Category: Social Realism

Philip Stein at L.A.’s Gallery 1927

Philip Stein with David Alfaro Siqueiros in San Miguel, Mexico, 1948. That year Siqueiros started a mural workshop with assistants that included Stein, they painted an experimental mural at the Escuela de Bellas Artes located within the San Miguel de Allende convent. The mural remained unfinished due to lack of funds and the school's closure. Photographer unknown.

Philip Stein with David Alfaro Siqueiros in San Miguel, Mexico, 1948. That year Siqueiros started a mural workshop with assistants that included Stein, they painted an experimental mural at the Escuela de Bellas Artes located within the San Miguel de Allende convent. The mural remained unfinished due to lack of funds and the school's closure. Photographer unknown.

Blind Justice is a retrospective exhibit presenting the works of Estaño (a.k.a. Philip Stein, 1919-2009).

A figure in the American social realism school of the 1940s, Stein was also an assistant to the Mexican muralist painter, David Alfaro Siqueiros. In point of fact, Stein helped Siqueiros paint eleven of his most famous murals in Mexico City from 1948 to 1958.

When the two artists first met and collaborated in Mexico, Siqueiros had trouble pronouncing Stein’s name, and so gave him the nickname of Estaño (”Tin”).

I was fortunate to have befriended Philip Stein in 2003, and a year later I found myself building a website with him that served as an online portfolio of his works and accomplishments. Also in ‘04, I conducted an interview with Stein where he told me, “When an artist is having a problem in seriously seeking a meaningful basis for their artistic endeavors, they could consider it a stroke of good luck if they should stumble on to the Mexican Mural Movement.”

Philip Stein's watercolor portrait of two indigenous men from Chiapas, Mexico, circa 1948.

Philip Stein's watercolor portrait of two indigenous men from Chiapas, Mexico, circa 1948.

I continue to believe that Stein’s perceptive words regarding the Mexican Mural Movement are correct, not because I think the movement can, or should be, mechanically superimposed over our own time, but for the reason that the movement’s spirit is applicable to current conditions.

The 1930s-1940s school of Mexican social realism stood firm on the principles that art is not removed or separate from social reality, that art must confront the pressing issues of the day, and that art is not the plaything of the money bags, but the birthright and heritage of all.

The strong interest in the October 9, 2012 unveiling of América Tropical, the Olvera Street mural painted by Siqueiros on Los Angeles’ historic Olvera Street, should have also brought renewed attention to the works of Stein.

Regrettably that has not been the case, even in death recognition seems to evade him, but why? There are serious conclusions to be drawn. Aside from the political apathy and unabating anti-communism found in the U.S., those who have paid any attention to Siqueiros and the Mexican school, have done so only through the prism of identity politics… they cannot see this art outside of the “Mexicanidad” or Chicano art context. Hence, Stein, a White American born in Newark, New Jersey, simply does not fit the narrative.

"Apocalypse." - Philip Stein. Acrylic on masonite. circa 1950s. An excerpt of a much larger painting, Stein's work captured the white hot fire of an atomic explosion. The artist was no doubt reacting to the development by the U.S. of the hydrogen bomb, or "H-bomb," in 1952.

"Apocalypse." - Philip Stein. Acrylic on masonite. circa 1950s. An excerpt of a larger painting, Stein's work captured the white hot fire of an atomic explosion. The artist was no doubt reacting to the development by the U.S. of the hydrogen bomb, or "H-bomb," in 1952.

The 1930s Mexican school of social realism was no different than the German or American schools of social realism that existed at the time. Though rooted in distinct cultural and national experiences, all of the artists associated with social realism possessed an egalitarian vision and internationalist spirit. Despite the fact that Stein was American, he played a notable role in Mexican Muralism, he certainly gave his all to it.

To put what I am saying in context, it was the French artist Jean Charlot that painted The Massacre in the Main Temple, the very first wall painting of the Mexican Mural Movement. Charlot’s mural, painted in Mexico City’s Escuela Preparatoria (now the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso) was completed in 1923.

The mural depicted Spanish Conquistadors slaughtering hundreds of Aztecs who had gathered in their capital of Tenochtitlán (now modern Mexico City) for a religious ritual in 1520.

Charlot’s team of assistants taught Diego Rivera’s assistants how to plaster a wall in preparation for Rivera creating his first mural, also at the Escuela Preparatoria. Charlot of course went on to play a large role in the development of Mexican art, but my point is that history has noted his contributions, it is time that Philip Stein be similarly acknowledged.

"Moloch" - Philip Stein. Acrylic on masonite. 1993. Stein painted workers prostrating themselves before the insatiable God, Moloch, who in this case is depicted as a modern Sport Utility Vehicle. The ancient Canaanites sacrificed their children to Moloch in order to atone for their sins.

