Category: Mexican Muralism

In Memoriam Philip Stein, “Estaño”

I had the great pleasure of meeting Philip Stein and his wife Gertrude in October of 2003, when the two visited their daughter Anne in Silverlake, California. Last April I received the sad news that Philip died at his home in Manhattan on April 27, 2009, at the age of 90. A public memorial celebrating his life and legacy will be held Sunday, September 13, 2009, at:

The Village Vanguard
178 7TH Avenue South.
Greenwich Village, New York City
1 to 3 p.m. RSVP: 212-346-9309

Philip Stein, aka Estaño, at a 2008 exhibit of his work in New York City. Photo by Robert M. Siqueiros.

Philip Stein, aka Estaño, at a 2008 exhibit of his work in New York City. Photo by Robert M. Siqueiros.

I will never forget finding the biography SIQUEIROS - His Life and Works, in a Los Angeles bookstore in 2003. As an artist deeply influenced by the Mexican Mural Movement, I was fascinated by the book’s scholarly yet readable examination of the Mexican muralists, and of the life and works of David Alfaro Siqueiros in particular. I did not purchase the book, which was written by Stein, but I spent the next day kicking myself for not having done so. I was astonished when the very next day the publisher of the book contacted me, inquiring if I would like a review copy of the book. The publisher was kind enough to put me in contact with Stein and from that point on Philip Stein and I became fast friends.

Stein of course was an active participant in the Mexican Mural Movement, and he worked with Siqueiros as an assistant painter on eleven murals in Mexico City from 1948 to 1958. It was in those early years that Siqueiros gave Stein the nickname of Estaño, a moniker that stuck ever since. The insights Stein provided me regarding the social realist movement of the period – both in Mexico and the United States - cannot be found in any book, not even Stein’s. I conducted an interview with him in 2004 that affords some clear understanding and deep perceptions of the man and his times – but clearly much more needs to be written.

Stop The War – Philip Stein. 1976. Acrylic on panel. 36" x 48" In the artist’s own words regarding the subject of this painting, "There is no end to this call of the people."

"Stop The War" – Philip Stein. 1976. Acrylic on panel. 36" x 48" In the artist’s own words regarding the subject of this painting, "There is no end to this call of the people."

I was surprised to learn of Estaño’s passion for Jazz. He spent much time in the early Jazz clubs of New York, maintained an absolutely massive collection of Jazz records, hosted Jazz radio shows in Mexico and Spain, and produced two albums on the Jazz Art label. In 1968 he painted a glorious mural on an interior wall of the legendary New York Jazz club, the Village Vanguard – which should explain why his memorial is being held at that historic venue. The New York Times wrote an obituary for Stein at the time of his death which included a rare glimpse of the Vanguard mural, New Man, New Woman.

Regrettably, I will not be able to attend the memorial at the Village Vanguard, but come the day and hour of the celebration, I will play my copy of John Coltrane, Live at the Village Vanguard, as a last salute to the people’s artist, Philip Stein.

Mexican Prints at University of Notre Dame

Caida de Tenochtitlan (Fall of Tenochtitlan) – Angel Bracho. Linoleum block print. 1950. Detail of inside front cover for the TGP portfolio, 450 Años De Lucha.

"Caida de Tenochtitlan" (Fall of Tenochtitlan) – Angel Bracho. Linoleum block print. 1960. Detail of inside front cover for the TGP portfolio, "450 Años De Lucha."

The prints of the Mexican Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop), are being presented at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana from July 12, 2009 to September 13, 2009. Titled Para la Gente: Art, Politics, and Cultural Identity of the Taller de Gráfica, the exhibition presents forty prints created by artists who worked in the TGP print collective in Mexico City from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s. Internationally known for their highly-political prints, the TGP workshop generated woodblock, linoleum, and lithographic prints that remain unparalleled to this day.

I first discovered the TGP as a teenager in Los Angeles during the late 1960s. For Chicanos, TGP prints provided an exciting touchstone with Mexican art, culture, history, and politics, but in general the artworks also offered universal insights into the human condition – revealing the hidden class dimensions behind issues of poverty, repression, and war. Sometime in the early 1970s I acquired a copy of 450 Años De Lucha: Homenaje Al Pueblo Mexicano (450 Years of Struggle: Homage to the Mexican People), a significant portfolio of prints by twenty-five TGP artists that vividly recounts the history of the Mexican people.

