Category: Modernism

TRAC 2014: Part II

“You keep all your smart modern painters
I’ll take Rembrandt, Titian, Da Vinci and Gainsborough.”
20th Century Man - The Kinks

TRAC 2014 offered a dizzying array of panels, presentations, and demonstrations, some of which I found to be much more agreeable than the keynote address of Roger Scruton, which I wrote of in Part I of my observations on the “The Representational Art Conference.” In Part II of my assessment of the event, I will cover a lecture from the conference that I found worthwhile and insightful; Michael Zakian’s The Problem of Content in Contemporary Realism; the views of TRAC 2014 as given by art professor and journalist, John Seed, and remarks regarding one of the conference’s sponsors, the Art Renewal Center (ARC).

An Adjunct Professor of Art History at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California and also the director of that institution’s Frederick R. Weisman’s Museum of Art, Michael Zakian was an engaging speaker with an obvious passion for art. However, unlike some attendees of TRAC 2014, Mr. Zakian’s appreciation of art does not stop with the academic style of the 19th century, though he began his lecture by saying that he likes the paintings of William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). But he also counts Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Willem de Kooning among his favorites, so Zakian’s ideas run counter to those many aficionados of Academic art that attended the conference.

Mr. Zakian seemed aware that he was somewhat the odd man out at TRAC 2014. When he launched into an explication of his lecture’s title, The Problem of Content in Contemporary Realism, he warned the audience packed into the room to hear his address that he was likely going to upset them with his opinions. According to Zakian, the dilemma of today’s classical realist art is that it almost entirely overlooks content, and though much of the art displays high technical proficiency… it fails in having any meaningful to say. He made his point by comparing projected slides of two paintings, the 2012 Studio in Sharon, by the U.S. academic realist Jacob Collins, and the 1629 Artist in His Studio by Rembrandt van Rijn.

After first extolling the impressive talent of Mr. Collins, Zakian put in plain words his reasons for disliking Studio in Sharon; the artist’s painting captured reality with technical virtuosity, but what was the painter telling us? Zakian asked what meaning was added to the depiction of an empty studio room? Collins’ canvas had the surface details correct, but there was little beneath the polished exterior. Zakian noted that many of today’s classical academic artists paint in the same manner, they depict reality without capturing its essence.

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"The Artist in his Studio" - Rembrandt van Rijn. Oil on panel. 1629. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Mr. Zakian then switched to the slide of Rembrandt’s Artist in His Studio. In the canvas the young Rembrandt placed himself in the background studying his work from a distance, the easel looming large in the foreground. It is hard to read what the artist is thinking while contemplating his painting, is he confident or troubled about how to proceed? One could even say that Rembrandt seems a Don Quixote-like figure preparing to go into battle against a windmill. The point is the painting not only tells a story, it invites the viewer’s thoughtfulness. Zakian believes that narrative quality and scratching at the essence of things is needed in today’s classical realism. In that I fully concur, but I would say that type of inquisitive and expository spirit should be a part of all art disciplines. Postmodernists have largely done away with narrative altogether, and Zakian warned that in their repudiation of postmodernism, academic artists are doing the same.

Zakian told his audience that today’s academic and classical realists “must go beyond skill” to “wed their skills with story telling.” Fair enough, but what type of story telling? We live in a tangle of media distraction where one is no longer allowed a private cathartic moment before being inundated by a flood of advertising images. Perhaps that is one story to be told. Zakian noted the difficulty of this when he told his audience that “to make an impact on society, we have to compete with YouTube cat videos.” He offered another story to be conveyed when he projected a slide of The Cycle of Terror And Tragedy. Sept 11, 2007, a massive oil on canvas work by academic artist Graydon Parrish.

The painting was an attempt by Parrish to address the horror of the 9-11 terror attacks by means of allegorical symbolism. To me, addressing 21st century terror with the visual language of 19th century Victorian painters is a bit incongruous. Parrish wanted to produce a canvas imbued with the principles and sensibilities of academic art, but he unconsciously fashioned a postmodern work. At the center of the composition are two mirror image screaming men, blindfolded and near naked; the look-alikes symbolize the Twin Towers. When I gaze upon those figures I expect them to flicker and fluctuate like a badly transmitted video. The staccato, attention deficit disorder inducing, video editing style of today bled into the academic painting; Alma-Tadema meets the never blinking electronic eye.

To be fair to Mr. Parrish, the events of 9-11 were so catastrophic that it is tough to depict such a thing on canvas, though Pablo Picasso did just that when he painted his 1937 Guernica, which depicted the obliteration of the Basque village in Spain by Nazi warplanes during the Spanish Civil War. Despite the fact that most people attending TRAC 2014 belittle Picasso as a charlatan, his monumental antiwar canvas is an eternal work of art. Why we do not have such art today is a complicated question. In large part it has to do with artists having been disoriented by postmodernism, their withdrawing from political affairs, and their possessing little grasp of history. It is not enough for artists to simply “tell stories,” we must plumb the depths of what it is to be human, as well as examine the societies that mold us.

Mr. Zakian also noted that “no one talks about the Old Masters anymore,” and advised that artists begin studying those painters of skill that worked before the 1800s, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and the like. Once again, I agreed with Zakian. His advice seemed a slap in the face to those who worship Bouguereau as much as it was an admonishment to those that have abandoned classical realism.

I rarely talk or write about my love of Old Masters like Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and oh so many others. Perhaps I should, I studied them all in my youth and they continue to be a guidepost. But if artists should “wed their skills with story telling,” as Zakian proposes, then we should also study the school of social realism that existed from the early 1900s until after WWII. That encompasses a large field, including artists from across the U.S. and throughout Europe and the Americas in the first half of the 20th century. Seeing as how most of the organizers and attendees of TRAC apparently believe that “real art” stopped being made with the advent of modernism, and that they fervently seek to resuscitate academic art and its atelier based art curriculum, it is hard to take them seriously.

While the greater part of those involved in TRAC seem a traditional bunch, not all conservatives agree with their views regarding art. James Panero, the Executive Editor of the conservative journal The New Criterion, is a good example. In his article Graydon Parrish’s ‘Cycle of Terror, Panero disassembled the painting as “a machine for illustrating technical skill,” and lambasted the advocates of academic realism for turning the genre into “a value system” that “borders on an evangelical faith. A sort of beaux-arts radicalism, it can be reactionary and thuggish: a sociological phenomenon; a form of ‘identity aesthetics.’” Panero’s words might be more compelling (or perturbing) to traditionalists since it was a conservative that wrote them.

While TRAC 2014 was a lightning rod for individuals ready to fulminate against modernism as the unlovely offspring of those unfit parents liberalism and Marxism, not all conservatives seem willing to accept academic art as the aesthetic deliverance for a world gone haywire. That Mr. Zakian advised realist painters at TRAC 2014 to use their skills to say something profound about life is sound and encouraging, and one hopes such counsel does not fall on deaf ears.

John Seed is a painter, professor of art history at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California, and a journalist that writes about art for various publications. Seed gave an unlikely talk to those gathered at TRAC 2014, the subject of The Bay Area Figurative School and its Legacy. Unfortunately I was not able to attend Seed’s March 4th presentation, but it must have been a hoot, given the overall conservative atmosphere of TRAC 2014.

Mr. Seed talked about that small circle of painters in the Bay Area of San Francisco who, starting in the 1940s, rejected the reigning style of abstract art and began painting quasi-expressionist works that incorporated the human figure. Rejecting abstraction and making their way back to figuration, these painters were regarded as heretics by the official art world, which had almost unanimously embraced abstraction as the one true religion. Eventually the apostates became known as the Bay Area Figurative School, and therein lies the lesson; determined artists can unseat the status quo. Nevertheless, I imagine Seed had a hard time persuading the traditionalists at TRAC 2014 that they shared a kinship with painters David Park and Elmer Bischoff.

One might want to read When Art Worlds Don’t Collide: TRAC 2014 and the Whitney Biennial, John Seed’s sympathetic coverage of the TRAC event, which he juxtaposed to his critique of the simultaneously held 2014 Whitney Biennial. I could not agree less with Seed’s summary of TRAC 2014, nor could I agree more with his rundown of the Whitney Biennial - though I might have been a tad more raucous in denouncing it.

Seed writes for the ostensibly “liberal” Huffington Post, but when mentioning Roger Scruton at TRAC 2014, refers to him only as “a British philosopher, and the host of the BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters.” Seed says nothing of Scruton being a leading right-wing figure in British society. With obvious approval Seed averred that Scruton “gave the conference its philosophical and moral center”; in my review of TRAC 2014 I wrote that the organizers of the event “set the tone for the entire conference by inviting Mr. Scruton to speak,” but my observation was not meant as approving.

In his review of TRAC 2014 Seed noted that the event was not “without its awkward” moments, then stated that “although TRAC has made every effort to be progressive and open towards its membership there was only one African-American artist at the event.” Perhaps Seed defines “progressive” differently than I do. He made no effort to analyze why Blacks were not in attendance, or why Latinos, who currently comprise some 39 percent of California’s population, were virtually nonexistent at TRAC 2014.

In his review of the conference, Seed asserted that “Classically and Academically oriented artists dominated the event but there was plenty of room for ‘moderates’ - I’m one of them - who acknowledge and find inspiration in the tradition of representational art with modernist roots.” There is a big difference between having “plenty of room” for someone and actually joining forces to work in partnership. I agree with Seed that classical academic art held sway at TRAC, but in the vernacular of most traditionalists, “modernism” is a pejorative.

Historically speaking, modernism generated aesthetic and intellectual responses from U.S. blacks that developed into the Harlem Renaissance (1918-37). During that period the black experience was given voice in literature, music, dance, and the visual arts by extraordinary figures like Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, and Aaron Douglas; there were hundreds more and their remarkable contributions continue to reverberate in the present. But it was modernism that served as the impetus behind this black creative dynamism, not academicism.

To be honest, academicism seems to have had little to no impact on the African-American community; outside of a handful of brilliant 19th century painters like Henry Ossawa Tanner and Grafton Tyler Brown, I am hard-pressed to name a single African American painter in the 20th century that was of the classical Academic School. Is it really such a surprise that TRAC 2014, an event steeped in the traditions of European academic and classical art would fail to attract African-Americans?

Among the listed sponsors and partners of TRAC, one finds the Carnegie Art Museum of Oxnard, California, the Museum of Ventura County, and the Pepperdine University Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art. The Art Renewal Center (ARC), was also a sponsor of the conference.

Many featured artists associated with TRAC 2014 are also connected to the Art Renewal Center. For instance, the event’s 2nd Keynote speaker, Juliette Aristides, has been awarded a place on the ARC’s list of Approved Artists ™ & Living Masters ™. Studio demonstrations were conducted at the event by Jeremy Lipking and Virgil Elliott, who are also living masters according to the ARC. Featured speakers Kara Lysandra Ross is a staff writer for the ARC website and the Director of Operations for the group, while Julio Reyes is another of the ARC’s living masters. The aforementioned Graydon Parrish worked as a researcher on the William Bouguereau Catalog Raisonne co-published by the Art Renewal Center. There were certainly many ARC supporters and devotees in attendance.

Many artists and art loving individuals, alienated by the current state of art, have been attracted to the Art Renewal Center and its aim of fostering an appreciation of traditional art and technique. Not finding it in college and university level art classes, students seeking instruction in realist drawing and painting have turned to the ARC for its list of privately run “approved ateliers,” where one can enroll in atelier based art classes. In principle I think this all well and good, but there is something off about the ARC.

On the “Frequently Asked Questions” page of the ARC website, one can find the following, “While modernism has indeed had some significance in the history of art for a time, that in no way implies that what modernists have been up to was actually good or artistically important.” The ARC proclaims Bouguereau as the exemplar of French Academic art and so a quintessential leader for today’s painters. The director of the ARC, Fred Ross, wrote Abstract Art Is Not Abstract & Definitely Not Art, apparently unaware that abstraction lost its dominance to Pop art in the mid-1950s; never mind the shibboleth of 21st century postmodernism! But possibly the most damning contorted logic and grammar found on the ARC web site comes from this quote on its FAQ page:

Q: Aren’t you just advocating Nazism? After all, Hitler loved realist art.

No. Obviously. Hitler wore pants. Does that make anyone who wears pants is a Nazi too?

What Hitler knew (and Stalin too!) was that good art has the power to communicate with people in important ways and that what he called “degenerate art” didn’t. In that he was right about that even though he was horribly wrong about a host of other things. Hitler also used good artistic expression as a powerful tool to promote his Nazi viewpoint but it is the message, not the medium that was flawed.

Aside from thinking that people who mouth such nonsense are an embarrassment, it is hard to know what so say. In very specific language, the ARC FAQ states the Nazis were correct in their assessment of “degenerate art,” and that Hitler “used good artistic expression as a powerful tool.” The Nazis did not employ “good artistic expression” to convey their poisonous ideas, they strangled the very possibility of art before they even seized power (think of the Nazi Poet Laureate, Hanns Johst, who wrote the following words in his 1933 play Schlageter, “Whenever I hear of culture, I release the safety catch of my Browning!”) As professor James E. Young pointed out in his article, The Terrible Beauty of Nazi Aesthetics, “Art, beauty and aesthetics were not benign byproducts of the Nazi Reich, but part and parcel of its malevolent logic.”

Almost nine years ago I took a swipe at the ARC for posting correspondence on their website that praised the Nazi painter Ivo Salinger; it appears the group’s stance remains unreformed. As the conservative James Panero of The New Criterion wrote, the zeal of some supporters of academic realism “borders on an evangelical faith,” a fundamentalism that can be “reactionary and thuggish.” I am not accusing the ARC of being fascists, but I am saying that they have a very weak understanding of history, and such people are ill-equipped to change the world.

It might be said that the ARC has done more to weaken and incapacitate 21st century realism in art than the combined efforts of Eli Broad and Jeff Koons. Clear thinking individuals that love representational art should distance themselves from the Art Renewal Center - starting with the organizers of TRAC 2015.

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Read Roger Scruton at TRAC 2014, the first part of my review regarding The Representational Art Conference of 2014.

Ramos Martínez & The Flower Vendors


The "Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez Symposium" held in the Humanities Auditorium of Scripps College, March 23, 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez" symposium held in the Humanities Auditorium of Scripps College, March 23, 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

On March 23, 2014, I attended the symposium at Scripps College in Claremont, California titled Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez.

Held to deepen public knowledge about the Mexican artist, the event was held in conjunction with the not to be missed exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California.

The symposium offered three separate talks by experts in their fields, all pertaining to the art of Martínez. After their presentations the three lecturers reconvened as panelists for an informative panel discussion moderated by arts writer, Suzanne Muchnic. A lively question and answer period followed, after which the symposium concluded and attendees walked a short distance to view The Flower Vendors, the fresco murals Martínez painted in the college’s Margaret Fowler Garden.