"Moloch" - Philip Stein. Acrylic on masonite. 1993. Stein painted workers prostrating themselves before the insatiable God, Moloch, who in this case is depicted as a modern Sport Utility Vehicle. The ancient Canaanites sacrificed their children to Moloch in order to atone for their sins.

People in or near Los Angeles have a unique opportunity to expand their understanding of the life and times of Philip Stein, Siqueiros, and the school of social realism, by attending the Blind Justice exhibit at L.A.’s Gallery 1927. In actuality the show is a duplication of A Civil Defense: Paintings of Estaño, an exhibit of Stein’s paintings and drawings held in 2012 at the Take My Picture gallery in downtown L.A. Both exhibits were made possible by Estaño’s daughter, Anne Stein, who has quite admirably worked tirelessly at preserving her father’s legacy.

While the so-called “art press” and the rest of the media in the U.S. effectively paid no attention to A Civil Defense, Spain’s International News Agency, EFE, interviewed me in Sept. of 2012 as part of their coverage of the exhibit. The largest Spanish language newswire service in Spain, Latin America, and the U.S., EFE is also the 4th largest worldwide newswire service. It operates like the Associated Press, offering reports that news sources pick up and publish. Reporter Fernando Mexía of EFE put questions to me concerning the life and works of Stein, details that appeared in an EFE report published by Spain’s ABC.es, Argentina’s Yahoo! Noticias, Mexico’s Siempre!, Ecuador’s El Comercio, and dozens of other Spanish language publications worldwide.

"The Cursed." - Philip Stein. Pyroxylin on masonite. 1951. Stein painted his piece in pyroxylin, the nitro-cellulose paint DuPont manufactured for painting cars, and which Siqueiros pioneered the use of in his murals and easel paintings. The Cursed gives a picture of what might be Conquistadors on their way to battle Aztecs, or a depiction of soldiers from a modern, mechanized army. Stein once told me that his painting depicted "the evil arm of wealth, the plague of this earth."

"The Cursed." - Philip Stein. Pyroxylin on masonite. 1951. Stein painted his piece in pyroxylin, the nitro-cellulose paint DuPont manufactured for painting cars, and which Siqueiros pioneered the use of in his murals and easel paintings. "The Cursed" gives a picture of what might be Conquistadors on their way to battle Aztecs, or a depiction of soldiers from a modern, mechanized army. Stein once told me that his painting depicted "the evil arm of wealth, the plague of this earth."

Based on the EFE newswire report, MSN Latinoamérica featured a Spanish language video titled Philip Stein, el desconocido asistente de Siqueiros (Philip Stein, the unknown assistant of Siqueiros). The well produced short video gives a glimpse of the Civil Defense exhibit, along with some splendid close-up shots of Stein’s paintings and drawings. If you missed the 2012 exhibit, be sure and see Stein’s paintings in the Blind Justice show at Gallery 1927. It is not known when, or if, the evocative and intelligent works of Estaño will be seen again soon.

Blind Justice runs until November 10, 2013 at Gallery 1927 at the Fine Arts Building. 811 W. 7th Street. Los Angeles, CA 90017. (Ph: 805-217-2186).

"The Temperature Has Risen." - Philip Stein. Acrylic on masonite. 1989. An excerpt of a larger painting that warns of ecological collapse. Stein said of the artwork, "Scientists have warned of an impending disaster."

"The Temperature Has Risen." - Philip Stein. Acrylic on masonite. 1989. An excerpt of a larger painting that warns of ecological collapse. Stein said of the artwork, "Scientists have warned of an impending disaster."

Art Is For Everyone!

On September 27, 2013 the “liberal” American magazine, The New Republic, published an article by its editor-at-large Michael Kinsley. In the piece titled If They Replaced Detroit’s Art Treasures with Fakes, Would Anyone be Able to Tell?, Kinsley suggested that a proposal made by Harvard political scientist Edward Banfield 30 years ago might be the solution to the crisis at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Banfield had written that museum collections should be sold off and replaced by reproductions, his logic being that most people would not know the difference. Kinsley remarked that personally he “certainly couldn’t” tell the difference, and then went on to add his own smug ignorance to Banfield’s bottomless pit of philistinism by adding that fakes placed in the DIA would not even have to be good quality reproductions.

Kinsley claimed that “most people’s appreciation of art” comes from seeing “posters or postcards or beach towels or t-shirts,” and he concluded his piece of writing with the tongue in cheek intimation that the DIA’s masterworks could be replaced “secretly” by making “the switcheroo late one night.” Kinsley was being facetious of course, but his flippancy masked a barely concealed contempt for art and its enthusiasts. Kinsley neglected to mention that Edward Banfield was also opposed to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and that he was an advisor to Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. So much for liberalism.