Hacia La Nacionalizacion de la Mineria (Towards the Nationalization of Mining) - Jesús Escobedo. Linoleum block print. 1960. Detail.

"Hacia La Nacionalizacion de la Mineria" (Towards the Nationalization of Mining) - Jesús Escobedo. Linoleum block print. 1960. Detail. From the TGP portfolio, "450 Años De Lucha."

Published by the collective in 1960, 450 Años De Lucha is actually a soft-cover unbound “book” that contains 140 reproductions of prints by artists such as Leopoldo Méndez, Pablo O’Higgins, Alberto Beltrán, Mariana Yampolsky, Alfredo Zalce, Luis Arenal, and Elizabeth Catlett. The prints originally served as street flyers and posters for the political instruction and edification of an illiterate population, and tens of thousands of copies were widely distributed. The free prints were literally – Para la Gente (For the People). As a radical chronicle of Mexico’s entire history, the remarkable print portfolio covers everything from the 1519 heroic Aztec resistance against the Spanish Conquistadors (Cuauhtemoc - Leopoldo Méndez), to a woodblock print celebrating the nationalization of Mexico’s mineral wealth in 1960 (Hacia La Nacionalizacion de la Mineria - Jesus Escobedo).

A focal point of the Snite Museum exhibit is a linoleum block print by Leopoldo Méndez, Paremos la Agresion a la Clase Obrera. Ayude Usted. A los Huelguistas de Palau, Nueva Rosita y Cloete. (Let us Stop the Aggression toward the Working Class. Help the Strikers of Palau, Nueva Rosita, and Cloete). Méndez created the print in 1950 as a street poster calling for solidarity with mine workers in their strike against the U.S. owned company, Mexican Zinc Co. The print is a consummate example of the combative spirit that motivated the TGP collective.

Paremos la Agresion a la Clase Obrera. Ayude Usted. A los Huelguistas de Palau, Nueva Rosita y Cloete. (Let us Stop the Aggression toward the Working Class. Help the Strikers of Palau, Nueva Rosita, and Cloete) - Leopoldo Méndez. Linoleum block print. 1950. On view at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. This street poster by Méndez called for solidarity with mine workers in their strike against the American owned company, Mexican Zinc Co.

"Paremos la Agresion a la Clase Obrera. Ayude Usted. A los Huelguistas de Palau, Nueva Rosita y Cloete." (Let us Stop the Aggression toward the Working Class. Help the Strikers of Palau, Nueva Rosita, and Cloete) - Leopoldo Méndez. Linoleum block print. 1950. On view at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. This street poster by Méndez called for solidarity with mine workers in their strike against the American owned company, Mexican Zinc Co.

The workers at the Nueva Rosita, Palau, and Cloete mines in Coahuila, Mexico, organized for humane working conditions, decent pay, and union representation, and when they went on strike against Mexican Zinc, the company retaliated by firing the strikers and hiring strike breakers. The Mexican government declared the area under martial law and sent in the army. Union leaders were arrested, the union’s treasury was seized, and union activity banned. The mine company controlled the food supply stores and health care facilities in the strike area, and used that control to crush the worker’s strike by closing down vital services. Around 4,200 striking miners responded by staging a “Caravan of hunger” march, walking more than 400 miles to the capital behind a flag emblazoned with the image of the Virgin de Guadalupe. After walking for 50 days to present their case to Presidente Miguel Alemán, and rallying tens of thousands in the nation’s capital, Alemán declared the strike illegal. The defeated miners were sent back on trains to their hometowns and the strike remained unresolved.

Professor Ramón Orta del Río, assassinated in June of 1938. - Leopoldo Méndez. Lithograph. 1939. From the artist’s portpolio of seven lithographs titled: In The Name Of Christ: They Have Assassinated More Than 200 Teachers. Professor Orta del Río was murdered by religious zealots during Mexico’s so-called “Cristero War” of 1926-1929.

"Professor Ramón Orta del Río, assassinated in June of 1938." - Leopoldo Méndez. Lithograph. 1939. From the artist’s portpolio of seven lithographs titled, "In The Name Of Christ: They Have Assassinated More Than 200 Teachers." Professor Orta del Río was murdered by religious zealots during Mexico’s so-called “Cristero War” of 1926-1929.