A view of Martínez' unfinished fresco mural, "The Flower Vendors." The mural is over 100 feet long and consists of several panels. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

1) A view of Martínez' unfinished fresco mural, "The Flower Vendors." The mural is over 100 feet long and consists of several panels. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In 1946 Scripps College commissioned Martínez to paint The Flower Vendors mural. It is a tragedy that in the middle of working on the project, Martínez died on November 8, 1946 at the age of 73. His wonderful mural was left unfinished, but it continues to resonate in the present. I photographed The Flower Vendors while attending the symposium, and in this article offer my photos along with my impressions of the symposium.

Amy Galpin, the curator at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, presented her talk Making Religion Modern: Alfredo Ramos Martínez and his Contemporaries. A devout Catholic, Martínez created a number of works that were of a religious nature; Galpin focused on those works.

Martínez returned to Christian themes in his paintings and drawings again and again, but the topic was usually bound to the artist’s ideas concerning social justice for the poor and downtrodden. This point was driven home when Galpin projected a slide of Martínez’ 1939 tempera and ink drawing, The Bondage of War.

In this panel one can clearly see the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, the "sinopia" sketch, as well as incomplete patches of fine plaster - the "intonaco," where Martínez had painted in some limited tempera washes. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

2) In this panel one can clearly see the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, the "sinopia" sketch, as well as incomplete patches of fine plaster - the "intonaco," where Martínez had painted in some limited tempera washes. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

The Bondage of War depicts a Mexican Indian man tied-up with heavy ropes that hold him immobile, a length of rope tightly twisting around his neck slowly strangles him. The tormented campesino stands in for humanity as a whole; it is 1939 and the winds of war have reached cyclone proportions. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan have already formed an alliance. In 1939 the Nazis seize Czechoslovakia, Spain falls to the fascist army of General Franco, and the Nazis invade Poland. Martínez made his antiwar drawing on a copy of the Los Angeles Times, the banal printed columns and ads from the paper bleeding through the drawing of the campesino. To this work Ms. Galpin juxtaposed a slide projection of an artwork Martínez created depicting the suffering Christ bound in ropes - the similarity between the two artworks was striking. Both were closely cropped minimalist portraits done in limited color schemes, but more importantly, both artworks spoke powerfully about agony and redemption.

One of the most completed panels in "The Flower Vendors" mural. Note how the artist employed trompe l'oeil to make the figure on the viewer's right appear to be stepping out of the picture plane. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

3) One of the most completed panels in "The Flower Vendors" mural. Note how the artist employed trompe l'oeil to make the figure on the viewer's right appear to be stepping out of the picture plane. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Ms. Galpin placed Martínez and his religious works in the broader context of modernist art. She projected slides of artworks made by other modernists who had created religious art in the Christian tradition; Jean Charlot (whose works appear in the PMCA Martínez exhibit), Edith Catlin Phelps (Wayside Madonna), Ivan Albright (his hallucinogenic The Temptation of St. Anthony), and Charles White (Spiritual). There are many other example of course that Galpin did not mention, the woodcuts of the German Expressionist Karl Schmidt Rottluff come to mind (Head of Christ 1918). It was a refreshing take on modernism; three weeks prior to attending the Martínez symposium I had attended TRAC 2014, where conservative keynote speaker Roger Scruton scorned modernism for destroying the sacred in art and replacing it with the profane.

Ms. Galpin concluded her remarks by saying that the more political artists like Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, etc., ultimately saw Martínez as one of their own because of the deep humanism and love of the common people that he expressed in his paintings and drawings.

Detail of rightward most figure from the nearly completed panel. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

4) Detail of rightward most figure shown in illustration number 3. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In her presentation, Conserving Alfredo Ramos Martínez’ The Flower Vendors, art conservator Aneta Zebala talked about the meticulous process of restoring and conserving The Flower Vendors mural located in the Margaret Fowler Garden on the Scripps College campus. Trained in the restoration of wall and easel paintings at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland, Ms. Zebala was also part of a collaborative team that worked with the Getty Conservation Institute in preserving the Siqueiros América Tropical mural located on L.A.’s Olvera Street.

5) Detail of leftward most figure shown in illustration number 3. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

5) Detail of leftward most figure shown in illustration number 3. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In 1994 Zebala and her associates found The Flower Vendors in poor shape. The mural was suffering from water damage, which not only caused the paint to bleach out in certain areas of the painting, but gave rise to the build-up of salt deposits that further eroded paint pigments; paint was flaking off throughout the mural. Incredibly, ivy from the garden had crept over the mural’s surface, and the plants sank thousands of tiny roots into the outdoor mural. Zebala recounted how difficult it was to remove the roots and restore the damage they caused. Vandals had also painted graffiti on a certain area of the mural, increasing the headaches of restoration and preservation that Ms. Zebala and her team faced.

 7) Detail of rightward most figures from a nearly completed panel. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

6) Detail of panel showing flower vendors with baskets full of flowers. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Zebala revealed some important facts about how The Flower Vendors mural was produced. The painting was created using the traditional Italian fresco method.

On the wall to be painted, skilled plasterers first applied a rough layer of lime plaster mixed with large granules of sand. Called the “arriccio,” this layer was allowed to dry.

Next, the artist drew a very rough sketch or guide on the arriccio called the “sinopia,” named after the dark red earth pigment used to paint it. The sinopia helped in guiding the layering on of the last coat of fine plaster, the “intonaco.” The intonaco was laid on in small patches, just the amount that an artist could finish painting on in one work session. The artist would paint onto the wet intonaco layer with water-based pigment, remembering the outlines of the sinopia hidden beneath the fresh intonaco. When the plaster and pigment set and dried, the painting became permanent.

Over the years fresco painting developed a slightly more sophisticated technique that abandoned the sinopia as a guide for the artist. In this method, once the fine intonaco layer was layered over the rough arriccio, a life-sized drawing on paper - the “cartoon” - that had its outlines perforated with a needle, was placed over the wet intonaco and pounced with a small sack filled with charcoal dust. When the cartoon was removed, the outlines of the drawing were left on the wet plaster and the artist could begin painting. This method allowed for complex drawings to be transferred to the wet plaster; the artist no longer had to memorize what was beneath the intonaco in order to proceed, instead the cartoon tracing left a completely worked out line drawing to be painted over and refined.

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7) Detail of flower vendors from illustration number 6. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

What Aneta Zebala revealed was that Alfredo Ramos Martínez used the earlier method of fresco painting, that is, he used a sinopia as his rough guide in painting his mural. Once the last layer of fine plaster was placed over the sinopia, the artist had to remember what the drawing looked like; he was in essence flying blind. In all of her restoration and preservation work on the mural, Ms. Zebala found no evidence that a pounced cartoon was used to provide Martínez with a guide. He simply painted freehand onto the wet plaster. Since Martínez’ mural was left unfinished, one can see the rough layers of arriccio and sinopia sketches in one section of the mural, while in other sections it is easy to see the intonaco with semi or near finished paintings. It is sad that The Flower Vendors mural was unfinished, but it has left us with an amazing example of how a traditional fresco mural is painted.

The high-quality restoration and preservation work carried out on The Flower Vendors brought the mural to life. When contemplating the fresco, one tends to forget that it is unfinished.

9) One of the central panels of the mural was left incomplete after the hand drawn "sinopia" sketch was made on the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

8) One of the central panels of the mural was left incomplete after the hand drawn "sinopia" sketch was made on the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Mary Goodwin, an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, gave a talk titled, Printmaking in Los Angeles and the Role of Maria Sodi de Ramos Martínez. Ms. Goodwin revealed some hitherto unknown historical facts, even to those stalwart veterans of the Los Angeles arts community.

It all began with a Martínez “painting” that hung in the Goodwin household when Mary was a young girl. She became perplexed when she saw the exact same work in the home of relatives. She eventually discovered that the work was not a painting at all, but a serigraph - a silkscreen print; still, it was assumed that the print had been created by Alfredo Ramos Martínez. Fast forward to Ms. Goodwin as an adult with a B.A. in aesthetic studies from UC Santa Cruz and an M.A. and Ph.D. in art history from Boston University. In her research she made some startling discoveries regarding the Martínez silkscreen.

A group of five women prepare to sell succulent agave cactus and corn, in this nearly complete mural panel. The central area of the composition had received the most washes of color before the artist stopped working. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

9) A group of five women prepare to sell succulent agave cactus and corn, in this nearly complete mural panel. The central area of the composition had received the most washes of color before the artist stopped working. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

It is well known, at least to those who have studied the works of Alfredo Ramos Martínez, that his wife, Maria Sodi de Ramos Martínez, was a fierce champion of her husband’s works. After Alfredo died in 1946, Maria continued to organize exhibits of his works. To help continue and expand the legacy of Alfredo, Maria printed 7 separate silkscreen print editions that were reproductions of selected works by her husband. Printed by Maria in the garage of her Los Angeles home between the years 1947 and 1951, the most complex prints utilized 62 different colors - meaning 62 different screen stencils had to be hand-painted. Maria signed the works with her own name; some of the prints had a price as low as $35.00.

Detail of woman from illustration number 9. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

10) Detail of woman from illustration number 9. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

But the story did not end there. Maria learned how to produce silkscreen prints from the artist credited with originating silkscreen as a fine art medium, Guy Maccoy (1904-1981). In 1933 while working in New York with the Work Progress Administration (WPA), Maccoy began developing the screen printing process, earning him the moniker “Father of the Serigraph.” In 1938 Maccoy had the nation’s first one-person show of silkscreen prints. In 1945 Maccoy moved to Los Angeles, California. He taught Maria Martínez his technique of painting directly upon a stretched screen with lithographers tusche and water based glue in order to create a stencil.

Years later Maria Martínez would teach Corita Kent, a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, how to produce serigraphs. Running the art department at L.A.’s Immaculate Heart College until 1968, Corita became a dynamic force in the activist arts, and her anti-Vietnam war and social justice posters became ubiquitous in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. In turn, Corita taught her student Sister Karen Boccalero the skills taught to her by Maria Martínez. In 1970, Boccalero became a co-founder of L.A.’s Self Help Graphics, which continues to be a cornerstone institution for the national Chicano art movement.

12) In this detail of an incomplete panel, one can plainly see the various steps taken to create the mural. The bottom half shows the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, with a sketchy "sinopia" painted in dark earth red as a guide. Just below the shoulders of the two women, one can see the break between the arriccio layer and the finer "intonaco" layer, upon which the artist painted the women's faces, flowers, and background. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

11) In this detail of an incomplete panel, one can plainly see the various steps taken to create the mural. The bottom half shows the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, with a sketchy "sinopia" painted in dark earth red as a guide. Just below the shoulders of the two women, one can see the break between the arriccio layer and the finer "intonaco" layer, upon which the artist painted the women's faces, flowers, and background. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Mary Goodwin closed her talk by commenting on how we need to continue “teasing out” these multifaceted stories in order to build a complete understanding of history. The synchronicity  between Guy Maccoy, Maria Martínez, Corita Kent, and Karen Boccalero was based on a common vision of art being made accessible to large numbers of working people. Muralism has always been a vital component to that aspiration, with The Flower Vendors by Alfredo Ramos Martínez remaining a superlative model of the art.

As a long time follower of Chicano art history, especially in my hometown city of Los Angeles, it was absolutely revelatory to find a direct link between Ramos Martínez, and the Chicano art movement, through the serigraphy of his wife Maria Martínez. Furthermore, it makes it even more historically important that the PMCA’s current exhibit of Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California is in conjunction with the exhibit Serigrafía, an overview of Chicano/Latino silkscreen art from the 1970s to the present that also includes one of my prints.  A more fitting combination could not be had, as we now have learned from Ms. Goodwin’s research.

The two exhibits run until April 20, 2014. Museum admission is $7, free for PMCA members. The museum is located at: 490 East Union Street, Pasadena, CA 91101. Web: pmcaonline.org

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Read more about Martínez at, Alfredo Ramos Martínez: Picturing Mexico.

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life

Last year, celebrated American paintings were presented at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, from October, 2009 to January, 2010. Titled American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, the exhibit was comprised of 103 paintings that recorded the American experience from the colonial period to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. On display were iconic canvases by the likes of John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, John Sloan, and George Bellows, along with artists whose names are unfamiliar to most, but whose works have left an impact on the American consciousness.

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899 - 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899, 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

Organized by the Metropolitan, the museum maintains a website about the exhibit, an archive that should be viewed by all. In addition, the Met’s publishing house released an exhibit catalog that features many works not included in the show. People on the West coast of the U.S. can see the Met’s survey of American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where the show opened on February 28, 2010 for a four-month run.

The exhibit is divided into four categories presenting a timeline of the nation’s development; Inventing American Stories: 1765-1830, Stories for the Public: 1830-1860, Stories of War and Reconciliation: 1860-1877, and Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915. The Met’s conception of the nation’s history sweeping from the East to the West coast was somewhat meekly “corrected” by LACMA’s adding a fifth category; paintings depicting the Spanish, Mexican, and Chinese influence on the history of California, but sorry to say this section of the exhibit seemed but an afterthought. LACMA reduced the number of paintings the Met originally had on display by around 20, and swapped out paintings from the Met’s collection for works found in LACMA’s collection - for instance, the Met initially included Thomas Eakins’ Swimming (1885), whereas LACMA replaced it with the artist’s Wrestlers (1899).

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

The exhibit is important for a number of reasons, not all of them related to the progress of American art. The show gives an overview of the nation’s growth, presenting a wide look at the people and forces that shaped the country. Artists in the exhibit frequently brought up questions of class, race, and gender – unconsciously or not – and to see America’s changing political landscape chronicled by artists is just one of the fascinating aspects of the show.

Today’s Americans will hardly be able to recognize the country and people depicted in American Stories; the transformation of American society from 1765 to the present having been truly astonishing in scope. Existing U.S. culture with its digital communications and amusements, “reality” television shows, and celebrity worship, bears little if any resemblance to the country as it was from 1765 to 1915; yet, some things never change. Thoughtful viewers will be compelled to ask the questions, “What does it mean to be an American?” and “Where are Americans going as a people?”

I attended the LACMA exhibit on March 1, 2010, and recommend it to others. There are simply too many fabulous artists and paintings in the show to write about, so I proffer the following opinions regarding just a few of the works found in the show.

The first painting to greet the viewer is Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). His iconic 1768 portrait of the Boston silversmith, who would come to play a major role in the American Revolution, is a remarkable work of art, partly because the artist was self-taught at a time when there was not a single art school or museum in the colonies. The jolt of standing in front of Copley’s flawlessly realistic painting of the American revolutionary is repeated when seeing that the room in which it is hung also holds other marvelous canvasses; The Cup of Tea by Mary Cassatt, Chinese Restaurant by John Sloan, The Breakfast by William McGregor Paxton, The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer, Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, and Eel Spearing at Setauket by William Sidney Mount. That African Americans are central characters in three of these paintings is but an introduction to the complicated racial dynamics in the U.S. that serves as a subtext for much of the exhibit.

In Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778), it is a black man that holds a rope lifeline to the imperiled Watson, who is being attacked by a shark in open water. The artist put the black sailor at the apex of a triangular composition in order to draw the eye directly towards him; he is also portrayed as an equal to all the others – a remarkable narrative for a canvas painted when America held African people in bondage. Painted 16 years before the American Civil War, Mount’s Eel Spearing (1845) has as its focus a black slave woman at the bow of a small boat teaching a young white boy how to catch eels. While the woman is obviously in control, she is also a slave. Homer’s The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of blacks in America in 1899 – 38 years after the close of the Civil War. The canvas depicts a black man in a small wrecked sailboat cast adrift on a stormy sea filled with sharks. I could write lengthy essays about each of these extraordinary paintings, but for the sake of brevity I shall restrict my remarks to John Singleton Copley’s Revere.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Copley had no formal training in art, but his stepfather was an engraver and portrait painter who undoubtedly tutored the precocious teenager for the three years they lived together. By the time Copley was fifteen he was known for producing impressive oil portraits of notables in his community, and that reputation, not to mention his technical skill as a painter, grew considerably. He was thirty when he painted Paul Revere (1735-1818).

When Revere sat for Copley he had not yet carried out the acts that would make him famous, like his illustrious April 18, 1775 Midnight Ride from Boston to Lexington to warn patriots of British troop movements.

He was nevertheless deeply involved in the Sons of Liberty, that underground organization of patriots whose  “no taxation without representation” slogan came to epitomize the anti-colonial struggle. Only five years after Copley painted Revere, the Sons of Liberty initiated the legendary Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, when patriots, including Revere, seized three ships in Boston Harbor in order to dump the cargo of British tea overboard in an act of protest against British taxation. That fact is not insignificant when considering the portrait of Revere, since Copley’s father-in-law was the merchant that had his British-consigned tea tossed overboard during the Tea Party! The issue of British taxation went back to 1767, a year before Copley painted Revere, when the British Parliament imposed heavy new taxes on tea in the colonies. Given that evidence, Copley’s painting takes on new meaning.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Revere had Copley paint him as a master craftsman in the silversmith trade, he was after all one of the most famous silversmiths in colonial America. On the mahogany table at which Revere sat, you can see his silversmith tools set out before him, and he had himself pictured holding a silver teapot. It has generally been accepted that Copley’s painting of Revere is simply a portrait of a successful artisan, but I think there is ample evidence to suggest otherwise.

One must take into account that at the time of the painting’s creation, people living in the thirteen colonies were entering a period of intense political conflict that would ultimately lead to revolutionary war. Viewed in that context, it is incorrect to see the portrait merely as an expression of Revere being proud of his profession, rather, it appears he meant his portrait as a political statement. An outspoken radical, Revere was no doubt infuriated by the 1767 British tax on tea, and so it was probable that by having himself painted holding a teapot, he was challenging viewers over British rule. Revere stares directly at the viewer as if to ask, “Which side are you on?”

It was also unusual for a gentleman to have himself painted wearing anything other than his finest frock coat, yet Revere had himself depicted wearing an open sleeveless waistcoat (the undergarment worn beneath a fine coat) and a linen shirt, which at the time was a form of “undress” appropriate only for hard work or relaxing at home in private. The British controlled the economy of the colonies through the importation of goods and by imposing taxes. As the anti-colonial movement gained strength, patriots found multiple ways of resisting British hegemony, such as boycotting imported goods. When the colonists began producing linen as an act of resistance, those using imported British linen were isolated as Tories, conservative supporters of British rule. By having himself portrayed wearing a billowing shirt of American-spun linen, Revere was making a statement in favor of independence; the shirt was not so much a symbol of being a craftsman as it was an affirmation of revolutionary politics.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

While Revere’s linen shirt and teapot were more than likely politically charged props, Copley had no interest in political matters, besides, his family members were Loyalists devoted to the British Crown. In a 1770 letter Copley wrote to Benjamin West (an American-born artist who moved to England and became a painter to the court of King George III in 1772), he flatly stated that he was “desirous of avoiding every imputation of party spirit. Political contests being neither pleasing to an artist or advantageous to the art itself.”

Though he helped establish American painting and created portraits of prominent American patriots, Copley did not have a passion for independence. His relationship to Revere, as well as his attitude towards the anti-colonial movement, is indicative of the complicated human drama that occurred during the revolution. Copley left the colonies for London in 1773, a year after the Boston Tea Party – never to return to America.

Another notable artist from the Revolutionary War period whose works are included in the exhibit is Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). A fiery radical and member of the Sons of Liberty, Peale created portraits of many leaders involved in the War of Independence – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Hancock, and Alexander Hamilton to name but a few. In 1765 Peale met the artist John Singleton Copley, and studied in his Boston studio for a time before traveling to London in 1770 for two years of formal training under the tutelage of Benjamin West. Upon return to the colonies, Peale settled in Philadelphia, and in 1776 he joined the Continental Army to wage war against the British Empire.

After the successful War of Independence, Peale refocused his energies on the arts and sciences. In 1782 he opened the very first art gallery in the United States, and in 1786 he established the nation’s very first museum, the Peale Museum, which was given to the exposition of paintings and natural history. There are two paintings by Peale in the LACMA exhibit, a 1788 double portrait of the merchant Benjamin Laming and his wife Eleanor, and the 1805 Exhumation of the Mastodon, whereupon Peale recounted his having discovered and excavated a prehistoric mastodon skeleton in New York, painting the scene for posterity.

Skipping ahead to mid-point in the exhibit there is a collection of splendid canvasses by Winslow Homer, these are aside from his painting in the exhibit’s opening room. Of the handful of works arranged on their own wall under the Stories of War and Reconciliation section of the show, two took my breath away, The Veteran in a New Field and The Cotton Pickers.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

Created in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (April 14, 1865), The Veteran in a New Field (1865), depicts a former soldier hard at work harvesting wheat, his Union army jacket cast off and laying in the field at the picture’s lower-right corner.

The ex-combatant swings his scythe into the tall wheat as if he were the grim reaper, the fallen wheat symbolizing the massive numbers of deaths from the war – including the nation’s chief executive. Some 620,000 soldiers from the Confederate and Union armies perished in the conflagration, along with an undetermined number of civilians. By contrast, around 416,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in WWII. It is not hard to imagine the impact this painting had on Americans in 1865, but while the painting’s imagery is a metaphor for a people’s sacrifice and loss, so too is it a symbol of recuperation and redemption.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

The Cotton Pickers was not included in the original Met exhibit, but since it is part of LACMA’s permanent collection, the L.A. museum wisely placed it in their showing of American Stories; luckily for the public I might add, it is one of Homer’s finest works. Painted just 11 years after the end of the Civil War, the canvas depicts two emancipated black slaves, except they are working at the same backbreaking labor they performed prior to their liberation, and likely for the same property owner. The slave’s lament of working from before sunrise until after sunset had not changed; Homer painted the two African American women standing in a cotton field at the crack of dawn, their bags heavy with cotton picked from before daylight. The artist’s handling of the dim light of morn is awe-inspiring, but it is the expressions on the faces of the women that I found extraordinary. Far from being broken, they appear dignified and ready to step beyond dreadful circumstances. The woman in red looks positively defiant, exemplifying the spirit that would carry blacks through some very unhappy days.

The exhibit’s final category of paintings, Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915, might have the most resonance for present-day viewers, since we continue to grapple with the same questions portrayed in the canvases; the evolving status of women, global expansionism, waves of immigration, industrialization and urbanization, and the predicament of the working class.

I found The Ironworkers – Noontime by Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912) to be of specific interest. Anshutz was an influential painter whose genre paintings were in great demand. Trained by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and William Bouguereau (1825-1905), he might at first glance seem an Academic painter, but a closer examination reveals an artist breaking with convention. His portraits of women appear to be celebrations of American Victorianism, though paintings like A Rose (1907) and The Challenge (1908) depict women who were a far cry from the timid and demure model of the Victorian Lady. Anshutz was a respected teacher of painting who instructed at the Pennsylvania Academy. His students included John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens; painters who would initiate America’s first art movement, the Social Realist Ashcan school, it is their works that comprise the final group of paintings on display in American Stories.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Painted in 1880, The Ironworkers – Noontime is about as bleak a picture of America’s industrial landscape as one is likely to find. Anshutz painted men and boys who worked at a nail factory in West Virginia taking a break from their dreary work. At the time there was no such thing as an eight-hour work day.

Most American and immigrant workers labored seventy hours or more per week for extremely low wages and absolutely no benefits whatsoever. Factory work was hazardous and often injurious or fatal as safety standards were non-existent. Child labor was rampant. The burgeoning union movement was just beginning to make the eight-hour day one of its central demands.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime." Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

Anshutz based his painting on sketches he made at an actual factory, and if the poses of the men seem founded on an Academic approach, overall the artwork contains important differences with Academic painting.

To begin with, the artist recorded a scene from real life, a dismal factory where laborers worked to the point of exhaustion. It was a tableau painted without romanticizing or sentimentalizing its subject; the workers were shown as simply worn-out and poverty-stricken. It was a disagreeable scene that would have sent any Academic painter to flight. The work’s gritty realism ran counter to the saccharine idealism of Academic art. Late in life Anshutz declared his belief in socialism, and while trained by Bouguereau, he had more affinity with Robert Koehler (1850-1917), a German-born painter and fellow socialist that spent most of his career in the U.S. The two were among the first artists to depict industrialism and its impact on working people (Koehler’s work was not included in American Stories).

A prominent painter in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who also served as the director of the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts for twenty-two years, Koehler created a number of paintings that portrayed urban workers. His 1885, The Socialist, is the earliest known portrait of a working-class political agitator. Between the years 1878-1890, Germany banned socialist organizations, publications, and meetings, and as a result many German socialist leaders came to the U.S. where they addressed the growing worker’s movement in cities like New York and Chicago. Koehler’s The Socialist could have portrayed such a meeting or rally anywhere in the U.S. or Germany.

Anshutz’s The Ironworkers – Noontime was created six years before the Haymarket massacre of May 4, 1886, when violence between workers and police in Chicago led to the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of workers, who were on strike demanding the eight-hour day. The authorities arrested eight labor leaders and anarchist activists from Chicago’s eight-hour day movement, charging and convicting them for the murder of one of the police officers. The U.S. labor movement was dealt a decisive blow when four of the defendants were executed, even though there was no evidence linking them to the killing of the officer. Koehler’s The Strike was painted that same year, and when his painting was shown at a spring 1886 exhibit at the National Academy of Design in New York City, a review in the April 4, 1886 edition of the New York Times referred to it as the “most significant work of this spring exhibition.” At that very moment activists were organizing for a national strike that would bring 350,000 workers into U.S. streets to demand the eight-hour day – and the Haymarket massacre was only weeks away.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

The final room in the exhibit is a showcase for the Ashcan School, with works by George Bellows, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens on display. Stylistically these works seem closest to our own reality; their technique, approach, and content having been influenced by the Modernist revolution. In fact New York’s Armory Show of 1913, where Americans got their first eye-opening exposure to modern art, was in part organized by Sloan; those in the Ashcan circle like George Bellows, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, and John Sloan exhibited in the groundbreaking Armory Show.

Sloan’s small oil on canvas The Picnic Grounds depicts flirtatious working class youth in a public park in New Jersey, the energetic brushwork epitomizing the best of the artist’s early works. William Glackens was a brilliant colorist who concentrated on the depiction of city life as enjoyed by middle-class layers of society. The Shoppers is one such painting, portraying a group of fashionably dressed women as they wonder through a department store, a new phenomenon in America at the time. Everett Shinn was given to portraying life in the theater, though he created his share of canvasses depicting harsh realities on the street. In The Orchestra Pit, Shinn’s depiction of a popular vaudevillian theater in New York’s Madison Square, the artist places the viewer at the lip of the stage directly behind the orchestra pit. Of the Ashcan paintings displayed, two by George Bellows were my favorites – Cliff Dwellers and Club Night.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

Club Night was from a series of artworks Bellows created from direct observation of public boxing matches, which at the time were illegal in the U.S. To avoid the law but still be able to attract paying customers, fight organizers would hold bouts at private gyms, and boxing fans gained admission by becoming “dues paying members” of the athletic clubs; competitions were held behind closed doors for members only.

Bellows frequented a squalid New York City gym across the street from his studio called Sharkey’s, where such contests were held. Disdainful of those who attended the fights, Bellows pictured them as bloody-minded bourgeois individuals slumming in poor neighborhoods.

The groups of men dressed in tuxedos in the lower right portion of the painting bear a striking resemblance to the demented characters in Francisco Goya’s The Pilgrimage of San Isidro, one of Goya’s so-called “black paintings” depicting fanatical religious zealots.

In the end the limitations of the American Stories exhibit at LACMA are overshadowed by the show’s strengths. Despite curatorial exclusions and a tendency to expound a somewhat rosy view of American history, there is still an immeasurable sense of the real, the human, and the historic in American Stories. Compared to the cynical and socially detached gimmickry of postmodern art, the paintings in American Stories exude idealism, compassion, and a deeply felt humanism. It is regrettable that the timeline for the exhibit stops at 1915, when Modernism in the U.S. was just beginning to percolate. It would have been instructive to have included artists from the 1930s and 1940s, when the “American Scene” and “Regionalist” painters from coast to coast were in their heyday and Social Realism was the dominant aesthetic. It is unlikely that LACMA will hold such an exhibit in the future – but without a doubt I will continue to cover that era in articles yet to come.

Millard Sheets: The Early Years

Millard Sheets: The Early Years (1926-1944), on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA) through May 30, 2010, is an important exhibit of works by a leading California exponent of the “American Scene” painters, those artists given to documenting ordinary Americans going about their everyday lives.

Incorporated into the American Scene genre were the subcategories of “Regionalism” and “Social Realism.” The former concentrated on themes of local life in small town rural settings, the later engaged in works of social criticism, focusing on the experiences of working people in urban settings. Depending on the artist, there could be much overlap between the three schools, and Sheets was one to blend them without difficulty; Social Realism ran through his early works. Given my interest in that genre, and feeling it best describes what I am attempting in my own artworks, I enthusiastically attended the exhibition and now proffer the following comments regarding it.

