the university. Drawn at a scale of ten centimeters to one meter according to notes in the margin, this long drawing of working fishermen, farmers, and craftspeople accompanied by families is squared to facilitate transfer. In contrast to this scale drawing with its intense mood, her final mural conveys bolder forms and sophisticated patterns that are more discernable at a distance.
Back in New York, Greenwood drew an expressionist design of suffering workers and miners as an early study for her next mural project in Mexico, The Industrialization of the Countryside, painted in 1935 for the new Mercado Abelardo L. Rodríguez, in Mexico City. The federal government of Mexico invited her to be one of several artists to paint murals for this new market and civic center. In Mexico City, she abandoned her initial sketch and proceeded with more compressed and composed preparatory drawings, including one on view for her center stairwell panel, the focal point of her mural series. The final painting, documented in a photograph by Manuel Alvarez Bravo and/or Lola Alvarez Bravo (Fig. 9), presents the production of goods, with heroic farmers harvesting sugar cane, workers bagging sugar, and industrial workers busily producing steel parts. At the same time, at top center, giant capitalist hands stretch ticker tape above a glowering banker and phalanx of soldiers separated from protesting workers and indigent families. Using the preparatory drawing on view, Greenwood executed this monumental panel, a vigorous, class-conscious mural. Attending regular meetings with the other artists working on this large decorative project, Greenwood appears to have become more sensitive to revolutionary politics, and her design recalls the stacked panoramic scenes and pointed political messages in the Palacio Nacional murals by Diego Rivera, a friend and colleague. The mural program at the Mercado was sponsored by the government of President Lázaro Cárdenas, who while campaigning had given high praise to Greenwood in Morelia as she was painting her mural on Tarascan Indian life. Rivera, who advised the mural program at the Mercado Rodríguez and co-approved the artist's second design, also approved Greenwood and her sister Grace to participate in this multi-artist affair.
Greenwood's murals in Morelia and Mexico City reverberate with a bold linearity and deep interest in the social environments of Mexican workers. A bold design and a passion for the heritage of one's audience are seen in Charles Alston's drawing, Magic in Medicine (Fig. 10). Here the African-American artist was inspired by the rhythmic forms of African art, which he had studied for his 1929 master's thesis at Teacher's College, Columbia University. Alston, who moved to New York from North Carolina when he was fifteen, made the study for one of his two murals for the foyer of the Women's Pavilion at Harlem Hospital. Commissioned in 1936 by the Federal Art Project of the WPA, his panel interpreted traditional African healing rituals and their legacy in various areas, including the American south. The artist supervised a large mural project at the hospital that encompassed work by several artists. His black and white compositional study for the companion mural, also in the exhibition, features African and white medical professionals and historical leaders in medicine. In an about-face to the ideals of addressing local audiences, both designs and designs by three others were controversial because of their significant black subject matter, imagery that Alston connected to black-dominated Harlem though the white superintendent at the hospital objected. With ample support from the community, the FAP, the Artists' Union, and the Harlem Artists' Guild that Alston lead, the paintings were finally installed in 1940, after much debate.
European modernism also became a filter through which several artists represented in the exhibition conceptualized their mural drawings, though there were strong tendencies among conservatives in private and public spheres to see foreign influences in art as distinctly un-American. Cubism and Surrealism were powerful influences on some of these mural designs. For instance, Refregier worked largely with smooth, flattened representational images in his murals and in his black and white competition drawings for the Rincon Annex of the San Francisco Post Office (Fig. 11). His modern approach would have been appreciated by many in the liberal west coast city of San Francisco. Daugherty, a modern commercial muralist years before, ironically looked back to Synchromism in a preparatory watercolor, The Epic of New England (Fig. 12), made for his American scene mural cycle at the high school in Stamford, Connecticut. He was one of several American artists interested in this abstract movement in the 1910s. The Synchromist theory involved the application of contrasting colors and was derived from the intense hues of the French Fauves and the vivid cubism of the Delaunays in Paris. With brilliant, faceted colors and twisting, abbreviated forms, Daugherty placed his Pilgrim founder, abolitionists, and Native Americans into a frenzied modernist collage recounting the region's heroic pioneer past. However, he also bared an ugly episode of American history -- his startling depiction of a fugitive slave anchors the drawing's left border. Though in this sketch Daugherty looked privately to abstraction, for his audience of students and teachers he turned to American scene realism to present his parade of powerful heroes in the final mural.