A particularly moving and provocative series of prints by Leopoldo Méndez not displayed at the Snite Museum is the artist’s, In The Name Of Christ: They Have Assassinated More Than 200 Teachers (En Nombre De Cristo: Han Asesinado Más De 200 Maestros). The prints have to do with the counter-revolutionary “Cristero War” of 1926-1929, when fundamentalist Cristeros (“fighters for Christ”) launched an armed rebellion against the Mexican government because of the anti-clerical Mexican Constitution of 1917.

Reformists had worked for a secular democracy that would reduce the Catholic Church’s enormous land holdings as well as end their stranglehold over education; but fundamentalists took up arms in 1926 when Presidente Plutarco Calles began to strictly enforce anti-clerical provisions of the constitution. Religious zealots were vexed by enforcement of provisos like Article 3, which states - “education shall be maintained entirely apart from any religious doctrine and, based on the results of scientific progress, shall strive against ignorance and its effects, servitudes, fanaticism, and prejudices.” However, fundamentalists were most irritated by Article 130, which “States that church(es) and state are to remain separate.” By the time the conflict ended in 1929, some 90,000 people had perished in the violence.

In 1939 the administration of Presidente Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940), commissioned Méndez to create a portfolio of seven lithographic prints on the subject of educators who had been murdered by Catholic fundamentalists during the Cristero uprising. The resulting lithographs commemorated seven different teachers who had been brutally slain by religious zealots, depicting the teachers under threat, in the throes of death, or after they had been assassinated. In the lithograph shown above, Méndez portrayed the gruesome killing of Professor Ramón Orta del Río in Nayarit, one of Mexico’s 31 states. The killers doused the body of their victim in gas and set him on fire.

The strike of 50,000 Honduran workers exploited for more than 50 years by the monopoly of the United Fruit Co., is a just cause. - Alberto Beltrán. Linoleum block print. 1955.

"The strike of 50,000 Honduran workers exploited for more than 50 years by the monopoly of the United Fruit Co., is a just cause." - Alberto Beltrán. Linoleum block print. 1955.

Created in 1955, Alberto Beltrán’s original linoleum-block print (above) was reproduced as a poster expressing solidarity with striking workers in Honduras. Since the early 1900s U.S. companies totally controlled Honduran agricultural production and exports, largely based upon the cultivation of bananas, making Honduras the original “Banana Republic.” The Standard Fruit Company and the United Fruit Company – both U.S. businesses – virtually ran the country. It was the president of United Fruit, Sam Zemurray, who infamously said of Honduran officials; “A mule costs more than a deputy.” From 1903 to 1925, the U.S. Marines intervened in Honduras no less than seven times. After decades of ferocious exploitation by U.S. commercial interests, Honduran banana workers staged a historic strike for better working conditions and higher pay that began on May 1, 1954.

Beginning in the north coast town of El Progreso, the strike lasted around two months and involved over 14,000 banana company workers. The work stoppage quickly paralyzed other port towns dominated by U.S. companies, eventually spreading to the capital Tegucigalpa. Workers from other industries went on strike in solidarity with the banana workers, with some 40,000 workers eventually joining the labor action. Activists throughout the hemisphere supported the Honduran workers, and it was at the highpoint of the great strike that Alberto Beltrán created his print, which he titled: La huelga de 50,000 trabajadores hondureños explotados por más de 50 años por el monopolio de la United Fruit Co., es una causa justa (The strike of 50,000 Honduran workers exploited for more than 50 years by the monopoly of the United Fruit Co., is a just cause). Despite harsh repression from the U.S. companies and their paid-off government lackies, the striking workers were victorious and won their major demands.

Beltrán’s Honduran solidarity poster could not be timelier considering the military coup in Honduras at present. If the TGP collective were still in existence it would surely react to the current putsch with fierce condemnation. While President Obama expressed “great concerns” regarding President Zelaya being toppled by the military, the Los Angeles Times noted that:

“U.S. officials did not demand the reinstatement of Zelaya. The administration left its ambassador to Honduras in place, while several governments in the region recalled theirs. And despite control over millions of dollars in aid and massive economic clout, the administration did not threaten sanctions or penalties against Honduras for the formation of a new government the day after Zelaya was dragged from his bed and removed from the country Sunday. Before Sunday, Obama administration officials were aware of the deepening crisis and said they spoke to Honduran officials in the hope of resolving the dispute and averting a forced transfer of power.”