The first painting one sees when entering the museum is Abandoned, Sheets’ 1933 canvas that has come to symbolize the Great Depression. At first glance the focus of the work seems to be the wild and uncontrollable forces of nature, there is a spiritual quality to the painting, however, a second glance unveils an ominous, darker narrative. Under a forebodingly turbulent sky, horses move through a tangle of overgrown brush and fallen trees. The eye finally rests on a dilapidated windmill, and only then do the deserted farm buildings come into focus, as does the real meaning of the painting. It is a representation of American society brought to its knees by economic collapse, where even the family farm – iconic national symbol of self-reliance – has come to ruin. The mystical sense of the canvas dissolves into the brutal material reality that people were driven from the land and their properties repossessed by  banks, a story that has once again become sadly familiar to millions of Americans.

"Abandoned" – Millard Sheets. 1933. Oil on canvas. This painting of an abandoned farm has come to symbolize the Great Depression.

"Abandoned" – Millard Sheets. 1933. Oil on canvas. This painting of an abandoned farm has come to symbolize the Great Depression.

Aesthetically speaking, Abandoned is a highly polished and sophisticated painting with a finish that displays few brushstrokes. It is a work that was planned out well in advance, despite its energetic and spontaneous look. Sheets eschewed detail to concentrate on form and composition, and here it is obvious that far from being a conservative painter, he was utilizing abstraction and Modernist aesthetics. One last note regarding Abandoned. While it is generally thought of as a Social Realist comment on depression era America, an interpretation I subscribe to, in reality the artist was inspired to create his canvas after seeing an abandoned farm in Riverside, California. The farm was marked for destruction so that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could build the Prado Dam flood control system.

Terminal Island Fish Harbor – Millard Sheets. 1935. Oil on canvas. Here the artist gives us a glimpse of the traditional West coast fishing industry as it existed at Terminal Island in San Pedro, California before the outbreak of WWI.

"Terminal Island Fish Harbor" – Millard Sheets. 1935. Oil on canvas. Here the artist gives us a glimpse of the West coast fishing industry as it existed at Terminal Island in San Pedro, California before the outbreak of WWII.

Terminal Island Fish Harbor is a painting that immediately caught my eye. No reproduction could possibly do justice to this extraordinary work depicting a historic harbor near Long Beach, California.

Sheets managed to capture the fading light of a California sunset with incredible accuracy, the golden light illuminating a scene of fisherman at their work.

The dominant palette is hot; pastel yellows, oranges, and reds, brilliantly counterpoised by the cool blues of deep harbor waters. Despite the high degree of realism, a close up look at Terminal Island reveals a modern painterly approach, a detail in the upper left corner of the painting giving the best example of this. From a distance the wood buildings looming over the docked fishing boats seem almost photographic; a close examination however reveals heavy impasto layers of paint that have been incised with the sharp end of the artist’s brush, giving the illusion of weather worn wooden planks. I stood before this painting for the longest time, marveling at the artist’s technical prowess. It was my favorite work in the exhibit and well worth the price of admission to view all by itself.

Artistic virtuosity aside, the painting is astounding for another reason. With his canvas, Sheets captured an important and historic slice of life from Southern California. Terminal Island has a long history; for generations it was occupied by the Tongva/”Gabrieleno” Indians, in fact it was the Tongva who greeted the Spanish in 1542 when the explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed in what is now known as San Pedro, California. When Sheets created his canvas in 1935, Terminal Island was almost entirely inhabited by first and second-generation Japanese, who had established a productive fishing industry there. In a 1977 interview conducted with the Oral History Program of the University of California Los Angeles, Sheets said the following:

“I spent a tremendous amount of time at the old Terminal Island fish harbor down in Long Beach, when they had a fantastic city of Japanese. There must have been 3,000 Japanese. Most of them couldn’t speak a word of English. They were all from Japan. All the customs and their festivals and the Sumo wrestlers, these marvelous big wrestlers that they had. I’ve seen all of the festivals down there. I used to see them three or four or five times a year, and I’d go down there and camp right on the dock. They all knew me, and I painted down there literally for years.”

In Terminal Island, the men on the docks pulling in the massive fishing nets were undoubtedly Japanese-Americans, but the vibrant community Sheets documented in his painting would met its doom just seven years after the artist finished his canvas. In the immediate aftermath of the December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japan, all Japanese-American adult males living on the island were arrested by the FBI. Subsequently, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which called for all persons of Japanese ancestry living in the U.S. to be locked up in “internment camps.” The entire Japanese-American community on Terminal Island was arrested, had its property seized, and was shipped off to prison camps. The traditional Japanese village on the island was entirely demolished, never to be rebuilt.

New High Street – Millard Sheets. 1930. Oil on canvas. A view of the unfashionable working class area of old downtown Los Angeles. New High Street was located near L.A.’s City Hall, which had been completed just two years prior to Sheet making this painting.

"New High Street" – Millard Sheets. 1930. Oil on canvas. A view of the working class area of old downtown Los Angeles. New High Street was located near L.A.’s City Hall, which had been completed two years prior to Sheets making this painting.

Also on display at the PMCA, the painting New High Street had great personal resonance for me.

It depicts a working class neighborhood in the old downtown area of Los Angeles that was bisected by New High Street, an avenue located between Sunset Boulevard and Temple Street, the vicinity where L.A.’s civic center would be built.

In fact, when Sheets painted this canvas in 1930, the construction of L.A. City Hall had been finished just two years earlier. The canvas shows an immigrant family’s old wooden house on a hill above New High Street, laundry hanging on the back porch and a little girl feeding chickens in the yard.

The reason I am fascinated with this painting – aside from its technical brilliance – is that my mother grew up in depression era Los Angeles. She lived with her mother, Anita Murieta, in a train boxcar parked on rented land in an L.A. suburb, where they grew vegetables and raised chickens to help make ends meet. Except for only slightly different circumstances and location, Sheets’ painting could have had my mother’s childhood as its theme. Everyday my mother’s mom would walk to the Pacific “Red Car” electric trolley station, riding the train to downtown L.A. where she would labor in the area around New High Street. Sheets’ painting echoes my own family connection to the City of Los Angeles.

New High Street – Millard Sheets. Detail. A close-up view reveals that the entire painting was created using quick, heavy brush strokes and thick impasto from a palette knife.

"New High Street" – Millard Sheets. Detail. A close-up view reveals that the entire painting was created using quick, heavy brush strokes and thick impasto from a palette knife.

New High Street is also a tour de force when it comes to direct “wet on wet” painting, and close scrutiny gives an idea of how the entire canvas was painted.

The little girl feeding the chickens was seemingly created from only two-dozen paint loaded brush strokes, applying only five colors (yellow ochre , cadmium red, burnt sienna, flake white, and ivory black). A single deft stroke of a brush laden with cadmium red and burnt sienna produced the girl’s arm, likewise, expertly dragging a brush loaded with ivory black over a wet field of white mixed with burnt sienna, produced the child’s pigtails.

This method tells you the canvas was painted spontaneously and on the fly, without a sketch or underpainting. Sheets’ had developed a personal calligraphic visual language that allowed him to create highly developed realistic scenes that were in actuality little more than short-hand oil sketches.

The painting Deep Canyon is related to New High Street, thematically as well as aesthetically. It is another of Sheets’ Social Realist examinations of poor working class neighborhoods. Keeping details to a minimum, the artist painted the urban jungle from brush strokes laden with paint, troweling on paint with a palette knife, and wiping, scraping, and incising the paint surface to various effect.

Deep Canyon – Millard Sheets. Circa 1930s. Oil on canvas. A Social Realist examination of a poor working class neighborhood.

"Deep Canyon" – Millard Sheets. Circa 1930s. Oil on canvas. A Social Realist examination of a poor working class neighborhood.

The use of color in this work is breathtaking; deep shadows in warm browns are sharply contrasted by bright hues of red, blue, and green; the skillful application of paint giving the illusion of sunlight streaming through concrete canyons.

The painting is full of movement, from the roiling storm clouds and laundry flapping in the wind, to the frenetic gestures of shoppers and vendors on the avenue.

As with New High Street, there is a remarkable lack of detail to be found in the impressionistically painted Deep Canyon, which in no way impedes the work’s narrative or emotive qualities. While there are a number of people in the scene, none have been painted with facial features – save for the woman carrying chickens in the lower left corner, and her face is blurry and nondescript.

Deep Canyon – Millard Sheets. Detail. A close-up view of the bottom, left of center area of the painting, depicting female shoppers and vendors on the street.

"Deep Canyon" – Millard Sheets. Detail. A close-up view of the bottom, left of center area of the painting, depicting female shoppers and vendors on the street.

Sheets’ handling of the people in his canvas is a skillful blend of caricature and humanistic concern. The rotund women on the stoops in the lower right of the canvas would be comical in appearance, save for the fact that the artist painted them with empathy and somehow imbued them with dignity. The groups of people gathered around the vendor in the green dress are composed of rapid brushstrokes and daubs of paint, yet they convey much life and energy.

Deep Canyon – Millard Sheets. A close-up view of the top, left of center area of the painting, depicting laundry hanging from tenement windows. Sheets' loaded up his bristle brushes with paint and applied nimble brush strokes to great effect.

"Deep Canyon" – Millard Sheets. Detail view of the top, left of center area of the painting, depicting laundry hanging from tenement windows. Sheets' loaded up his bristle brushes with paint and applied nimble brush strokes to great effect.

Clearly Sheets was inspired by Cliff Dwellers, a depiction of crowded tenement housing on New York’s Lower East Side that was painted some 17 years earlier by the celebrated American Social Realist, George Bellows. Unfortunately, the PMCA provided no information about Deep Canyon, the painting’s caption listing neither the date of its creation nor the name of the locality the artist depicted – but I would venture to say it was not a painting of a Los Angeles scene.

Sheets’ Deep Canyon is a far cry from his Tenement Flats, painted in 1933-1934 and not included in the PMCA exhibit. A Great Depression era look at the poor working class neighborhood of Bunker Hill in the downtown area of Los Angeles, the canvas is painted in a strikingly realistic style, and the painting’s every detail, from the porch railings to the patterns on the laundry hung out to dry, was treated with equal attention by the artist. Tenement Flats is also notable for its underlying geometric composition, a nod to the Precisionist art movement – revealing once more the artist’s embrace of Modernist aesthetics.

The larger part of the exhibition is dedicated to Sheets’ watercolor paintings, works that brought him much praise and recognition during his career. Sixty of these watercolors are on display at the PMCA, and they are consummate examples of the discipline of watercolor painting. In these delicate works the artist celebrated the glories of America’s natural wonders in a rapturous, almost paganistic manner, with most of the watercolors recording the splendors of California; massive rolling hills depicted as the very embodiment of the “earth mother,” horses frolicking on abundant plains under expansive skies, the shimmering ocean kissing the craggy coastline – all conveying timelessness and a sense of boundless freedom. Never far behind the artist’s exultant observations of nature was an unshakable humanism, and so a number of his watercolors show people working the land as farmers or as immigrant laborers.

Watercolor paintings on display at the PMCA like Siesta Under the Trees (1936), Camp Near Brawley (1938), and Migratory Camp Near Nipomo (undated), attest to the exploitation of migrant workers in California agriculture. Sheets sympathetically depicted Mexican immigrants and “Okie” migrant workers escaping the Dust Bowl of Midwestern U.S. states, at their backbreaking labor in agricultural fields and at rest in makeshift camps. Sheets’ large watercolor titled Farm Workers is the most hard-hitting of these, portraying impoverished male and female migrant workers in the fields carrying heavy burdens of harvested vegetables under a punishing sun – the exact same painting of California agricultural workers could be made today.

Sheets also traveled to Mexico where he painted village life and landscapes in watercolor. The PMCA exhibit includes three of these works, and here again; the paintings have personal resonance for me. Sheets visited the coastal city of Guaymas, Mexico, in the state of Sonora, where he painted the watercolors. One in particular, Sunny Day in Guaymas (1932), is an enchanting painting that shows a woman wearing a traditional “rebozo” hand-woven shawl. She walks against a back drop of craggy hills, cactus plants, and adobe homes, the same scenery common to historic Los Angeles. That my father was born in Guaymas, and as a two-year-old migrated with his family to San Diego, California, six years prior to Sheets painting the watercolor – completes the picture for me.

Sheets had high regard for the Social Realist artists of Mexico, though he did not share their political radicalism. He said of the Mexican Mural School; “I’ve always been more than excited, just tremendously moved by it.” He had personally met many of the top painters, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, Rufino Tamayo, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. In fact, Sheets was one of the artists who assisted Siqueiros in painting his Worker’s Meeting mural on an outside wall of the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles in 1932, when Siqueiros was briefly in the U.S.

The PMCA exhibit is not without problems, it starts with the assumption that the public is familiar with the life and work of Sheets – if only that were the case. The most discernible problem is the museum’s negligence to provide adequate captions for the works. The majority of labels give no information beyond title and medium, managing even to write “date unknown” on several pieces where the artist clearly signed a work with a legible date. Historical information needed for a full understanding of the artist’s works – and his place within his era – could have been provided as short, concise, paragraphs. The museum catalog for the exhibit, written by its curator, Gordon T. McClelland (an acknowledged authority on California “American Scene” painters), somewhat makes up for this omission, but museum goers should not be required to purchase a book in order to understand an exhibited artist.

Sheets accomplished much during his lifetime as an artist, and the PMCA should have done more to provide insight into his life’s work. That being said, Millard Sheets: The Early Years (1926-1944), is an exhibition not to be missed.

The Good Soldier Schweik

"The Good Soldier Schweik." Illustration of the soldier Joseph Schweik by Czech artist Josef Lada.1923.

"The Good Soldier Schweik." Illustration of the soldier Joseph Schweik by Czech artist Josef Lada. 1923.

A rare presentation of Robert Kurka’s opera, The Good Soldier Schweik, was offered to audiences in Southern California by the Long Beach Opera at the Center Theater in Long Beach on Jan. 23, 2010, and at Barnum Hall in Santa Monica on Jan. 30, 2010. Based on the 1923 antiwar novel by Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek, the opera is scarcely known in the United States and has been infrequently performed since it first premiered in 1958.

I attended the performance in Santa Monica, California and offer this article as a review, but I also wish to familiarize readers with the history of the Schweik tale since it was first published eighty-seven-years ago.

The confluence of talents, historic events, and political lessons embodied in Schweik is nothing less than astounding. While Hašek’s story took place during the First World War – “the War to end all Wars” – the work has continued to resonate throughout the decades. It is especially pertinent now that President Obama is fighting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

I commend Andreas Mitisek, the artistic and general director of the Long Beach Opera company, for staging a boldly anti-militarist production during a time of war. In the Long Beach Opera’s program guide for Schweik, Mitisek states: “The story of Schweik has lost none of its original bite and sarcasm. Seeing it today, you get the sense that we’ve learned some things about war – but not a lot.” It is regrettable that after all the effort the company put into mounting Kurka’s Schweik, only two performances were given. The work deserves a longer run, and hopefully the Long Beach Opera’s efforts will give rise to renewed interest in Kurka’s magnum opus.