But there is a precedent to the boorish notions of Banfield and Kinsley. At the end of 1962 the Louvre in Paris loaned Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to the U.S. government for exhibit in the United States. The painting was endlessly hyped by the media, resulting in a sort of frenzy, or what arts writer and social historian Robert Hughes came to call, the Mona Lisa Curse.

On January 8, 1963 the Mona Lisa went on view at the National Gallery in the nation’s capital; U.S. President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson were in attendance. The painting itself was given Secret Service protection at the same level ordinarily given to presidents. On February 4, 1963, the Mona Lisa went on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where during a three and a half week run, over one million people shuffled by the celebrated oil painting. When hearing that the Mona Lisa was coming to America, Andy Warhol made the oafish wisecrack, “Why don’t they have someone copy it and send the copy, no one would know the difference.”

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight apparently could not countenance Kinsley’s foolishness, and so fired a metaphorical “shot across the bow” at The New Republic’s editor-at-large titled, A suggestion to replace art with reproductions in bankrupt Detroit. Knight’s withering screed berated Kinsley for adding to the “rich tradition of know-nothings writing about art and museums,” and for advocating “Art for the aristocrats, reproductions for the peasants.”

Though I agreed with much of what Knight wrote, he concluded that Kinsley’s piece failed as satire because it labored under “the common misconception that art is for everyone, even though it isn’t. Art is not for everyone (that would be TV), it’s for anyone - which is not the same thing.” In those words I find an assessment as absurd as Kinsley’s. Knight contradicts himself by admonishing Kinsley for having an aristocratic view of art, then proceeds to express what is the quintessential patrician view of art - it is not for everyone.

I have no regard for the works of postmodern artist Tracey Emin, who I am told is one of Britain’s greatest living artists and a “leading light” in the circle of bloated art star frauds nicknamed the “Young British Artists.” But after she received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) at the investiture ceremony held on March 7, 2013 at Buckingham Palace in London, Emin said: “I think that art’s for everybody and everybody’s entitled to the best culture, the best literature, the best education, the best that everyone can have.” Emin, who has declared herself to be a royalist, voted for the Conservatives in the 2010 election, and accepted a commission from Tory Prime Minister David Cameron to create an installation piece for 10 Downing Street.  She can proclaim that “art is for everybody,” but the art critic at the “liberal” L.A. Times declares the exact opposite. My goodness… the world has been turned upside down.

If “art is not for everyone” as Mr. Knight tells us, why then is it part of the core curriculum of the U.S. public education system? Should we stop teaching children about art? Art education in U.S. public schools has suffered brutal cutbacks for the last few decades, and Mr. Knight’s unhelpful proclamation only serves to place the finishing touches on its demise. My point is that we are not born with language and writing skills anymore than we have an inborn sophisticated appreciation of art and aesthetics… all of these things are obtained through education and socialization. If, for whatever reason, we stopped teaching children the use of language and writing, we would not have to wait long to see the harmful results. Curtailing or eliminating arts education in American schools will have no less a detrimental outcome.

Knight rebukes Kinsley for his “slide into phony populism” and then stakes out the anti-egalitarian position for himself by writing: “a great thing about democracy is that it aspires to create opportunities for anyone to become an elitist (….) That’s a primary reason we even have places like the Detroit Institute of Arts.” Actually no, the great thing about democracy is that it takes power from the hands of elites and places it in the hands of ordinary people, at least in theory it does. I do not call for the defense of the DIA because it helps to develop and maintain elitism, I support the museum because making a great collection of art accessible to everyday working people is a fundamental aspect of a democratic society.

Kinsley’s open contempt towards art and its aficionados, and Knight’s doggedness that “art is not for everyone” are both unwise if not laughable positions. I find them irksome because I have always believed and advocated that art is for everyone. I say this not as an activist, a trendy dilettante, an academic, or God forbid, a bourgeois art critic. I make the pronouncement as an artist who has been creating drawings, prints, and paintings his entire life.

A foundation of this conviction of mine is partly based upon seeing how art and culture has operated on a grass-roots level in the Mexican American community. “Making due with what you have” is a partial definition for “rasquache,” a Chicano term that describes an aesthetic of necessity and defiance. Rasquache sprang from poor barrios where working class people had few resources and even less access to art, at least how the dominant society defined art. Creating something out of nothing was rasquache, it was a “people’s art” made by those untrained in art, and it became a primary force in Chicano art and aesthetics.

In this short interview with Dr. Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, a foremost scholar of Chicano and U.S. Latino art, we are given a clear definition of rasquachismo and how it has shaped working class Chicano culture. Ybarra-Frausto makes clear that rasquache is not analogous to the kitsch or low-brow art of the postmodern “avant-garde.” Rasquache has a class dimension, it is rooted in poor Chicano communities and has always been a form of cultural resistance to the dominant society.