Morelos – Celia Calderón. Linoleum block print. 1960. Detail. In this rare multi-color print the artist portrayed José María Morelos, one the illustrious revolutionary military commanders of the 1810 independence war against Spain. Morelos was eventually captured by the Spanish and executed by firing squad in 1815.

"Morelos" – Celia Calderón. Linoleum block print. 1960. Detail. In this rare multi-color print from the TGP portfolio "450 Años De Lucha," the artist portrayed José María Morelos, one of the illustrious revolutionary military commanders of the 1810 independence war against Spain. Morelos was eventually captured by the Spanish and executed by firing squad in 1815.

TGP artists focused their considerable artistic skills upon real world outrages like wars and military coups, and there is hardly an offence they did not address through their art, but they also busied themselves with creating sympathetic, dignified, and evocative portrayals of the broad masses of the Mexican people; their labors, aspirations, discontents, and advancements.

In the “Declaration of Principles” published in their 450 Años De Lucha portfolio, the Taller de Gráfica Popular artists proclaimed that their works were part of the “constant struggle to help the Mexican people defend and enrich their national culture, independence, freedom, and peace.” Those principals will undoubtedly be shining through the prints exhibited at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame.

[Another excellent resource for the study of the TGP in general and the works of artist Leopoldo Méndez in particular, is the book Revolutionary Art and the Mexican Print by Deborah Caplow.]

The Death of Motor City

In 1932 the Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera began painting a series of 27 fresco mural panels at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, Michigan. Titled, Detroit Industry, the monumental paintings had been commissioned by the president of the Ford Motor Company, Edsel Ford (son of Henry Ford), and the director of the D.I.A., William Valentiner. The theme of Rivera’s murals was inordinately simple; the portrayal of U.S. auto workers on the factory floor utilizing the technology that made their tremendous productive capacity possible.


Detail of Detroit Industry - Diego Rivera, 1933. Fresco mural. Detroit Institute of Arts.

From Ford’s perspective the murals sang the praises of American industrial capitalism, from Rivera’s point of view they illustrated the boundless ability of the proletariat to change material reality for social good. Seventy-seven years later Rivera’s murals are still an awe inspiring wonder beyond compare – but the same cannot be said of America’s car companies.

Once the heart of the American automobile industry, the state of Michigan now leads the U.S. in unemployment at 14.1 percent. Detroit, the “Motor City”, is a wasteland and the state of Michigan is in near total collapse, a tragedy that hardly registers in the corporate media, but it is still a fact nevertheless. The Democratic Governor, Jennifer Granholm, has ordered $304 million in state budget cuts, from drastic reductions in higher education to deep cuts in social services to seniors and low-income residents. It has even been proposed that prisons be closed and state police laid-off; Granholm has already eliminated all arts funding for the state’s 2010 budget.

Photo by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Fisher Body 21 Plant – Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre are photographers who have artfully documented the decline of Motor City through their photo essay, The Ruins of Detroit. This photo shows a derelict factory once operated by Fisher Body, which built car bodies for the industry. Founded in 1908, the company became a division of GM in 1926.

It is beyond the scope of this web log to explain in detail the complexities behind the downfall of Detroit’s Motor City, suffice it to say, it is the result of a very long decline. Contributing to the dilemma is the intentional de-capitalization of U.S. industrial capacity - Wall Street’s transforming the U.S. economy from one based on production to one based on financial speculation; the process of capitalist globalization that allows U.S. companies to close factories in America and re-open them elsewhere. Here it must be noted that although GM’s U.S. auto plants will be downsized and closed, its factories in China will be expanded. The Wall Street Journal reported that GM plans to build another plant in China, and to “double sales in China to more than two million vehicles and introduce more than 30 new or updated models over the next five years.”

While President Obama bailed out Wall Street bankers with hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer monies, he refused to do the same for GM and Chrysler; his failure to do so in essence pushed the two automakers into bankruptcy “reorganizations” – what Obama and his Auto Industry Task Force have referred to as a “new path to viability.” That path includes plant closures, a major downsizing of the workforce, the cutting of wages and benefits for workers, and the elimination of company supplied health care coverage and pension plans. The Obama plan even forced Chrysler to merge with the Italian automaker, Fiat, which assumed control of Chrysler on June 10, 2009.