Sergeant Vanek (left: played by Mark Bringelson) and Joseph Schweik (played by Mathew DiBattista), on patrol at the front during the opera’s closing scene. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Mark Bringelson (left: playing Sergeant Vanek) and Mathew DiBattista (playing Joseph Schweik), perform in the Long Beach Opera production of "The Good Soldier Schweik" on Jan. 30, 2010. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Of Czech descent, Robert Kurka (1921-1957) was born just outside of Chicago, Illinois. Mostly self-taught when it came to music composition, he nevertheless had a burgeoning career in the field due to his extraordinary talent.

After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1951 and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1952, he made up his mind that same year to compose an opera based on Hašek’s antiwar novel. Why exactly he chose to do so is unknown, but whatever the reason for his decision he picked an inopportune moment in history for his endeavor. The United States began fighting the Korean War on June 25, 1950, a bloody conflict that would end in stalemate on July 17, 1953. It should go without saying that the powers that be in the U.S. were in no mood for pacifist messages in art, not only that, but American society was in the throes of the frenzied anticommunism of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Set in that context, Kurka’s resolve to write an antiwar opera can be considered an act of defiance.

As work proceeded on his opera Kurka was stricken with leukemia. He continued to labor at his composition, fashioning a brilliant modernist fusion of folk, jazz, and classical idioms. His score was created for a small orchestra without strings, focusing exclusively on percussion, brass, and wind instruments in order to produce a sound evocative of marching rhythms and martial music. The opera shared much with the theatrical works of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht – especially with their magnificent proletarian opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Kurka developed a musical language that described the absurdity of war as expressed in Hašek’s original antiwar novel, and he was just able to finish the opera when he died of his illness on December 12, 1957, ten days before his 36th birthday. Only months after Kurka’s tragic death, The Good Soldier Schweik premiered at the New York City Opera in April 1958.

In Act II – Scene 1 of the opera, a member of the ruling class, the Baroness Von Botzenheim (played by mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell) visits a military field hospital to "comfort" soldiers on their way to be slaughtered at the frontline. Bringing gifts of sausages, candies, and toothbrushes, she sings: "Brave soldiers, going off to war, day and night, night and day. While you fight, we will pray. God knows what you’re fighting for." Photo by Mark Vallen ©

In Act II – Scene 1 of the opera, a member of the ruling class, the Baroness Von Botzenheim, visits a military field hospital to "comfort" soldiers on their way to be slaughtered at the front. Bringing gifts of sausages and candies, she sings: "Brave soldiers, going off to war, day and night, night and day. While you fight, we will pray. God knows what you’re fighting for." Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell played the Baroness in the Long Beach Opera production of "The Good Soldier Schweik" on Jan. 30, 2010. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Following the overture of The Good Soldier Schweik, the opera’s prologue commences with the appearance of “A Gentleman of the Kingdom of Bohemia,” a dandy in a bowler hat who proclaims that “Great times call for great men.” He continues his narrative by telling the audience that “modest, unrecognized heroes without Napoleon’s glory” exist, men and women who are “Greater than Alexander the Great.” He speaks of “a common man, the kind it’s easy to like,” introducing “a very plain fellow called Schweik.” With the opera’s egalitarian tone set, the black comedy farce unfolds.

Kurka had picked Abel Meeropol (1903-1986) to write the libretto for his opera, and Meeropol produced a witty and sometimes devastating libretto. He was Jewish and a teacher in New York City, but he was also a skilled writer of poems and songs. Troubled that anti-semitism would prevent his advancement in the field of writing, he published his works under the pseudonym of “Lewis Allan.” Meeropol had a second reason for using a nom de plume; he was a member of the American Communist Party. In 1937 he wrote the words and music to a hauntingly poetic song he titled Strange Fruit, a work that protested the lynching of African-Americans in the Southern United States. By 1939 the Blues singer Billie Holiday recorded the song, and her record reached No. 16 on the American music charts. Strange Fruit is still considered to be a signature work for Holiday.

In 1941 Meeropol was made to appear before the anti-communist Rapp-Coudert Committee (1940-1942), a precursor to the anti-communist campaigns waged in the 1950s by Joe McCarthy and HUAC. Headed by Senators Herbert Rapp and Frederic Coudert, the committee conducted “investigations” into the presence of communists in the public schools of New York. As a result of the witch hunt, dozens of teachers were dismissed and had their reputations ruined. Meeropol was questioned as to whether or not the American Communist Party ordered him to write Strange Fruit, but he escaped further badgering from the committee when he answered that the party had nothing to do with the writing of the song.

In 1950 the U.S. government charged Julius and Ethel Rosenberg with attempting to pass nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. The couple were tried and convicted of the charges and sentenced to death. During this period, anti-communism in the U.S. reached a fever pitch, and it must be noted that Kurka was working on his opera in the middle of all of this. On June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs were executed by electric chair, leaving their little boys Michael and Robert orphaned. Abel Meeropol and his wife Anne would adopt the boys. In a March 2009 interview with Robert Meeropol, Guardian journalist Joanna Moorhead wrote: “It seems hard for us to understand, but the paranoia of the McCarthy era was such that many people – even family members – were terrified of being connected with the Rosenberg children, and many people who might have cared for them were too afraid to do so. After he and his wife had adopted the boys, says Meeropol, Abel didn’t get any work as a writer throughout most of the 1950s. ‘I can’t say he was blacklisted, but it definitely looks as though he was at least greylisted.’” There is little doubt that U.S. authorities kept an eye on Abel Meeropol, and that Kurka fell under suspicion for working with him.

Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek as a member of the Soviet Red Army in 1920. Hašek was attached to the political department of the 5th army, where he worked on the Red Army newspaper.

Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek as a member of the Soviet Red Army in 1920. Hašek was attached to the political department of the 5th army, where he worked on the Red Army newspaper.

To fully appreciate Kurka’s opera it is necessary to have some understanding of author Jaroslav Hašek (1883-1923) and his satiric novel, The Good Soldier Schweik (also spelled Schwejk or Švejk), one of the greatest antiwar books of all time. In the story Hašek detailed the life and times of his fictional character, the rotund and mild-mannered Joseph Schweik, who is inducted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to fight against the Allied Powers in World War I (1914-1918). An enthusiastic patriot, Schweik is also a lumbering idiot who, in his zealotry to carry out the orders of his superiors, succeeds only in creating havoc. But one is never certain if Schweik’s ineptness reveals his true nature or if it is clever posturing as a means of self-preservation. Whatever the case, his foul-ups keep him from reaching the war’s blood-spattered frontline, until the story’s ending, when he finally arrives at the front but disappears without a trace while on patrol.

A colorful character, as a young man Hašek was an anarchist militant before he became completely engrossed in his writing. At the outbreak of WWI the wild bohemian, writer, and radical anarchist found himself inducted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and sent to the frontline trenches to fight against the Allied Powers; it is not hard to see that The Good Soldier story was to some degree autobiographical. While he had already invented his Schweik character and had previously written stories about him, it was during the travails of war that Hašek began to “flesh out” the character; transforming him into a good-natured buffoon that became a menace to the forces of militarism.

In 1915 Hašek was captured by the Russians and placed in a prisoner of war camp before his captors decided to employ him as a propagandist. When the Russian monarchy and its army collapsed with the 1917 Soviet revolution, Hašek joined the Bolsheviks, becoming a political commissar in the Red Army. Hašek’s allegiance to communism proved as tenuous as his loyalty to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after some years of living in the Soviet Union he returned to Prague in 1920, throwing himself in earnest into the completion of his Schweik novel.

Heavy drinking and ill-health overtook Hašek, who struggled to finish his masterwork. He became so sick that he stopped writing altogether, dictating to assistants the final chapters of Schweik from his sickbed. He died of tuberculosis on January 3, 1923, at the age of 40; it was said that he had completed some 1,500 literary works during his lifetime – but alas Schweik would not be one of them. Hašek had planned on Schweik running six volumes in length, but he had only created three volumes when he died (a forth was published posthumously). His old friend Josef Lada created marvelous illustrations for all the volumes, and it is his artworks that defined the bumbling good soldier. Years after his death Hašek came to be accepted as one of the most important of all Czech writers, and The Good Soldier Schweik – having been translated into 60 languages – is still the most well known work of fiction by a Czech author.

Stage design for Piscator’s 1928 production of "The Good Soldier Schweik," showing backdrop projected images by George Grosz.

Stage design for Piscator’s 1928 stage play production of "The Good Soldier Schweik," showing backdrop projected images by George Grosz.

I first learned of Hašek’s masterpiece years ago through my studies of the German Expressionist movement of the late 1920s. Because of its disdain for militarism the Schweik novel was appreciated by broad sectors of the German public, who had been impoverished and exhausted by WWI. The intelligentsia embraced the story for its pacifism and defiance of conservative social order. In 1928 Erwin Piscator (1893-1966), the German Marxist director and producer of political theater during the years of the Weimar Republic, developed a landmark stage play adaptation of The Good Soldier Schweik that he presented at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz in Berlin.

Drawing by George Grosz for "Hintergrund: 17 Zeichnungen zur Aufführung des Schwejk in der Piscator-Bühne" (Background: 17 designs for the performance of the Schwejk in the Piscator stage). Published in 1928 by the Malik-Verlag Berlin publishing house, this portfolio contains reproductions of 17 drawings created by Grosz as stage background images for the stage play, "The Good Soldier Schwejk." This particular image was the portfolio’s title page.

Drawing by George Grosz for "Hintergrund: 17 Zeichnungen zur Aufführung des Schwejk in der Piscator-Bühne" (Background: 17 designs for the performance of the Schweik in the Piscator stage). Published in 1928 by the Malik-Verlag Berlin publishing house, this portfolio contains reproductions of 17 drawings created by Grosz as stage background images for the stage play, "The Good Soldier Schweik." This particular image was the portfolio’s title page.

Piscator commissioned prominent playwright Hans Reimann (1889-1969) to write the play’s script, and Bertolt Brecht assisted in writing the adaptation. Edmund Meisel (1894-1930) who just three years earlier had scored the music for Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, was commissioned to compose the music. The character of Schweik was played by the famed actor Max Pallenberg. Artist George Grosz created the stage backgrounds for the play, making hundreds of pen and ink drawings for the production. His drawings were made into an animated film that was back-projected onto the stage to coincide with the play’s action – a groundbreaking theatrical technique common to Piscator’s productions. The Long Beach Opera utilized Piscator’s idea of projected images, but its choice of images was much less effective.

"Schwejk: The Actor Max Pallenberg." George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Grosz created this portrait of the Opera’s leading man playing the part of Schweik the soldier This drawing was plate no. 1 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio, and carried the title of; "Beg to report, Sir, I am an idiot."

"Schweik: The Actor Max Pallenberg." George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Grosz created this portrait of the play’s leading man as Schweik. This drawing was plate no. 1 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio, and was titled, "Beg to report, Sir, I am an idiot."

Piscator’s theories concerning what he called “epic theater” transformed the stage presenting Schweik into a motorized “arena for battling ideas,” in fact mechanized treadmills moved actors about on stage – in one scene allowing actors dressed as soldiers to march off to war without actually moving.

The intent behind Piscator’s theatrical work was to prevent audiences from losing themselves in the illusion of theater, instead making them focus on socio-political ideas. The young Bertolt Brecht would be inspired by Piscator’s ideas, making them his own.

The Schweik production included projected still photographs on the stage and auditorium walls – news headlines and text, as well as projections of motion picture films (Grosz’s animation, footage of war, and the like).

The projections were combined with other theatrical devices: audio recordings and electronic sounds, actors emerging from the audience, and giant military maps as stage scenery. Grosz wrote the following regarding his role in the Piscator production:

“It is a fact that here Erwin has created a great new area for the graphic artists to work in, a veritable graphic arena, more tempting for graphic artists of today than all that stuffy aesthetic business or the hawking around of drawings in bibliophile editions for educated nobs. Here’s a chance for our often quoted latter-day Daumiers to paint their gloomy prophecies on the walls. What a medium, though, for the artist who wants to speak to the masses, purely and simply.

Naturally a new area requires new techniques, a new clear and concise language of graphic style – certainly a great opportunity for teaching discipline to the muddleheaded and confused! And there’s nothing to be achieved with your careless impressionist brush, either. The line must be cinematographic – clear, simple, but not too thin, because of over-exposure; furthermore it must be hard, something like the drawings and woodcuts in Gothic block books, or the massive stone carvings on the pyramids.”

"Kein schoner Tod." (Not a Nice Way of Dying). George Grosz. Black chalk. 1927. Plate no. 12 in the Hintergrund portfolio, this drawing also appeared in another portfolio of prints by Grosz titled, Die Gezeichneten (The Designated). In that portfolio the print had the title of "Mir ist der Krieg wie eine Badekur bekommen" (The War Did Me a Lot of Good, Like a Spa).

"Kein schoner Tod." (Not a Nice Way of Dying). George Grosz. Black chalk. 1927. Plate no. 12 in the Hintergrund portfolio, this drawing also appeared in another portfolio of prints by Grosz titled, Die Gezeichneten (The Designated). In that portfolio the print had the title of "Mir ist der Krieg wie eine Badekur bekommen" (The War Did Me a Lot of Good, Like a Spa).

Grosz’s projected drawings helped to move the drama along by emphasizing aspects of the Schweik tale, but the artworks also transcended the story, becoming universal in their condemnation of war and its causes. The audience could see that Grosz was criticizing the renewed warlike direction of Germany’s ruling class, and if his projected images were not unsettling enough, Grosz would up the ante by publishing a number of the drawings in book form.

He collaborated with Wieland Herzfelde (founder of the Malik-Verlag Berlin publishing house and also the brother of well-known artist John Heartfield), in issuing a portfolio of reproductions titled, Background: 17 designs for the performance of the Schweik in the Piscator stage. The publication of the book caused a major uproar; what had been ephemeral projections could now be held in the hands of increasingly powerful critics.

Three drawings from the portfolio, Shut up and soldier on!, Bow to the Authorities, and The pouring out of the Holy Spirit, led to a right-wing campaign against Grosz and Herzfelde that resulted in the authorities charging the two with blasphemy and placing them on trial in 1928; it turned out to be one of the longest running and closely watched blasphemy trials in history.