During the Chicano Arts Movement of the late 1960s, artists embraced rasquache and exalted the sleek modernist lines and intricate paint jobs of low-rider cars, the altars and religious icons of pious Catholics, the uniquely ornate placas (graffiti) found on the street, the attire of Cholos wearing button down flannel shirts with bandanas around their foreheads, the “Mom & Pop” storefronts painted in bright colors, the iconography of pre-Columbian civilizations and the Mexican Revolution, and so much more. Chicano artists were stirred by the life found in their communities, and they distilled that experience into a unique aesthetic. Those artistic sensibilities still largely imbue and guide contemporary Chicano art.

Rasquache is a word that once referred to things tawdry and cheap, but its meaning was changed in the late 60s to describe the assortment of visual cues, histories, and cultural identifiers that made up the new Chicano aesthetic. At the time there was an explosion of murals, theater pieces, and posters that were rooted in rasquache sensibilities, works that sought to uplift, beautify, defend, and unite the Mexican American community through art. This is something my friend and artistic associate Gilbert “Magú” Luján (RIP) discussed with me on more than a few occasions. Artists like Magú felt that art was for, and sprang from, the community. Mexican Americans have developed their art and culture from the ground up, nurturing and cultivating it even as it was denied a place in America’s cultural institutions. To Chicanos, Knight’s proclamation that “art is not for everyone” sounds not only ridiculous, but discriminatory.

But there was another dimension to the Chicano Art Movement in the late 1960s. We were inspired by the likes of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros of the Mexican Muralist School. Those artists created public works in the belief that art was for everyone, and that working people would be enriched by interactions with art. Though snubbed today by those who spout postmodern gobbledygook, that democratic impulse in art still survives.

I must remind the “art is not for everyone” crowd of the 1932 América Tropical mural created in Los Angeles by Siqueiros. Preserved in situ by the Getty Conservation Institute, the mural on L.A.’s downtown Olvera Street now has its own museum, which opened to the public in October, 2012 to great acclaim. América Tropical is one of L.A.’s finest historic examples of art being for everyone; it is a work that birthed a new phase in American muralism that eventually led to Los Angeles becoming the “mural capital of the world” by the early 1970s.

In some quarters art has become a cynical intellectual exercise that is incomprehensible without an art degree and knowledge in dubious and obscurest theories. Things are really much simpler; making and appreciating art is what makes us human. Art is but one facet of an ordered human community, it has always been so. If you want to know what mathematics are all about, you might want to ask a mathematician. If curious about the stars in the heavens, talk to an astronomer. It follows that if you want to know about art, you should ask an artist.

Leave the critics to argue amongst themselves.

Maurice Merlin & the Black Legion

Starting January 19, 2013 and running until April 15, 2013, Maurice Merlin and the American Scene, 1930–1947 will be on display at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Tracking the life and times of artist Maurice Merlin, the Huntington exhibit is the very first museum presentation of the artist’s works, even though he passed away sixty-six years ago.

The Huntington Library presented Pressed in Time: American Prints 1905-1950, a first-rate showing (Oct. 6, 2007 to Jan. 7, 2008), that gave ample evidence of the influence and moral authority the school of American Social Realism once enjoyed in the United States. Maurice Merlin and the American Scene, 1930–1947 is a comparable exhibit, though on a smaller scale.

That Merlin’s work remains unknown gives evidence to the ahistorical nature of the contemporary art scene; The Huntington show is the perfect antidote. The exhibit includes some 30 works by the artist covering a wide range of mediums - oils, watercolors, screen prints, drawings, woodcuts, and lithographs. The show also includes nine works by other artists who were part of Merlin’s circle in Detroit. He was not just another “American scene” painter; The Huntington aptly described Merlin as a “Depression-era artist with a political edge.”

Maurice Merlin moved to Detroit Michigan in 1936 when the U.S. was in the throes of the Great Depression, and he found the Motor City beleaguered by social chaos and poverty, but Detroit also had much to offer an artist with a critical vision. Visiting the city four years ahead of Merlin, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted his Detroit Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts between the years 1932 and 1933. There is little doubt Merlin kept a sharp eye on Detroit’s intricate political landscape and social dynamics, or that he was inspired by Rivera’s murals.

In Merlin’s Detroit, workers were unemployed in the hundreds of thousands, the city’s African American population suffered the twin scourges of privation and racist oppression, and auto workers were launching massive strikes for better working conditions and the right to organize unions. Impoverished and unable to find work, Merlin found employment with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Like many artists of his generation, he began to document the social realities engulfing the nation and the world; his Black Legion Widow linoleum cut print displayed at The Huntington exhibit was one such work.

"Black Legion Widow" - Maurice Merlin. Linocut. 8 x 6 in. 1936. In this linoleum cut, Merlin depicted the widow Rebecca Poole, whose husband Charles Poole, had been assassinated in Detroit, Michigan on May 13, 1936 by the Black Legion terror group.