Detail of Detroit Industry - Diego Rivera, 1933. Fresco mural. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Detail of Detroit Industry - Diego Rivera, 1933. Fresco mural. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Tens of thousands of auto workers are losing their jobs and hundreds of thousands of others will be affected as auto manufacturing related jobs dry up. We have been told that a revitalized American auto industry will eventually rise Phoenix-like out of this wreckage, but I seriously doubt it. The U.S. auto industry has existed for nearly a century, and it has literally changed the face of the nation, so it is disconcerting that more Americans do not seem upset by its demise. The issue of missed opportunities persists. Why did the Obama administration not invest billions into retooling ailing auto companies so that they could produce light rail public transport systems for the nation along with small fuel-efficient cars? Such a project would have kept factories open and hundreds of thousands of workers fully employed.

The question for readers of this web log is; why has there been so little response from the U.S. arts community to this current sweeping economic collapse? Save for the populist song They’re Shutting Detroit Down by country western singer John Rich, American artists have avoided the subject altogether. Social realism has deep roots in U.S. art and culture, and throughout the twentieth-century conscience-stirring works have left their mark on the nation’s psyche. After a long interruption of incomprehensible postmodernist babbling – it is time for American artists to recapture the spirit of social realism. In this context a reconsideration of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural series is in order, as the monumental works are an appropriate starting point where artists can begin to formulate suitable responses to the present crisis.

The next best thing to visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts to contemplate the significance and relevance of Rivera’s mural series is to go see the Synthescape website’s virtual presentation of those murals. Working with galleries and museums, Synthescape digitizes art collections and exhibitions, transforming them into 3-dimensional landscapes that a user can walk through using a web browser. Synthescape has created such a panorama of Rivera’s Detroit murals – and it is a breathtaking thing to behold. One can zoom in on the murals to examine the slightest details, from brush strokes to color nuances; or zoom out to study Rivera’s overall dynamic composition, which can be seen as the artist intended it – from multiple vantage points.

Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals were painted between the depression era years of 1932 and 1933, a period of great turmoil and organized labor resistance, but also a peak period for the American social realist movement in art. Rivera based his murals on sketches and photographs he made at the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant, which at the time was the largest factory in the world, employing over 100,000 workers. His intent was to exalt the strength and promise of the working class, and his depictions of American auto workers brimmed over with humanist compassion and solidarity. Under the nose of management, the dignified men represented in the murals did not appear grim or downtrodden; instead, they seemed like the ones in actual command, their hands controlling the machines that would help shape the development of humankind. But Rivera’s murals were also a response to the social realities swirling around him.

Detail of Detroit Industry - Diego Rivera, 1933. Fresco mural. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Detail of Detroit Industry - Diego Rivera, 1933. Fresco mural. Detroit Institute of Arts.

U.S. auto sales were down and manufacturers responded by firing workers and cutting back operations. When Rivera started painting his homage to American auto workers, the unemployment rate in Detroit was 30%. On March 7 some 3,000 of these unemployed workers organized the “Ford Hunger March”, walking to the very factory that inspired Rivera’s mural series - the River Rouge plant. The workers attempted to deliver a petition to the company that demanded relief assistance and work. As protestors reached Gate 3 of the Ford plant, police attacked the demonstrators with tear gas and fire hoses, eventually firing live rounds at the unarmed workers, killing five and seriously injuring dozens more. Days after the massacre 60,000 citizens attended a mass funeral march to honor the slain workers.

In the aftermath of the Ford Hunger March, a series of massive labor strikes took place all across the U.S., none perhaps as relevant to Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals as the 1936-’37 Flint Sit-Down strike carried out by auto workers against General Motors factories in Flint, Michigan. Tens of thousands of workers went on strike, occupying factories and effectively shutting down GM operations until the strike was won. Flint was not only one of the greatest victories of the American labor movement; it established the strength and prominence of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), and led to the unionization of the U.S. auto industry.

In 1932 Diego Rivera wrote an essay on art for Modern Quarterly titled; The Revolutionary Spirit in Modern Art. While he did not specifically address the issues presented in his Detroit Industry mural series, his words do explain his position on the importance of a didactic art that sides with the exploited. The following excerpt from the essay explains much about his Detroit murals:

“All painters have been propagandists or else they have not been painters. Giotto was a propagandist of the spirit of Christian charity, the weapon of the Franciscan monks of his time against feudal oppression. Breughel was a propagandist of the struggle of the Dutch artisan petty bourgeois against feudal oppression. Every artist who has been worth anything in art has been such a propagandist.