The essence of Grosz’s drawing, The pouring out of the Holy Spirit, would be preserved by Meeropol in his libretto for Kurka’s opera in Act II, Scene Two, “Okay, let’s pray!”. In attempting to explain his Shut up and soldier on! drawing to a judge, Grosz said the following:

“This drawing was created as a cover on the book about Schweik. In one of the chapters there’s the following scene – I’ll give you the gist, because I can’t remember it exactly. Well, there are these two soldiers lying on a bed in a cell, I think, and they’re telling each other stories about their war experiences. They grumble about the war. One says to the other something like: Well, shut up and soldier on. As I read this account the drawing took shape in my imagination. I imagined that Christ might come now… They would grab him, hand him a gas mask, put him into army boots, in short, they wouldn’t understand him at all.” [Taken from notes of the blasphemy trial, published in Das Tagebuch, 1928].

"Maul halten und weiter dienen." (Shut up and soldier on!). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde (brother of John Heartfield) were accused and tried on blasphemy charges for this drawing, which originally served as a backdrop image in the Opera, "The Good Soldier," but was later published in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

"Maul halten und weiter dienen." (Shut up and soldier on!) George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde (brother of John Heartfield) were accused and tried on blasphemy charges for this drawing, which originally served as a backdrop image in the play, "The Good Soldier Schweik," but was later published in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

After numerous trials and retrials, Grosz and Hezfelde were acquitted in 1931, but the Schweik drawings and their printing plates were confiscated by the court and destroyed. The social forces of the burgeoning Nazi movement had scored a major victory. When Hitler came to power two years later, The Good Soldier Schweik became one of the many thousands of books destroyed during the massive public book-burnings organized by the Nazi party on May 10, 1933. Hašek’s book was burned because it was considered “pacifist literature,” but books by “Marxists,” “liberals,” “Jews,” and anyone considered to be “un-German” were thrown onto the bonfires as well. Books by Piscator, Brecht, Grosz, and Herzfelde were also added to what the Nazis called the “funeral pyre of the intellect.”

"Die Obrigkeit." (The Authorities). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. This print had the subtitle of: "Seid untertan der Obrigkeit (Bow to the Authorities). Plate no. 2 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing.

"Die Obrigkeit." (The Authorities). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. This print had the subtitle of: "Seid untertan der Obrigkeit" (Bow to the Authorities). Plate no. 2 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing.

To escape Nazi persecution Grosz would flee to the U.S. in 1932. Herzfelde went underground soon after, finally escaping to Prague in 1933. Working on a film in the Soviet Union in 1933, Piscator found himself in exile when Hitler came to power. He became disillusioned with the Soviet Union under the leadership of Stalin and by 1936 he move to France, finally emigrating to the U.S. in 1939.

Piscator was invited to found a Dramatic Workshop at New York’s The New School, where his students included Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Tony Curtis, Shelley Winters, and many others. Ironically, the anti-communist hysteria of McCarthyism drove Piscator from America. His associate and fellow exile in the U.S., Bertolt Brecht, was hauled up before HUAC on October 30, 1947, and harshly interrogated regarding his political sympathies. The next day Brecht left the U.S. for Europe. Piscator did not wait to receive his subpoena, he returned to West Germany in 1951 to avoid the witch-hunts.

"Ausschuttung des heiligen Geistes." (The pouring out of the Holy Spirit). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing. Plate no. 9 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

"Ausschuttung des heiligen Geistes." (The pouring out of the Holy Spirit). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing. Plate no. 9 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

Piscator’s technical ideas regarding the staging of the Schweik play clearly have had an influence on theatre and opera over the decades. His concepts like projected backdrops, stage hands incorporated into the action as they shuffled props on and off stage, and actors performing in the aisles amongst the audience, were incorporated into the Long Beach Opera production. However, Piscator meant to provoke his audience into taking sides against war and those who profit from it, while the Long Beach Opera placed its emphasis on entertainment.

Given the profundity of Kurka’s material it would be impossible not to impart some level of political insight, and such moments were plentiful in the Long Beach Opera production. In Act I – Scene Four, Schweik finds himself in a cell at police headquarters after having been arrested for allegedly speaking against the Emperor. Many others are also in the jail for the very same offense, and all are worried about being brutalized and tortured at the hands of the police. Schweik, assuring his fellow jailbirds that things are not so bad, sings:

“I once read in a book where it said, you had to dance on red-hot iron and drink molten lead. You were shot or hanged, burned or slaughtered, and as a special event, drawn and quartered. They split you open or chopped your head, you might be innocent but you were also dead. There’s no quartering here or things of that kind, it’s improved for our benefit I’m glad to find. We’ve got a mattress, a table, a seat, they bring us soup and water and bread to eat, the slop pot is right there under your nose, a lot of progress is what it shows.”

"Der Lebensbaum." (Tree of Life). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Executed prisoners hang from a tree made out of the "§" symbol used to denote German legal articles. Plate no. 4 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

"Der Lebensbaum." (Tree of Life). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Executed men hang from a tree made of the "§" symbol used to denote German legal articles. No. 4 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

As with a number of scenes in the opera, the action in Scene Four transcends the period setting of 1914, in fact it is hard not to think of the present when hearing about the “progress” made in the handling of prisoners held by certain governments. Surely waterboarding is an improvement over being drawn and quartered – yes, a lot of progress is what it shows!

The ending scenes of the Long Beach Opera production could hardly have concluded on a more profound note. In Act II – Scene Seven, the character of Schweik at last finds himself at the front. On the stage backdrop a gigantic image is projected, a terrible scene of utter desolation; shattered and blackened skeletal trees and bomb craters cast in blue light. From behind the stage backdrop the orchestra begins the somber music for the song, “Wait for the ragged soldiers.” Groups of wounded troops walk onto the stage – collapsing, exhausted, dying, as they sing their foreboding song:

“Wait for the ragged soldiers, watch for the ragged men with their sunken faces, holding their blood-red wounds with their hands. No sound of drums when they come, no trumpets blow when they come, no flags at the gate. Wait for the ragged soldiers. Wait…wait and watch for the ragged, watch for the tired men marching slowly homeward. Men… homeward. (….) Coat sleeves armless, legless, sightless. Angry, angry, angry men, angry men. No sound of drums when they come, No!”

Act II – Scene 7. Joseph Schweik and Sergeant Vanek at the bomb blasted battle front. A group of wounded soldiers trudge by, collapsing one by one into muddy trenches as they sing: "Wait for the ragged soldiers, watch for the ragged men, with their sunken faces, holding their blood-red wounds with their hands. No sound of drums when they come, no trumpets blow when they come, no flags at the gate."  Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Act II – Scene 7. Joseph Schweik and Sergeant Vanek at the bomb blasted battle front. A group of wounded soldiers trudge by, collapsing one by one into muddy trenches as they sing: "Wait for the ragged soldiers." Photo of the Jan. 30, 2010, Long Beach Opera production of "The Good Soldier Schweik" taken by Mark Vallen ©

Patrolling the battlefield, Schweik and Sergeant Vanek enter the scene carrying their guns; here the production has been updated to good effect.

Rather than carrying WWI era bolt action rifles, the two soldiers are armed with modern automatic assault rifles, reminders that the sentiments of this opera are not rooted in the past, but relevant and applicable to the world as it is today.

Lost in the landscape of mangled barbed-wire and stinking corpses, Schweik and Vanek argue over which direction to take. Vanek insists that his military map indicates a right turn, Schweik shrugs and says, “Maps are sometimes wrong.” The two cannot agree on how to advance, so they part, going separate ways.

Schweik watches the Sergeant disappear into the blackened wasteland of destruction, waves goodbye, and lays down his gun. As the character of Schweik begins to walk off stage, he sings: “I’ll take a quiet road where forget-me-nots grow, along a clear stream where soft breezes blow. I’ll take it easy for the rest of the day and pick some meadow flowers on the way. I’ll take a quiet road and I’ll lie in the sun, for birds and butterflies, I won’t need my gun.” His song over, Schweik vanishes.

In the opera’s epilogue the gentleman of Bohemia returns, stepping out of the darkness and into a spotlight to find Schweik’s abandoned gun. The gentleman sings the opera’s final words: “Schweik, Schweik, where did he go? He just disappeared and that’s all we know. Some say they saw him at a much later day, sipping a drink at a little café. And others will swear he was seen on the street, and lost in the crowd before they could meet. Schweik, Schweik, the Good Soldier Schweik, the kind of fellow that fellow men like. In one place or other he’s sure to be found. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s somewhere around.”

[ More information on Robert Kurka’s opera, The Good Soldier Schweik: Song lyrics and a synopsis of the opera’s storyline, can be found on the Cedille Records website in .pdf format. An excellent recording of the opera performed by the Chicago Opera Theater and released by Cedille Records can be purchased from Amazon, where you can also hear song excerpts. An English language edition of Jaroslav Hašek’s Schweik novel, with illustrations by Josef Lada can also be purchased on Amazon.]

Why Beauty Matters

Detail of Sandro Botticelli’s 1482-1486 tempera on canvas painting, Birth of Venus (La Nascita di Venere), as used in the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

Detail of Sandro Botticelli’s 1482-1486 tempera on canvas painting, "Birth of Venus" (La Nascita di Venere), as used in the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

In November of 2009 the BBC network in the UK ran The Modern Beauty Season, a series of films produced for television on the concept of beauty in modern art. The series offered six films that ran the gambit of opinion on contemporary art, but it is the film by the conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton, Why Beauty Matters, that I wish to address here.

As a working artist I found myself in general agreement with some points made in Scruton’s film; that appreciating and creating things of beauty is a necessary part of the human experience, that beauty is “a value as important as truth and goodness,” that it has been central to civilization, and that “it is not just a subjective thing, but a universal need of human beings.” We agree that there is a spiritual aspect to beauty - though we would likely disagree over a definition of “spiritual.” So yes, beauty does indeed matter, and I am of the opinion that it should be central in all the various disciplines of the arts; but perhaps my definition of such an elusive and ephemeral thing as beauty is more expansive than Mr. Scruton’s, whose vision seems to be restricted to what is known as European “classicism.” I am at variance with a number of his assumptions and inferences; the particulars of my differences are in part laid out in this article.

Postmodern art makes for an easy target, as it is has altogether forsaken skill, craft, and beauty - the very things most people think of when considering the arts. Postmodern artists from the late 1960s to the early 1970s attempted to remove art from the marketplace by creating “conceptual” works, i.e., performance, video, installation, etc., instead of merchandise for market consumption. We have seen how well that worked out. The art movement that previously strove for the “dematerialization of the art object,” as pro-conceptualist art critic and activist Lucy Lippard put it in 1973, has today placed itself in unwavering service to the elite art establishment it once sought to circumvent. Capitalism co-opted and absorbed conceptual art, which has become more of a commodity fetish than any of its other art world predecessors; it is synonymous with astronomical prices, billionaire art collectors, and shamelessly venal celebrity art stars - all good enough reasons to disparage it in my view. But that is my critique, not Roger Scruton’s.

"Zuerst die Füsse" (Feet First) Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997). Painted wood sculpture created in 1990. Shown in "Why Beauty Matters."

"Zuerst die Füsse" (Feet First) Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997). Painted wood sculpture created in 1990. Shown in "Why Beauty Matters."

In Why Beauty Matters the soft-spoken and erudite Scruton makes a populist argument against much of contemporary art that will no doubt strike a chord with significant numbers of people. But seeing as how the general public is largely indifferent to the goings-on of the art world, Scruton’s presentation provides surprisingly little insight into the field of art, instead he sets up a straw man, fueling the fires of misunderstanding by focusing on the more egregious examples of postmodern excess (for instance, Turner Prize winner Martin Creed’s Sick Film Work 610), then suggesting that liberal elites, moral dissipation, and the loss of religion are the reasons behind such works being produced. What I find interesting is that Scruton does not explicitly state such opinion in his film, he alludes to it - but he reveals his stance with more clarity and honesty in his writings. For example, in a 2006 essay titled Quo vadis? (Latin for, “Where are you going?”) he uncategorically declared his position:

“We cannot rescue our civilization merely by overthrowing the Marxist, post-Marxist, deconstructionist and postmodern ideologies that inhabit the universities. Even if we returned to the classical curriculum, and taught European culture as it was taught to me, that would not bring back the public consensus on which our civilization depends. (….) The most important thing on which European people can be encouraged to agree is that our inheritance is Judaeo-Christian, and that the Bible, and the two religions built on it, are an indispensable part of our culture.”

There are moments in Why Beauty Matters where Scruton sounds like a critic of the capitalist culture industry, as in the following comment;

“Our consumer society puts usefulness first, and beauty is no better than a side-effect. Since art is useless it doesn’t matter what you read, what you look at, what you listen to. We are besieged by messages on every side, titillated - tempted by appetite - never addressed, and that is one reason why beauty is disappearing from our world. ‘Getting and spending’ wrote Wordsworth ‘we lay waste our powers.’ In our culture today the advert is more important than the work of art, and artworks often try to capture our attention as adverts do, by being brash or outrageous. (….) Like adverts, today’s works of art aim to create a brand - even if they have no product to sell, except themselves.”

On the surface level Scruton’s remarks may have a ring of truth to them, but ultimately his critique boils down to right-wing populism, never attributing the crisis in modern art to the pernicious role of money - as did Robert Hughes in his fabulous The Mona Lisa Curse - but to liberalism and the waning influence of religion in the West. Why Beauty Matters is very nearly ahistorical in its presentation.

Detail of the marble sculpture, Ecstasy of St. Teresa, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). An outstanding architect and perhaps the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, Bernini originated the Baroque style of sculpture - of which his Ecstasy of St. Teresa (created 1647-52) is a primary example. Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

Detail of the marble sculpture, "Ecstasy of St. Teresa," by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). An outstanding architect and perhaps the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, Bernini originated the Baroque style of sculpture - of which his "Ecstasy of St. Teresa" (created 1647-52) is a primary example. Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

While Scruton points out how certain philosophers of old influenced the world of European art, and he briefly makes mention of the substantial impact science had upon the arts, he never once mentions the central issue of patronage - a deciding factor in art history. In the film Scruton takes an almost mystical approach in describing how spirituality and religion have historically been linked to concepts of beauty, while completely ignoring the role of the Church as the primary financial backer and authority in the arts. Likewise, he ignores the role of monarchists and other ruling elites, who also tightly controlled art by way of patronage. Artists did not begin to free themselves of this rigid control until the early 19th century.

In one of his recently published articles, Beauty and Desecration, Scruton wrote that “Modern artists like Otto Dix too often wallow in the base and the loveless.” That observation reveals much about Scruton, and how the two of us have divergent concepts of what is beautiful. Dix lived through one of the most tumultuous periods of German history. He fought in the trenches of World War I where he saw humanity ripped to shreds in the world’s first mechanized war. At war’s end he became politicized, and through his art expressed disdain for militarism and Germany’s ruling class. He witnessed the fall of the German monarchy, the rise of the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi seizure of power. In their brutal repression of the arts, the Nazis removed Dix from the Prussian Academy and his professorship at the Dresden Art Academy - his dismissal letter declaring that his art “threatened to sap the will of the German people to defend themselves.”