"Black Legion Widow" - Maurice Merlin. Linocut. 8 x 6 in. 1936. In this linoleum cut, Merlin depicted the widow Rebecca Poole, whose husband Charles Poole, had been assassinated in Detroit, Michigan on May 13, 1936 by the Black Legion terror group.

Though not especially indicative of Merlin’s oeuvre, Black Legion Widow is the one print from the exhibit that I wish to focus on in this review. While the narrative realism of the artist’s oil paintings and lithographs may provide a greater appreciation of Merlin’s artistic skills and accomplishments, Black Legion Widow is a consummate example of American social realism in that it captured real world events the artist was closely involved with.

While The Huntington is to be applauded for showing Maurice Merlin’s Black Legion Widow, the museum did not have much to say about the print or the history behind it, hence my compulsion to write this article.

It is my guess that the vast majority of Americans today have no idea what the Black Legion was, but in the 1930s the group grew to be worrisome national headline news familiar to tens of millions. Merlin’s print helps to reveal that part of American history no one can afford to forget. Lamentably, what the print says about America’s not so distant past continues to resonate in our all too uncertain present.

The Black Legion were a shadowy right-wing terror group that operated in Michigan and neighboring states in the 1930s. The Legion boasted six million members, but whatever their numbers, the organization considered it a holy mission to wage war against communists, socialists, anarchists, union organizers, Catholics, immigrants, and every other group the Legion considered undesirable. In their own words, the Black Legion opposed “all aliens, Negros, Jews, and cults and creeds believing in racial equality or owning allegiance to any foreign potentate.” [1]

New Legionnaires made an oath when submitting to the group’s initiation rites. Under cover of darkness an applicant got down on his knees while surrounded by black-robed Legionnaires. As the aspiring member knelt a pistol was aimed at his heart as he recited the official vows; “I will exert every possible means in my power for the extermination of the anarchists, Communists, the Roman hierarchy and their abettors. I further pledge my heart, my brain, my body and my limbs never to betray a comrade and that I will submit to all the tortures that mankind can inflict and suffer the most horrible death rather than reveal a single word of this, my oath.” [2]

In this 1936 image from the photo agency, Acme News Photos (ACME), Detroit police officers pose with weapons and regalia seized from Black Legion terrorists. The officers, dressed in the black robes and pirate hats of the Legionnaires, display a captured lever-action rifle, a .45 caliber 1911 pistol, and a leather whip used to flog victims. The image was an ACME "press photo" circulated to various news publications in '36. Photographer unknown.

In this 1936 image from the photo agency, Acme News Photos (ACME), Detroit police officers pose with weapons and regalia seized from Black Legion terrorists. The officers, dressed in the black robes and pirate hats of the Legionnaires, display a captured lever-action rifle, a .45 caliber 1911 pistol, and a leather whip used to flog victims. The image was an ACME "press photo" circulated to various news publications in '36. Photographer unknown.

Obdurately believing that the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt was “Marxist” and bent on destroying America, the Black Legion prepared for armed insurrection against the U.S. government. The group enlisted white Southerners who were streaming into Detroit, looking for work in the steel and auto industries.

Operating mostly at night, Legionnaires wore black robes and pirate hats emblazoned with skull-and-crossbones insignia - they implemented their political agenda through beatings, floggings, arson attacks, bombings, and outright murder.

For those reared on Disney’s frothy Pirates of the Caribbean adventure franchise, the Black Legion’s pirate regalia may seem nothing more than buffoonery, but in the 1930s the general public’s view of the iconic pirate was a darker vision shaped by Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel Treasure Island. Up until 1929 Stevenson’s book inspired no less than twenty-two Hollywood films about ruthless pirates. Surely Black Legionnaires saw themselves as the same type of menacing outlaw buccaneers defying all authority.

Prior to Diego Rivera’s visitation to Detroit, Earl Little, a Baptist minister and supporter of the Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, died of mysterious circumstances. Little had been the target of Ku Klux Klan harassment before, but when the minister moved his family to Lansing, Michigan, they came under Black Legion persecution. When the family home was burned down in 1929, Little blamed the Legionnaires. In 1931 Detroit police reported that Earl Little had been run over and killed by a street car, but witnesses say he was pushed into harm’s way. Little’s son Malcolm, who years later became Malcolm X, insisted his father had been murdered by Black Legionnaires. [3]

Diego Rivera’s murals were based on the Ford Motor Company’s huge River Rouge factory located in Dearborn, Michigan. On March 7, 1932, just six weeks before Rivera arrived in Detroit, thousands of unemployed workers demanding jobs and union representation held what they called the “Ford Hunger March” on the River Rouge factory. Dearborn police and Ford “private security” fired on the unarmed demonstrators, killing five and wounding up to 50; no one was ever charged with the killings. Union organizers suspected that Ford’s private security force included Legionnaire members, moreover, it was feared the Black Legion had infiltrated the union movement itself.

In Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out Of Desperate Times, author Susan Quinn wrote that, “with the aid of industry leaders opposed to union activity, the legion controlled hiring in certain pockets of the steel and auto industry as well as certain New Deal welfare jobs. Leaders boasted that they ran the entire Federal Emergency Relief Administration in Allen County, Indiana. Indeed, at a time when many were still without work, Black Legion members, even when they came from out of state - all seemed to have jobs.” [4]

On December 22, 1933 the treasurer of the Auto Worker’s Union, George Marchuk, was found murdered in a ditch in a Dearborn suburb. Not long after in March of 1934, the body of John Bielak, a member of the local American Federation of Labor United Automobile Workers, was found dumped at roadside near Monroe, Michigan. Bielak’s killers placed a stack of completed union membership applications beneath the slain organizer’s head, the message being perfectly clear. [5] Union activists believed the Black Legion were behind, not just the murders of Marchuk and Bielak, but the bombing of union halls and homes of labor activists.

After years of terroristic activity, the group’s downfall came about when it murdered an organizer for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). On May 13, 1936, a Black Legion death squad kidnapped thirty-two-year-old Charles Poole from his home and took him on a “one way ride”. Poole, an unemployed auto worker and an organizer for the WPA, was driven to the outskirts of town and shot eight times by a Black Legion triggerman, [6] his crumpled body left at roadside. Police investigating Poole’s murder found a “collection of curious robes and deadly weapons” in the homes of Poole’s neighbors. [7] Dayton Dean, the Black Legion gunman in the slaying, was arrested and made a confession that unraveled the entire Black Legion underground.

Dayton Dean’s admission of guilt revealed that the Black Legion had indeed been recruiting Southern white workers in the auto factories of Detroit to fight in the Legion’s war against unions and communism. Dean testified that the same Black Legion squad that had conspired to murder Charles Poole in May, had also killed Silas Coleman that same month. Black Legionnaires took Coleman, a 42-year-old African American war veteran, into the countryside and made him run for his life before gunning him down. According to Dean, Harvey Davis, the head of the murder squad and chief of the Black Legion organization wanted to “see how it felt to shoot a Negro”.

In an AP story that ran in the June 11, 1936 edition of The New York Sun, it was reported that “The Bullet Club”, a unit of the Black Legion in Pontiac, Michigan, “included on its roles a large number of public officials” and that “the trail of Black Legion terrorism led into three large Detroit automotive plants” where Legionnaire intelligence squads gathered information on union activists who were undoubtedly targeted for assassination. [8]

In the end Dayton Dean’s testimony eventually led to convictions against dozens of Black Legion members. In the Poole and Coleman slaying cases, twelve Legionnaires were found guilty of first degree murder and given life sentences, including Dean himself. Thirty-seven other Legion members were sentenced to prison on charges of conspiracy, attempted murder, and other crimes. As it turned out, Wayne county prosecutor Duncan C. McCrea, the leader of the prosecution in the Charles Poole case, was discovered to be a member of the Black Legion! When this was revealed McCrea stated he had “accidentally” signed a membership card for the group, but Legion defendants in the Poole case swore prosecutor McCrea willingly participated in the fascist group’s chilling initiation rites. [9]

That the state prosecutor in the Black Legion murder trial turned out to be a Legionnaire fanned the flames of suspicion that government trials against the terror group were not so much a series of legal proceedings as much as they were cover-ups. A number of known Black Legion leaders and cadre were never arrested or rooted out of their positions in the private sector, government, and the police. It appeared the fanatical Black Legion, with its long track record of murder and mayhem, had influential friends in high places.

 Still from the 1937 Warner Bros. film, "Black Legion", starring Humphrey Bogart. In this photo Bogart's "Frank Taylor" character takes the terror group's oath.

Still from the 1937 Warner Bros. film, "Black Legion", starring Humphrey Bogart. In this photo Bogart's "Frank Taylor" character takes the terror group's oath.

The 1936 Black Legion trials captured national headlines in the U.S. The topic of a homegrown fascist terror organization so gripped the public (the Nazis had come to power three years earlier in 1933) that Hollywood produced two films on the subject. First came the 1936 effort from Columbia Pictures titled Legion of Terror with actor Bruce Cabot (who starred in the original King Kong). A better-known film titled Black Legion was released by Warner Brothers in 1937. The film’s cast included Humphrey Bogart in his first leading role. Bogart played the part of fictional character, Frank Taylor, who was no doubt modeled after the Black Legion trigger-man, Dayton Dean. The film closely mirrored the events that led up to and included the killing of Charles Poole, and ended with the Black Legion killers being convicted in court and sent to prison.