The familiar accusation that propaganda ruins art finds its source in bourgeois prejudice. Naturally enough the bourgeoisie does not want art employed for the sake of revolution. It does not want ideals in art because its own ideals cannot any longer serve as artistic inspiration. It does not want feelings because its own feelings cannot any longer serve as artistic inspiration. Art and thought and feeling must be hostile to the bourgeoisie today. Every strong artist has a head and a heart. Every strong artist has been a propagandist. I want to be a propagandist and I want to be nothing else. (….) I want to use my art as a weapon.”

This article is not an appeal for artists to replicate the past, nor is it a statement made out of a sense of nostalgia. Artists today are faced with extraordinary circumstances, and the possibilities for a new contentious art are endless. It is a mistake to think of social realism as a dead art movement, rooted in the past and of no consequence to our present. The genre is no more irrelevant to contemporary society than are protests and demonstrations organized by activist citizens – in fact, both are vital and necessary if democracy is to flourish.

Edward Biberman Revisited

Edward Biberman was born in Philadelphia in 1904, but left his mark as a California Modernist painter. Now almost forgotten save for aficionados of the California Modernist school, Biberman is the subject of a fascinating retrospective: Edward Biberman Revisited, at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park.

While the small Biberman exhibit catalog that accompanies the show rightly describes Biberman as an important post war California Modernist artist, and notes his having created paintings of great social import, little is said about the artist’s embrace of social realism or the political controversies that swirled around him. This shortcoming is exacerbated by the layout of the show itself, which presents no coherent timeline for the paintings, but rather presents works from the early 30s and 40s alongside those created in the 70s and 80s. Unfortunately this makes it difficult to see how the artist progressed, and especially how he was buffeted by and reacted to, historic events.

Captions for paintings are also short on pertinent details, leaving all but the most stalwart students of history clueless about the subjects depicted in Biberman’s remarkable paintings. Despite these deficiencies, Edward Biberman Revisited is a must see exhibit and I commend the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery for presenting it to the public. In this article I will focus on just two of the noteworthy paintings in the show, Biberman’s contemporary Pieta, and the portrait of African American actor, singer, and political radical, Paul Robeson. I will also endeavor to present some of the background information on Mr. Biberman that was unfortunately left out of the exhibit.

In the early 1920s, the 19-year-old Biberman rented a studio in Paris, where he became familiar with exponents of Modernism and their works. Despite the experiments with cubism and abstraction that he witnessed all around him, Biberman would later say that he “quickly decided abstractionism was not for me.” He would not only embrace realism in painting, he would stubbornly continue to adhere to it even as abstract art became ascendant and completely dominant in the art world. From Paris he moved to Berlin, but felt uneasy with the rightward drift he witnessed in German society. He described his Berlin neighborhood as a “Nazi nest” and pulled up stakes for America, where he acquired a studio on 57th Street in New York. He did well, painting portraits of individuals like Martha Graham and Joan Crawford, but then came the stock market crash in 1929 and Edward’s father, a businessman ruined by the crash - committed suicide.

At this point Edward Biberman became committed to using his art in addressing the world’s injustices. He started to paint workers, the unemployed, and the disenfranchised. He respected the Mexican Muralist Movement to the highest degree, having met Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco while in New York. In 1935 Biberman decided to move to California, and so drove across country, stopping in New Mexico where he painted alongside Georgia O’Keefe before continuing to Los Angeles.

In 1939 Biberman painted his Pieta, a masterpiece that has as much relevance today as when the artist first painted it. There is no doubt that the work was inspired by his exposure to Mexico’s radical social realists, but one can also assume that what he discovered in Los Angeles, a segregated city where Chicanos and Mexican immigrants formed a permanent underclass, also contributed to the creation of the painting.

Pieta, painting by Edward Biberman

[ Pieta - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1939. 44 x 35 in. Image courtesy of Gallery Z. ]

Though Pieta depicts what appears to be a Mexican Indian woman mourning over the body of a slain worker, the painting has a universal and timeless quality to it.

The murdered proletarian lies face down on the ground in an ungainly position, his placard flung to one side as his blood coagulates around his head. The backdrop is an endless space where land, sea, and sky meet, lending a sense of the surreal to the scene. An up close examination of the painting reveals a masterly application of paint, with Biberman having built up layers of transparent colors to great effect. His gloppy brush strokes of golden ochre paint perfectly replicate a parched and unforgiving earth. Pieta is as good a work of social realism as I have ever seen produced by anyone, anywhere, and it should be known by all.