"Lady with Mink and Veil" - Otto Dix. Oil on Linen. 1920. Dix painted this portrait of an old war widow forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive.

"Lady with Mink and Veil" - Otto Dix. Oil on Linen. 1920. Dix painted this portrait of an old war widow forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive.

Dix was forbidden to exhibit by the Nazis, they removed his artworks from museums and had them destroyed. They included his paintings in their infamous 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit, meant to condemn modern art as the work of Bolsheviks, “Jews,” and the insane. Dix was forcibly conscripted into the fascist home guard in 1945 at the age of 53, captured and later released by the French army at the close of the war. Given that chronicle, it is shocking that Scruton would accuse Dix of wallowing in the “loveless.” What type of art would Scruton have preferred to see Dix paint during that despairing period - inoffensive still lifes? Considering the barbarity that was all around him, it is remarkable that Dix painted anything at all, but even the most distorted of his expressionist grotesqueries contained more truth, and yes, beauty - than all the realistic classical nudes and respectable portraits commissioned by the German bourgeoisie of the period. Dix’s creations were beautiful, simply by virtue of the truths they told.

In Why Beauty Matters Scruton disavows modern architecture, and at one point in the film he takes the viewer on a tour through the community near London where he grew up, “a charming Victorian town with terraced streets and Gothic churches, crowned by elegant public buildings and smart hotels.” Scruton’s community was forever altered starting in the 1960s, when homes were demolished to make way for a substantial number of large office buildings and a bus station that brought people to and from London. Scruton claims the brand new modernist style buildings - “all designed without consideration for beauty” - were proof that “if you consider only utility, the things you build will soon be useless.”

Roger Scruton in his now blighted hometown of Redding, near London. He tells us that: "Beauty is assailed from two directions, by the cult of ugliness in the arts, and by the cult of utility in everyday life. These two cults come together in the world of modern architecture." Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

Roger Scruton in his now blighted hometown of Redding, near London. He tells us that: "Beauty is assailed from two directions, by the cult of ugliness in the arts, and by the cult of utility in everyday life. These two cults come together in the world of modern architecture." Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

Today the office buildings and the bus station are boarded up and abandoned; everything has been vandalized and covered with graffiti. The once thriving community is now dilapidated and in a state of neglect, “but we shouldn’t blame the vandals” Scruton insists, “this place was built by vandals, and those that added the graffiti merely finished the job.”

Standing in front of a large deserted office, Scruton says; “This building is boarded up because nobody has a use for it, nobody has a use for it because nobody wants to be in it, nobody wants to be in it because the thing is so damn ugly.” That assertion is pure demagoguery - of course people have a use for the building! There are countless “ugly” buildings currently serving as vital centers of community life, whether in housing, commerce or government. While some may find uninviting architecture to be depressing, that is not what leads to the collapse of urban centers; cities and towns shut down for economic reasons. The property owners that financed and directed the construction of the buildings Scruton deems offensive have now found it more profitable to close and padlock their properties, or have them razed to the ground; such are the workings of capitalism.

In his analysis of architecture and urban decay Scruton makes no mention of government policy or economics, as if towns and cities collapse into ruin simply because people have an aversion to unsightly architecture. He says nothing of the pressures brought about by layoffs and astronomical unemployment, cuts in government services, privatization, inflation, recession, and an increasingly globalized capitalist economy. He does not talk about the role of banks, real estate firms, and other financial interests that fail to invest in communities considered “unprofitable.” Regarding the decades long collapse of his home town near London, Scruton does not bring up Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, whose economic policies resulted in unrelenting assaults upon the British and Irish working class, the destruction of British industry, and crushing unemployment that by 1982 had put well over 3 million people out of work.

In 1961 Piero Manzoni canned his own excrement in 90 small cans and sold the "edition" as art. Cans are in the permanent collections of the Tate Modern, London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Screen capture from the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

In 1961 Piero Manzoni canned his own excrement in 90 small cans and sold the "edition" as art. Cans are in the permanent collections of the Tate Modern, London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Screen capture from the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

In Why Beauty Matters Scruton seems reluctant to say just who is responsible for all of this unappealing architecture, but as I have previously noted, he is more than willing to lay blame in his published articles. In The modern cult of ugliness, a December 2009 article for the Daily Mail, Scruton lets us know who the culprits are; “official uglification of our world is the work of the ivory-towered elites of the liberal classes - people who have little sympathy for how the rest of us live and who, with their mania for modernizing, are happy to rip up beliefs that have stood the test of time for millennia.”

Roger Scruton’s credentials are impeccable; a Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Oxford University’s Blackfriars Hall, a Research Professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia, a Fellow of the British Academy, and the author of more than 30 books on cultural and political affairs. As should be apparent from reading this article, this learned man is also an ardent conservative. Scruton is quite well-known in Britain for his outspokenness, but less renowned in the U.S., apart from being appreciated in certain right-wing circles. He is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (home to such U.S. neoconservative luminaries as Michael Novak and Irving Kristol - the now deceased “godfather of neoconservatism”).

Mr. Scruton has been a columnist for a number of conservative publications. In Totalitarian Sentimentality, his Dec. 2009 article for the neoconservative journal The American Spectator, Scruton makes clear his view that conservatism best guards all things noble and just, while liberalism is but a hair’s breadth from tyranny and despotism. Scruton’s fervent political conservatism is inseparable from his views on art and culture.

In June of 2006, Scruton was invited to speak in Antwerp, Belgium before the Vlaams Belang (”Flemish Interest”), an extreme right-wing party of Flemish ultra-nationalists who seek the independence of Flanders. Variously described as xenophobic, racist, and fascist by their numerous opponents, the platform of Vlaams Belang calls for; Deportation of all economic immigrants who fail to assimilate, Repeal of anti-racism and anti-discrimination legislation, and full and unconditional amnesty for people convicted of collaboration with Nazi Germany. By having addressed the Vlaams Belang on the subject of his opposition to multiculturalism, Scruton makes it exceedingly difficult for his views on art and culture to be taken seriously - at least by this artist.

Roger Scruton’s Why Beauty Matters is available for viewing on YouTube in 6 parts that are each approximately 10 minutes long. I have summarized each part below. I encourage everyone to view Mr. Scruton’s film in its totality.

UPDATE 2/28/2014: The YouTube video originally linked to in this article was removed. However, the “Documentary Addict” website now offers the complete Why Beauty Matters video.

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 1)
Scruton states in the opening of the film; “In the 20th century, beauty stopped being important. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, and to break moral taboos. It was not beauty but ‘originality,’ however achieved, and at whatever moral cost, that won the prizes. Not only has art made a cult of ugliness, architecture to has become soulless and sterile. (…) One word is writ large on all these ugly things, and that word is ‘Me,’ my profits, my desires, my pleasures, and art has nothing to say in response to this except, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ I think we are losing beauty, and there is a danger that with it, we are losing the meaning of life.” At the end of this clip, Scruton engages postmodern artist Michael Craig-Martin in a discussion about the nature of modern art.

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 2)
Scruton’s conversation with Michael Craig-Martin continues in this section, with a short but quite remarkable conversation about conceptual artist Piero Manzoni - who canned his own excrement and sold it as art. Scruton continues with a general denunciation of modern art as an auxiliary to advertising and hyper-consumerism, before beginning a critique of modern architecture. He targets the “father” of modernist architecture, Louis Sullivan, for his credo of “form follows function.” Scruton avers that “Sullivan’s doctrine has been used to justify the greatest crime against beauty that the world has yet seen - and that is the crime of modern architecture.”

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 3)
In part 3 Scruton continues to assail modern architecture, which he asserts, is so dreadful that “it is there simply to be demolished.” He extols “traditional architecture, with its decorative details,” and tells us that in architecture “ornaments liberate us from the tyranny of the useful, and satisfy our need for harmony.” In the remainder of this clip, Scruton presents the basic precepts behind his philosophy on art.

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 4)
In this clip Scruton describes how the clash between religion and enlightenment ideas impacted the world of art. He mentions the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), an English philosopher and writer who linked beauty with moral virtue - saying the two are “one and the same.” Shaftesbury’s ideas, Scruton tells us; “encouraged the cult of beauty, which raised the appreciation of art and nature to the place once occupied by the worship of God. Beauty was to fill the God shaped hole made by science. Artists were no longer illustrators of the sacred stories, who worked as servants of the church, they were discovering the stories for themselves by interpreting the secrets of nature.” Scruton also touches upon the aesthetical ideas of German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and the Classical Greek philosopher, Plato (429-347 BC).

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 5)
In this clip Scruton explores the connection art has had to the West’s Christian religious traditions, and what he calls the defilement of those traditions by modern art. Scruton insists that art can redeem even the most tragic, sordid, and depraved reality. Here he contrasts Eugene Delacroix’s 1827 painting of the artist’s unmade bed (Un Lit défait), to Tracey Emin’s 1998 My Bed (an actual untidy bed with sheets stained by body secretions, the surrounding floor scattered with condoms, cigarette butts, and soiled underwear. Scruton comments on the juxtaposition; “There is all the difference in the world between a real work of art - which makes ugliness beautiful - and a fake work of art, which shares the ugliness that it shows.”

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 6)
Scruton concludes by saying that art has become “a slave to the consumer culture, feeding our pleasures and addictions and wallowing in self-disgust. That, it seems to me, is the lesson of the ugliest forms of modern art and architecture. They do not show reality, but take revenge on it, spoiling what might have been a home, and leaving us to wander unconsoled and alienated in a spiritual desert. Of course it is true that there is much in the world today that distracts and troubles us. Our lives are full of leftovers, we battle through lies and distraction, and nothing resolves. The right response however, is not to endorse this alienation - it is to look back to the path from the desert; one that will point us to a place where the real and the ideal may still exist in harmony.”

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.

Spencer Jon Helfen: California Modernist Painting

Spencer Jon Helfen Fine Arts is tucked away on the second floor of a charming old building in Beverly Hills, and though most of those living in the city of Los Angeles have never heard of the gallery - it is one of L.A.’s treasures. The founder and director of the enterprise, Spencer Jon Helfen, has a passion for Modernist art of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s - and his gallery specializes in the California School of Modernism that flourished in the state prior to World War II. Helfen’s gallery is an oasis of sorts, a setting where one can contemplate the thought-provoking and beautifully crafted figurative realist paintings that were once so highly regarded by the art world. The Helfen is one of the few galleries in the U.S. to consistently mount large-scale exhibits of California modernist paintings on a regular basis.

I attended the public reception for the Helfen’s current exhibition, Gallery Selections of Important California Modernist Paintings & Sculpture, which presents the Helfen’s latest acquisitions of works from the likes of Mabel Alvarez, Victor Arnautoff, Claude Buck, Francis De Erdely, John Mottram, Koichi Nomiyama, Helen Clark Oldfield, Otis Oldfield, Edouard Vysekal, Bernard Zakheim, and many others. Students and aficionados of figurative realist painting would do well to carefully examine the lives and works of each and every artist in the show, in addition to working at cultivating a deeper understanding of the early California Modernist school. I have an especially strong interest in that movement, not because I am a native born Californian, but for the reason that the school was disposed towards social engagement in art.

In this article I will focus upon two of the forgotten giants of the California Modernist movement included in the Helfen exhibit - Victor Arnautoff and Francis De Erdely. Exemplars of figurative realism, craft, and humanist concerns in art, Arnautoff and De Erdely are ripe for rediscovery, especially by those who seek an alternative to the vortex of today’s postmodern art follies.

Oil painting by Victor Arnautoff

[ Woman in Yellow Fur - Victor Arnautoff. Oil on board. 1934. Click here for a larger view of this painting. ]

Arnautoff’s oil paintings at the Spencer Jon Helfen Gallery, are lavish in detail, stunningly rich in color, and filled with texture - they are jewel-like works of social realism created by a technical virtuoso who possessed complete mastery over his materials. Arnautoff had a great talent for capturing, not just the likeness of a person, but something of their essence, and for me two of his portraits in the show form a focal point of the exhibit. His Woman in Yellow Fur is a stunning close-up portrayal of a young woman who, one must assume, is well-to-do, since she is draped in fur and the date of the portrait, 1934, places her right in the middle of the Great Depression. Her fancy attire notwithstanding, there is a sympathetic air about the woman. Arnautoff’s brushstrokes are particularly forceful in this painting, which is unusual for him. He also incised the paint surface using the sharp end of his brush, brilliantly replicating the appearance of fur. His juxtaposition of the warm yellow ochres and burnt siennas of the figure against the backdrop of a cold and pale ultramarine blue, makes for one attention-grabbing portrait.

Similarly, Arnautoff’s The Green Dress, is also a stunning likeness, but in this work there is absolutely no ambiguity as to the class background of the sitter. The haughty imposing blond with a large strand of pearls around her neck is clearly bourgeois, and her confident, piercing gaze informs you that she is familiar with the wielding of power. A slightly raised eyebrow lets you know that you are being carefully evaluated, even across the barriers of space and time. Again, the light ochre background and warm flesh tones of the sitter juxtaposed against the brilliant cadmium green dress makes for a dramatic use of color. It is a marvelous painting, one that I could gaze upon endlessly. How could such a gifted artist be so easily forgotten and sidelined by the passage of time? Truth be told, Arnautoff was written out of history - for aesthetic and political reasons.

Victor Arnautoff (1896-1979) was born in Tsarist Russia and fought as a Cavalry Officer in the Tsarist Imperial Army, which I suppose would categorize him as a “White Russian”, or counter-revolutionary. Fearing persecution he fled the Soviet Union after the triumph of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, first going into exile in China where he would meet his future wife, and eventually making his way to Mexico, where he would undergo a remarkable transformation both artistically and politically. In the late 1920’s Arnautoff studied with and became an assistant to Diego Rivera in Mexico City, no doubt absorbing the master’s ideas regarding a resurgent muralist movement. Not since the Italian Renaissance had there been such a vital school of fresco mural painting as was to be found in Mexico during the 1930s. Rivera had studied the technique while traveling throughout Italy in 1920. Basically fresco involves painting on wet lime plaster with pigments mixed in water; once the moisture dries the color is fixed. Well-versed in the theory and practice of muralism, Arnautoff would make his real mark on the world when he came to settle in San Francisco, California, in the early 1930s.

Victor Arnautoff would help Diego Rivera paint two murals when the Mexican muralist first visited San Francisco from 1930-31; Allegory of California at the Pacific Stock Exchange, and Making of a Fresco located at the Art Institute of San Francisco. American artists in the San Francisco Bay area and beyond where electrified by Rivera’s murals and by the Mexican Muralist Movement in general, in which they perceived the possibilities of an equivalent muralist school for the United States. They would get their chance to initiate such a movement with the Coit Tower murals, which coincidentally were painted 75 years ago this month.