Still from Black Legion. In this photo Bogart, as a hooded Black Legion terrorist, shoots and kills one of the group's opponents.

Still from "Black Legion". In this photo Bogart, as a hooded Black Legion terrorist, shoots and kills one of the group's opponents.

A major flaw in the Warner Brothers film was that it gave the impression the Legion had set their sights exclusively on Polish and Irish immigrants. The reality of the group terrorizing union organizers, communists, and African Americans was not addressed.

Even so, the movie  contained powerful scenes, one being Bogart’s character going through the group’s initiation ritual and taking its blood-curdling oath. The film’s most daring scene depicted three industrialists discussing their financial backing of the Legion in order to expand their profits and defeat the union movement.

The Warner Brothers/Bogart film has long been forgotten, but it remains an electrifying indictment of false patriotism, intolerance, and political extremism (the film is available on Netflix).

Maurice Merlin’s Black Legion Widow print was created at a time of increased public awareness regarding fascism. He was a signatory to the original “Artist’s Call” issued by the American Artists’ Congress (AAC), an artist’s organization founded in 1935 for the express purpose of opposing censorship, fascism, and war. Signatories also included the likes of Ivan Albright, Ben Shahn, Edward Biberman, George Biddle, Margaret Bourke-White, Paul Cadmus, Pablo O’Higgins, Alexander Calder, Anton Refregier, Phyllis (Pele) de Lappe, and many others too numerous to mention.

The call was an appeal for all artists to attend the American Artists’ Congress in New York City on February 14, 1936. In part, the call read: “A picture of what fascism has done to living standards, to civil liberties, to workers’ organizations, to science and art, the threat against the peace and security of the world, as shown in Italy and Germany, should arouse every sincere artist to action. We artists must act. Individually we are powerless. Through collective action we can defend our interests. We must ally ourselves with all groups engaged in the common struggle against war and fascism.”

Hundreds of artists from across the U.S., Latin America, and Europe attended the 1936 American Artists’ Congress, including a Mexican delegation that included David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Rufino Tamayo, and Luis Arenal. The AAC mass meeting also featured an exhibition aptly titled America Today. Over 100 works of art where shown, one of which was Maurice Merlin’s Black Legion Widow.

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UPDATE: I received the following e-mail on 5/14/2014;

“My name is Mary Coulter. I am the granddaughter of Charles Poole who was killed in 1936 by the Black Legion. My grandmother Rebecca was depicted in the art work on your site. In the picture there is a boy next to her, but my grandmother had two girls. So much of the information surrounding those events were slightly off. In your article/blog you also said he was killed on May 13th. He was killed on May 12th and found on May 13th in the morning dead from the night before.

I never saw this artwork before and when I did it made me cry. I am currently doing a little research because I intend to write a book about my grandmother. I want to thank you for your caring about this issue and giving me the opportunity to find this all out. It touched my heart.

I think if you knew my grandmother you would be amazed how that picture captured her sorrow.  It’s like the artist knew her.  I felt the same sadness from looking at it that I felt from my grandmother when she talked about it. I would love to see it some day. I also would like to put a copy of it in my book, if I ever get to publish it.”

– // –

Footnotes

[1] Page 295. “The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America“. James Noble Gregory © 2005.
[2]The Black Legion Rides” By George Morris. Published by Workers Library - Aug. 1936. Reference found in Chapter II, “The Hood Is Lifted”.
[3]The Dark Days of the Black Legion” by Richard Bak. Published in Hour Detroit, March 2009. Pg. 1, paragraph 12.
[4]Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out Of Desperate Times“. Susan Quinn © 2009. Chapter nine, “It Can’t Happen Here”.
[5] Page 66. “Detroit: City of Race and Class Violence” by B.J. Widick © 1972.
[6] Front page story, The Montreal Gazette. June 4, 1936. “Black Legion Member Confesses Slaying Poole, Names Instigator“.
[7] Black Legion Rule Broken“, The Bend Bulletin - June 8, 1937.
[8]Another Plot To Kill Is Laid To Terrorists: Black Legion Executioner Also Supplies Link to Bomb Blast“. AP Wire story, published in The New York Sun, June 11, 1936.
[9]The Dark Days of the Black Legion” by Richard Bak. Published in Hour Detroit, March 2009. Pg. 2, paragraph 10.

Oct 9th unveiling of L.A. Siqueiros Mural

Black and white detail from the 1932 "América Tropical" mural by Siqueiros.

Black & white detail from the 1932 América Tropical mural by Siqueiros. "City fathers immediately censored the artwork because of its anti-imperialist sentiments".

I am thrilled to announce the October 9, 2012 public unveiling of David Alfaro Siqueiros’ fully preserved 1932 mural América Tropical, at the site of the mural’s original location, a rooftop wall at the Italian Hall located on Los Angeles’ historic Olvera Street.