While in his new home city of L.A. Biberman met actress and artist Sonja Dahl at a meeting of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, an anti-fascist organization that helped German émigrés settle in the U.S. (the league helped famed author Thomas Mann settle in L.A.) Biberman and Dahl fell in love and married as WWII was approaching, moving into a modest home located just below the famous Hollywood sign.

Edward’s brother, Herbert J. Biberman, arrived in Hollywood to pursue work as a director, screenwriter and producer of films. Herbert also became active in the Anti-Nazi League, and Sonja Dahl-Biberman later recalled that at the time, anyone who was anti-Nazi was suspected of being a communist. When the war ultimately broke out, Edward served as a corporal in the state guard, and Sonja joined the Women’s Ambulance and Defense Guard. The war lasted four-and-a-half years, and with the defeat of fascism the Biberman’s and their friends felt they had won a great collective victory - but then came the Cold War, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the anti-communist hysteria that came to be known as McCarthyism. In her December 2003 article for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, A Place in the Sun, Catching Up with Edward Biberman’s Los Angeles, Emily Young wrote:

“Though his portraits of Lena Horne and Dashiell Hammett are in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the left-leaning Biberman initially devoted more of his energy to depicting Depression-era bread lines, the struggles of organized labor and the Communist witch hunt in Hollywood that undercut his career. (….) Biberman remained popular until social realism, a style he used for his politically charged paintings, fell out of favor. When his brother was branded a member of the Hollywood Ten, he suffered further from guilt by association. Still, Biberman continued to paint, teach and write, developing a pre-Hockney Los Angeles aesthetic that would influence the art world’s next generation.”

While Ms. Young’s recollection of Biberman’s early work is technically accurate, she fails to convey to the reader the noxious atmosphere of political repression Biberman was laboring under, or exactly why social realism “fell out of favor.” Lena Horne, the great African American singer and actress, and Dashiell Hammett, author of detective stories like The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon, were both named as communists at HUAC hearings and found themselves blacklisted. In 1947 Ms. Horne was marked as a “communist sympathizer” for her civil rights activism and friendship with Paul Robeson, and was thus unable to perform on television, radio or in the movies until the late 1950s.

Political repression came home for Edward Biberman in a profoundly personal way when he was identified as a communist by a “friendly witness” to HUAC because he had helped to organize an Artist’s Union within the WPA project. His beloved wife Sonja was also identified as a communist by a “friendly witness” to HUAC. Then his brother Herbert was accused in 1947 of participating in “communist activities” by HUAC, along with nine other Hollywood professionals who became known as the Hollywood Ten.

At the HUAC hearings Herbert took the 5th amendment, refusing to name “fellow communists” or to confirm or deny the allegations made against him. In 1950 he would be sentenced to six months in prison and barred from working in Hollywood. Even though he had little money Edward worked tirelessly to get his brother out on parole and help pay his legal fees, actions which made him suspect in the eyes of the government. Dashiell Hammett would later be found guilty of contempt of Congress for refusing to name communist associates and was sent to prison for six months in 1951.

One of Biberman’s paintings in the Municipal Art Gallery exhibit is titled, Conspiracy. It depicts a group of white men in suits, huddled before a bank of microphones. Painted as a simple agitated line drawing in burnt umber filled in with a limited palette of mute earth colors, the image suggests a plot of some sort. The gallery provides absolutely no information as to what the painting gives a picture of, but it is not had to see that the oil on masonite painting is a direct reference to the HUAC witch trials and the persecution of Mr. Biberman, his wife, brother, and their professional associates.

In his celebrated biography Paul Robeson, author Martin Bauml Duberman described the political atmosphere in the U.S. at the time of Robeson having his portrait painted by Biberman in Los Angeles. Duberman specifically writes about a live performance Robeson gave at a 1949 NAACP Youth Council Rally in Los Angeles. It should be noted that just prior to his L.A. appearance, Robeson had given an August, ’49 performance in Peekskill, New York, where a huge violent mob motivated by racial hatred and anticommunism had almost succeeded in killing the black singer:

“The (Los Angeles) City Council dubbed Robeson’s coming concert an ‘invasion’ and unanimously passed a resolution urging a boycott. One councilman, Lloyd C. Davies, went out of his way to ‘applaud and commend those in Peekskill who had the courage to get out there and do what they did to show up Robeson for what he is. I’d be inclined to be down there throwing rocks myself.’ An FBI agent reported to J. Edgar Hoover that ‘the Communist Party logically might endeavor to foment an incident at the concert in order to arouse the crowd.’