In 1933 Coit Tower was constructed atop Telegraph Hill as a city beautification project, immediately becoming a landmark attracting tourists. The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first government program to employ artists as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), set out to create a series of monumental fresco paintings on the tower’s interior walls in 1934. The PWAP appointed Victor Arnautoff technical director for the mural project, and twenty-six artists were selected to design various artworks on the theme of “Aspects of California Life.” Ten assistants also facilitated the work, doing everything from mixing pigments to grouting fresh plaster.

The production of the Coit Tower murals converged with two dramatic events that turned the project into a lightning rod for controversy. Diego Rivera’s mural at New York City’s Rockefeller Center, Man at the Crossroads, was destroyed by order of John D. Rockefeller on February 10, 1934, because one small part of the mural included a portrait of communist leader Vladimir Lenin. Many of the artists working on the Coit Tower murals had met Rivera, and were naturally against the destruction of his mural.

Victor Arnautoff and his fellow muralists also supported San Francisco’s longshoremen, seaman, waterfront workers, teamsters, and municipal workers - who went on strike against low wages, long hours and terrible working conditions on May 9, 1934. On July 5, 1934, in an effort to defeat the strike, employers used strike breakers with police escorts to move goods from piers to warehouses - riots ensued, with the police shooting dead two strikers on what came to be called Bloody Thursday. Up to 40,000 people held a funeral march for the slain workers, an event Arnautoff memorialized in a drawing unrelated to the Coit murals. In the aftermath of the lethal police repression, the entire city of San Francisco was shut down in a great General Strike which lasted three days - it was the biggest labor action in U.S. history.

Arnautoff and a number of the other artists working on the Coit Tower murals felt it necessary to comment on these events - and so included certain images in their murals. For instance, in his mural titled Library, artist Bernard Zakheim depicted a group of men gathered in the periodicals room of a library, reading newspapers whose headlines referred to the destruction of Rivera’s mural as well as to the San Francisco maritime strike. Zakheim included a portrait of fellow Coit Tower muralist, John Langley Howard, reaching for a shelved copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Zakheim also included a self-portrait in his mural, showing himself reading a copy of the Torah in Hebrew, with other sacred books in Hebrew close at hand. No doubt the rampant anti-Semitism of the period contributed as much to attacks on the mural project as did anti-communism.

The press became indignant over the small amount of left-wing imagery found in the murals, the San Francisco Chronicle branding them “red propaganda”. As right-wing outrage over the murals intensified, the PWAP almost give in to conservative pressure, slating Zakheim’s mural, and a number of others, for whitewashing. The opening of Coit Tower for public viewing of the murals was delayed for months, and fortunately the controversy subsided. When the Tower was finally opened to the public only one mural had actually been censored, Steelworker, a portrait of a tough looking laborer by Clifford Wight. The artist had incorporated the slogan “Workers of the World Unite” into the portrait’s background - PWAP had the slogan obliterated.

Detail of fresco mural by Victor Arnautoff

[ City Life - Victor Arnautoff. Detail of fresco mural. 1934. In this detail from the artist’s expansive Coit Tower mural, Arnautoff pictured himself standing next to a newstand, where two radical publications were conspicuously painted; The New Masses - an American Marxist journal that featured writings from the likes of Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and Ernest Hemingway, and The Daily Worker - the newspaper published by the American Communist Party (CPUSA). ]

Victor Arnautoff’s contribution to the Coit Tower mural series is titled, City Life (Click here for a YouTube video of the mural), a vibrant depiction of street life in San Francisco during the 1930s. As with most of the other works in the tower, City Life was a fresco mural painted on wet lime plaster - and it displays all of the qualities of a fine mural painting done in that technique. As much as I venerate Arnautoff’s fresco murals - and he painted a number of them, it is his oil paintings that I am truly passionate about, and those on view at the Helfen gallery are superlative examples of the modernist master’s power.

That the very first WPA project put artists to work creating monumental murals at Coit Tower speaks volumes about where America is today as a nation. Almost no one, not even professionals in the arts community, can imagine a colossal public art project being mounted at the present time - yet in my opinion such a project is more than feasible.

Painting by Francis De Erdely

[ Unjust Punishment - Francis De Erdely. Mixed media on illustration board. 1950. Click here for a larger view. ]

I have to admit knowing next to nothing about Francis De Erdely prior to attending the opening at Spencer Jon Helfen Fine Arts, but what an introduction I received! I am eternally grateful to Mr. Helfen, not only for bringing the commanding works of De Erdely to my attention - but also for placing his works before the general public.

A centerpiece of the show, De Erdely’s Unjust Punishment is a modernist tour de force, a masterwork that alludes to all the world’s suffering - while still being an allegorical statement against McCarthyism, the anti-communist witch-hunts that swept the U.S. during the 1950s. The mixed media painting on illustration board depicts two crucified men, and the work has all the appearance of a stained glass window. While the painting is clearly figurative in nature, it freely incorporates aspects of cubism and abstraction, an approach De Erdely increasingly adopted in the later half of his life. That fact notwithstanding, De Erdely still ended up persona non grata in an art world that was to become wholly given to pure non-objective abstraction. I am left wondering if the broken men on their crosses in part serve as a metaphor for the realist artist abandoned for the sake of the “next big thing” in a fickle art world.

Francis De Erdely (1904-1959) was born in Hungary in 1904, and grew up during the ravages of the first World War. In the aftermath of that conflagration his country moved ever rightward, until a homegrown fascist movement developed that would eventually ally Hungary to Nazi Germany. As a young artist De Erdely was on a collision course with the Hungarian right for having depicted the atrocities of World War I in his paintings and sketches. He was also evidently supportive of the Spanish Republic and its struggle against fascism, creating sketches that revealed his sympathies but further provoked Hungary’s right-wing. Under pressure from Nazi Germany, Hungary joined the Axis powers in 1940, and De Erdely was apparently banished from his homeland during that period. Ultimately he would make his way to the United States, living for a short time in New York before finally making the city of Los Angeles his home in 1944. De Erdely became the dean of the Pasadena Art Institute School from 1944 to 1946, and he taught at the University of Southern California from 1945 until he passed away in 1959.

Oil painting by Francis De Erdely

[ Oil painting by Francis De Erdely. Title unknown - circa late 1930s. While not in the Helfen exhibit, this painting of unemployed workers at a soup kitchen is a good example of the artist’s early social realism. ]

De Erdely’s early paintings were similar to Victor Arnautoff’s in that they were straightforward works of social observation. De Erdely was particularly fascinated with the underclass he discovered in Los Angeles, choosing them as his most consistently painted subject. He came to imbue his works with abstract sensibilities, but never abandoned his predilection for a humanist social realism. Daily Bread, his 1945 painting of a worker at rest, has an almost biblical quality about it, exemplifying the artist’s deep compassion for working people.

The works of Victor Arnautoff and Francis De Erdely make the Helfen show unusually rewarding, but then the entire exhibit is noteworthy. Arnautoff and De Erdely provide us with examples of a humanistic art at once accessible, anti-elitist, and given towards speaking clearly and directly to an audience. In all honesty, what I found so refreshing about the exhibit is that it gives insight into what figurative art was like before being contaminated by postmodernism. The paintings in the Helfen exhibit are devoid of irony, shock value, and vulgarity; they unabashedly pursue beauty and universality, and best of all - you do not need reams of mounted wall text to understand them. I am not at all saying that today’s artists should simply use the California Modernist school as a template to be replicated, but I do believe that a full understanding of and appreciation for California Modernism can serve as an important springboard for artists envisioning how art might advance into the 21st century.

Gallery Selections of Important California Modernist Paintings & Sculpture. Now running at Spencer Jon Helfen Fine Arts until March 28, 2009.

Charles White: Let The Light Enter

In April of 1967 the Heritage Gallery of Los Angeles published Images of Dignity, a monograph on the life and work of the great African American artist Charles White (1918-1979). I acquired a copy of the book just a year later when I was fifteen-years-old, the hardback volume providing one of my first insights into the works of White, American social realism, and the very idea of political engagement in modern American art. I have no hesitation in crediting White as a major influence in my life as an artist.

Opening this past January 10, and running until March 7, 2009, New York’s Michael Rosenfeld Gallery presents the important retrospective - Charles White: Let The Light Enter, Major Drawings, 1942-1970. The gallery’s biography on White opens with the following quote from the artist, which makes clear why he was such an influence upon me and why I continue to hold him in such high esteem:

“I am interested in the social, even the propaganda, angle in painting; but I feel that the job of everyone in a creative field is to picture the whole scene. . . I am interested in creating a style that is much more powerful, that will take in the technical end and at the same time will say what I have to say. Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent. If I could write, I would write about it. If I could talk, I would talk about it. Since I paint, I must paint about it.”

I will mostly dispense with listing the biographical details and accomplishments of Mr. White since the artist himself wrote eloquently of his life and times in an autobiography that now appears on the Charles White Archive website. Instead I am going to focus on two aspects of White’s career that have considerable relevance to the present: his relationship to the Works Progress Administration in the U.S. during the Depression Era, and his connection to the socially conscious Mexican Muralist Movement of the same period - which has been another source of endless inspiration for me. In light of discussions on the possibility of there being a new federal arts program under the Obama administration, White’s overwhelmingly positive experience with the WPA provides food for thought, as does his having found common cause with the Mexican school of socially engaged art.

Drawing by Charles White

[ Awaken from the Unknowing - Charles White. Ink and Wolff crayon on paper. 1961. In this drawing White implores the viewer to read, knowing that literacy is essential to the people’s advancement. Image courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.]

White was a 20-year-old living in Chicago, Illinois, when in 1938 he was employed by the Works Progress Administration and its Federal Art Project (FAP) Easel Painting Division, which was no small matter since until that time the young artist barely managed to survive by doing odd jobs - when he could find them. In a 1965 oral history interview conducted for the Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Art, White credited the FAP program with having enabled him to survive as an artist through very hard times. He also recognized the program for having expanded his range of artistic skills and knowledge, commenting that the FAP was “almost a school.” White said the following in his autobiography concerning having worked in the FAP:

“Looking back at my three years on the project, I see it was a tremendous step for me to be able to paint full time, be paid for it, although the pay was the bare minimum of unemployment relief. The most wonderful thing for me was the feeling of cooperation with other artists, of mutual help instead of competitiveness, and of cooperation between the artists and the people. It was in line with what I had always hoped to do as an artist, namely paint things pertaining to the real everyday life of people, and for them to see and enjoy. It was also a thrill for me to see so many accomplished artists at work, and to be able to learn from them.”

White eventually switched from the FAP’s Easel Division to its Mural Department, where he learned the basic skills needed to create monumental mural works. In 1939 FAP gave White the responsibility of creating a large mural for the Chicago Public Library. He chose for his mural the theme of outstanding African American leaders, and so painted Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson, and Booker T. Washington. Today the 5’ x 12’ oil on canvas mural hangs in the Law Library of the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. Creating murals was a lifelong passion for White, and my home city of Los Angeles is blessed with the very last one he painted - a work produced in 1978 and located at the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Exposition Park Branch of the L.A. Public Library.

Here it is necessary to mention White’s relationship to the Mexican school - that fusion of muralism, printmaking, and easel painting driven by social concerns. “Los Tres Grandes”, the three greats of Mexican mural painting: José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, had all visited the United States by the early 1930’s. In the wake of their U.S. visits they left behind a number of fabulous public murals, but also an enthusiastic network of American artists they had influenced through workshops, lectures, collaborations, and direct mentoring.

In 1941 White met and married Elizabeth Catlett, a remarkable artist in her own right. The two traveled to Mexico City in 1946, where they created prints with El Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop, founded in 1937), the foremost print collective in the country at the time. It was at the TGP that White learned the art of lithography, which became an enduring passion for him. At the workshop he met and worked with the likes of Diego Rivera, Pablo O’Higgins, and Leopoldo Méndez. In White’s own words, “One of the honors of which I am most proud is that of having been elected an honorary member of the Taller.” Catlett also did several of her most memorable prints while working at the TGP; and some of the collective’s prints, including works by Catlett and Méndez, made their way into Gouge - the Los Angeles Hammer Museum’s stunning exhibit on printmaking in the 20th century (now showing until Feb. 8, 2009).

Drawing by Charles White

[ Dreams Deferred - Charles White. Ink and Wolff crayon on paper. 1969. The title of this drawing refers to the 1951 poem by African American poet, Langston Hughes - What Happens to a Dream Deferred? Image courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.]

During their sojourn in Mexico City, White and Catlett were invited to stay at the home of David Alfaro Siqueiros, where they lodged in the top floor of the muralist’s residence. White’s time in Mexico was revelatory, providing him the confirmation that his chosen path in art was the correct one to take. He felt kinship with the radical populism of the Mexican artists, whose fiery works embodied the very idea of social realism in art. White and Catlett would divorce in 1948: she stayed in Mexico for good, while he moved to New York City. There he began to associate with like-minded artists such as Antonio Frasconi, Leonard Baskin, Philip Evergood, William Gropper, Moses and Raphael Soyer, and other giants in American social realism. Eventually Mr. White settled in the city of Los Angeles, where he became an influential drawing teacher at Otis Art Institute.

What I always found so impressive about White was that he never abandoned his artistic vision in order to follow the dictates of what was fashionable. Despite the ascendancy and near total dominance of abstract art in the 1950s, followed by the successions of Pop, Minimalism, and all the vacuities of Postmodernism - White remained true to his style of figurative social realism. Part of his memoirs recount his lonely isolated struggle in the 50s against abstraction, of “going against the tide of what everyone was claiming to be ‘new’ and ‘the future’”, and we are all the richer for White’s perseverance.

But White’s courage went far beyond his flying in the face of what was trendy in the art world. He came to reject careerism in art, regarding celebrity as anathema to the higher ideals of art. The spirit found in the following passage of his memoirs should be held aloft as a banner by those artists and their supporters who ardently believe in art as a tool for social transformation;

“I no longer have my hopes and aspirations tied up with becoming a ’success’ in the market sense. I have had a measure of success in exhibits, some prizes and awards, although not as much as I might have gotten had there not been certain ‘difficulties’ presented by my speaking as part of the Negro people and the working class. Getting a marketplace success or recognition by art connoisseurs is no longer my major concern as an artist. My major concern is to get my work before common, ordinary people; for me to be accepted as a spokesman for my people; for my work to portray them better, and to be rich and meaningful to them. A work of art was meant to belong to people, not to be a single person’s private possession. Art should take its place as one of the necessities of life, like food, clothing and shelter.”

Charles White: Let The Light Enter, Major Drawings, 1942-1970, at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. January 10 - March 7, 2009.