Concurrent with the unveiling of the mural will be the official public opening of Olvera Street’s América Tropical Interpretive Center.

October 9th will be a momentous occasion for the arts community and the people of L.A., as well as a significant event for people around the world… since it represents a victory for artistic freedom over the forces of reaction and censorship.

If any one person can be credited for bringing about the preservation of América Tropical, it would be the art historian Shifra M. Goldman (1926-2011), who almost single-handedly waged a campaign to save the Siqueiros mural starting in 1968. She even approached Siqueiros in 1972 with a proposal to recreate a modified version of the mural, a plan the artist agreed to but never completed due to his death in 1974 at the age of 78. Certainly the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and all of its dedicated staff must be applauded for their massive efforts in saving and preserving the mural. I believe the preservation of the Siqueiros mural represents one of the GCI’s finest hours, and their keen efforts will add to the deep and meaningful history of Los Angeles.

The director of the GCI, Tim Whalen, said this of the upcoming unveiling, “Providing public access to América Tropical has been central to this project. From the Getty Conservation Institute’s initial involvement in 1988, it has been a persistent advocate for the conservation of the mural, and the construction of the shelter, and a public viewing platform. We are so pleased to bring América Tropical back to the people of Los Angeles.”

There are many others too numerous to credit by name for helping to bring América Tropical back to life, but the most important factor behind the renovation of the mural is the countless numbers of people who refused to forget the mural and its destruction by a coat of whitewash ordered by city authorities in 1932. As a child my parents took me to Olvera Street on numerous occasions in the late 1950s, where my mother told me the story of the whitewashed mural. It was a tale I did not fully understand until the late 1960s, when Chicano movement activists began to rediscover the works of Siqueiros and other Mexican social realist artists, pointing to L.A.’s América Tropical as a symbol of what Chicanarte (Chicano art) could achieve… if only the will could be found. One can easily say that L.A.’s much heralded mural movement actually started when David Alfaro Siqueiros painted his contentious Olvera Street mural.

I must add that the Los Angeles based organization, Amigos de Siqueiros (Friends of Siqueiros), has played a crucial role in the mural preservation project. I was inducted into the group, and now proudly sit on its Board of Directors. Amigos de Siqueiros has as its mission, the protection, conservation, and promotion of América Tropical and the long-term stewardship of the mural, as well as to advance the legacy of Siqueiros. In my capacity as a member of the Board of Directors of Amigos de Siqueiros, I invite people everywhere to come to Olvera Street on October 9, 2012, to join in the historic unveiling and celebration. In 2002 I attended the public unveiling ceremony the Santa Barbara Museum of Art held for its Siqueiros mural, Retrato del Mexico de hoy: 1932 (Portrait of Mexico Today: 1932), thousands attended the event. The América Tropical unveiling will no doubt attract as large, if not a greater crowd of enthusiastic art lovers.

The Getty Conservation Institute has published press releases in English and Spanish, announcing the Oct. 9th unveiling, as well as a number of other public events coordinated with Amigos de Siqueiros; from movie screenings and speakers forums to symposiums and a tour of Eastside Los Angeles murals. The entire schedule of events are listed in the GCI press releases.

The village that became the modern City of Los Angeles now has a new wrinkle in its complex history. El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (The Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels), was the settlement founded in 1781 by Spanish colonizers; it became the largest city of Mexico’s Alta California after Mexico won its independence from Spain. The municipality was seized by Americans when they invaded Mexico during the American war on Mexico (1846-48), taking 55% of Mexico’s territory under the spurious postwar “Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo“. In the late 20th century Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros painted his América Tropical on a wall in El Pueblo; city fathers immediately censored the artwork because of its anti-imperialist sentiments. In early 21st century Los Angeles the mural returns as a ghost image to remind us all of the folly and transient nature of empire.

América Tropical is not just a faded mural brought back to life, it is a distillation of experiences lived on both sides of the U.S./ Mexico border. It is a collaboration between a master Mexican artist and his “Bloc of Painters” - those 29 U.S. artists that helped paint the Olvera Street mural; the mural is a fusion of cultures and histories, and a sign-post for the way forward in art. It is a consummate example of social realism, that socially engaged school of art that flourished in the U.S., Mexico, and Europe during the years of the Great Depression. Siqueiros and his associates confronted the world crisis of their day through their art, and now artists once again face a global crisis of unparalleled dimension. Perhaps the rebirth of América Tropical will help spark a resurgent social realism for the 21st century…  that just might be the real legacy of Siqueiros.

The public unveiling of América Tropical and the opening of the América Tropical Interpretive Center will occur at noon on Tuesday, October 9, 2012. The ceremony takes place at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, Sepulveda House, 125 Paseo de la Plaza, in downtown L.A.