In 1937 Arshile Gorky completed a vast mural, WPA/FAP-sponsored, for the recently built Newark Airport. This ten-panel project subsequently disappeared, though two panels were eventually rescued. Soon thereafter, Gorky used a comparable mix of cubist and biomorphic signs and symbols to suggest a ship floating in an ocean of saturated blue (Fig. 13). The resulting collage-like painting was prepared as part of an early study for a mural in the dining room of a ship for the New York World's Fair of 1939 - 40. The ideals of the fair, which focused on America's future way of living, and Gorky's futuristic design, seem highly compatible, but they did not succeed together. Made for a U.S. Maritime Commission mural in the Marine Transportation Building, in the end Gorky's design was rejected in favor of a more conventional one by Lyonel Feininger.
Like the sketch by Gorky, the early self-portrait study (Fig. 14) by future abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning was a U.S. Maritime Commission competition entry. The tempera pictures an alert, young de Kooning standing on an isolated dock with billowing drapery and watching a hovering seagull, a restatement of some of the elements in his abstract, biomorphic mural design at the World's Fair Hall of Pharmacy. A mysterious, introspective mural design for a ship, this self portrait communicates a sense of estrangement. De Kooning made the study, designed for over a mantel according to an inscription on the verso, as an additional submission for a maritime competition. In 1940, he painted Legend and Fact, a mural for the library of a ship, the S.S. President Jackson, featuring a people-less beach strewn with ship parts of yore. Like it, this self-portrait design carries an inward, personal mood and irrational juxtaposition of elements inspired by currents of Surrealism prevalent then in New York.
The exhibition also includes works by Olin Dows, Juanita Rice Marbrook Guccione, Rockwell Kent, Louis Schanker, Ben Shahn, and Judson Smith, and there are studies on view for murals for the local post offices of Rhinebeck and Poughkeepsie. In the end, all of these drawings were done for the audiences that would ultimately see the murals -- whether sailors, students, tourists, or men and women who bought stamps at their nearby post office. Products of ideal-driven thoughts, these murals most often communicated the features or history of a locale with that local audience in mind, though issues on national and world stages were sometimes suggested or confronted. The artist, then, truly worked outside of herself, researching and studying and making a number of sketches along the way to arrive at the mural on the wall. In the end, though these drawings are complicated in their development and topicality, they are vital and that vitality speaks directly.
CHECKLIST OF THE EXHIBITION
About the author:
Patricia E. Phagan is the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center (formerly the Vassar College Art Gallery) at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 2000, the same year she came to Vassar, she received her Ph.D. in art history from the City University of New York with a dissertation on William Gropper and his political cartoons. From 1987 to 1999 she was the curator of prints and drawings at the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens. She is a member of Print Council of America, a recipient of a Luce Dissertation Fellowship in American Art, and editor and author of numerous exhibition catalogues, including Adriaen van Ostade: Etchings of Peasant Life in Holland's Golden Age; The American Scene and the South: Paintings and Works on Paper, 1930 - 1946; Hudson River School Drawings from Dia Art Foundation; and Made in Woodstock: Printmaking from 1903 to 1945.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, which was granted to TFAO on February 28, 2008. Dr. Phagan's essay was published in the 15-page full-color illustrated catalogue for the exhibition For the People: American Mural Drawings of the 1930s and 1940s, organized by the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, January 12-March 11, 2007.
An adaptation of this essay was published in the January - February 2007 issue of American Art Review.
Resource Library wishes to
extend appreciation to the author; James Mundy, The Anne Hendricks Bass
Director of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College; and Shana
Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the
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