Hollywood gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Jimmy Fidler fanned the flames with rumors of violence, and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals published ads red-baiting Robeson. Charlotta Bass, publisher of the California Eagle, the black newspaper that sponsored Robeson’s Los Angles appearance, was swamped with threatening phone calls and denied insurance coverage.

Robeson’s supporters fought back. The Los Angeles NAACP Youth Council passed a resolution calling on all young people, black and white, to attend the concert. The prestigious national black fraternity (Robeson’s own), Alpha Phi Alpha, announced that it would host a luncheon in his honor the day following the concert. His supporters deluged the City Council with angry protests over its call for a boycott, and they turned out in force for the event itself. A tiny group of race-baiters did go to hear a local realtor call for the expulsion of all blacks and Jews from Los Angeles - but fifteen thousand went to hear Robeson, and the rally came off without incident.

A special force of black police officers (among them future Mayor Thomas Bradley) was assigned to protect Robeson. He thanked them from the podium and asked that the L.A. police protect ‘every colored boy, every Mexican-American boy, every white boy on the streets of Los Angeles.’ He thanked the Jewish people of Peekskill for having turned out in numbers to protect him in that town. And he thanked the crowd in front of him for having turned out to defend its own liberties. He would continue, he said, ‘to speak up militantly for the rights of my people’; he told the rally that when asked the question ‘Paul, what’s happened to you?’ he replied, ‘Nothing’s happened to me. I’m just looking for freedom.’ Then he sang ‘We Shall Not Be Moved,’ and the last verse, ‘Black and white together, we shall not be moved’ brought the crowd to its feet.”

In an interview with Biberman conducted in 1977 for the UCLA Special Collections, Biberman described Robeson sitting for his portrait; “We were never alone. He would always make several appointments here for the time that he was posing. Earl Robinson (who accompanied Robeson on piano during performances) would be sitting at this piano banging away a new tune that he wanted Paul to hear, and somebody would be reading a script, and somebody else would be interviewing him.”

Painting of Paul Robeson by Edward Biberman

[ Paul Robeson - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1947. 50 x 34 in.  Image courtesy of Gallery Z. ]

Biberman’s portrait of Paul Robeson is a focal point of the exhibit at the Municipal Art Gallery, and it is an imposing work indeed, conveying all of the pride, determination, and dogged tenacity of the internationally famous singer. But aside from being an impressive painting of a formidable character, it is also confirmation of Biberman’s own valor, for it took no small amount of courage to stand up to HUAC and create a sympathetic portrait of Robeson during such trying times.

For those unable to attend the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery exhibition, a gallery of artworks by Edward Biberman can be seen here. Also, a fascinating interview was conducted with Biberman on April 15, 1964, for the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution. The interviewer asked Biberman for his evaluation of the WPA Federal Arts Project, and the artist’s timely answer has great resonance in the present:

“Well, of course I have a very partisan attitude to this whole matter. I am unequivocally in favor of it. I think it was one of the brightest spots in the history of American art, and I hope that we will see a revival of a government program. I fervently hope it will not be necessitated by another depression, which of course is what started the WPA project. That was a relief measure primarily, not a cultural measure.

But irrespective of what brought it into being, and irrespective of the arguments against any government art program, and I think I’m familiar with all of the “anti” arguments, I find that this was an enormously productive period in American art. I think it actually brought into being and furthered the careers of many painters. The names of these artists are legion.”

Edward Biberman Revisited runs at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park until April 19, 2009. The Gallery is located at 4800 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027. Phone: 323-644-6269. Hours, Thursday - Sunday, noon to 5:00 pm. Admission is free. On March 6, 2009 at 7:30 pm, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery Associates (LAMAGA) will be screening Jeff Kaufman’s 2006 documentary, Brush with Life: the Art of Being Edward Biberman. The film will be followed by a talk with Jeff Kaufman, the film’s director, and Suzanne W. Zada, curator of the Edward Biberman Revisited exhibit. Seating is limited and reservations are required, call 323-644-6269 to reserve seats. A $25 donation is requested.