Category: WPA era murals

Arnautoff & the Chapel at the Presidio

Sitting atop a hill and surrounded by a grove of Eucalyptus trees, the Chapel at the Presidio affords a fine view of the San Francisco Bay area. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Sitting atop a hill and surrounded by a grove of Eucalyptus trees, the Chapel at the Presidio affords a fine view of the San Francisco Bay area. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Nestled in the middle of the Presidio of San Francisco, California, is a small Spanish Colonial style Chapel surrounded by a grove of Eucalyptus trees.

The Chapel at the Presidio houses an impressive but little known Great Depression era mural by Victor Arnautoff (1896-1979). I visited and photographed the mural in late 2011, and will here share my observations.

Sitting atop a hill, the Chapel affords a fine view of the San Francisco Bay area. Within the grounds of the Presidio and not far from the Chapel you will find the San Francisco National Cemetery, where 30,000 American war dead from the late 1800s to the present are interned.

A Robin visits some of the 30,000 American war dead interned at the National Cemetery located on the grounds of the Presidio. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

A Robin visits some of the 30,000 American war dead interned at the National Cemetery located on the grounds of the Presidio. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In 1931 the U.S. Congress gave the U.S. Army $40,000 to build the Chapel; it was constructed in Spanish Colonial Revival style architecture, and with its heavily stuccoed walls, stained glass windows and bell tower, it was - and still is - quite a sight to behold.

In Feb. of 2009 I wrote a review in praise of Arnautoff, whose works were on display at an exhibit of California Modernist Paintings at the Spencer Jon Helfen gallery in Beverly Hills, California. The article examined the life story of the artist in some detail. Despite my high opinion of Arnautoff, it was the most I had ever written about the artist - until now.

The Russian born Victor Arnautoff looms large in my pantheon of great artists, though most other Americans long ago forgot his name. As a young man he was a Cavalry Officer in the Tsarist Imperial Army, and so fled Russia sometime after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. He traveled to China and Mexico before finally coming to the U.S. and settling down in the city of San Francisco in 1925. Arnautoff eventually became allied to the communist Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera, both aesthetically and politically, and from 1929 to 1931 Arnautoff lived in Mexico as a student and assistant of Rivera.

When Rivera left Mexico City to visit San Francisco in 1930-31, he left the painting of his National Palace frescos depicting Mexico’s history in Arnautoff’s capable hands. Arnautoff joined Rivera in San Francisco in 1931 to help paint The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City at the San Francisco Art Institute. Arnautoff is best remembered for City Life, his 1934 mural in San Francisco’s Coit Tower, that, and his being the technical director of the Coit Tower mural project. Arnautoff had come full circle from his early years as a Tsarist officer to his participating in the left-wing artistic circles of the U.S.

After completing work on the stunning murals at Coit Tower in 1934, Arnautoff was given a commission in December of that year to create a fresco mural on the east wall of the Chapel at the Presidio of San Francisco, then one of the most important U.S. military installations in all of the United States. The commission was for a mural that depicted the peacetime activities of the U.S. Army, but the mural would also include the history of the land and its people upon which the Presidio was established.

Measuring 13 x 34 feet, Arnautoff’s mural was originally located on the outside east wall of the Chapel, greeting those who entered from the side entrance. With time it was decided to enclose the area where the mural stood, creating a hall between the side entry and the Chapel wall where the fresco mural is painted. This narrow vestibule protects the fresco mural and serves as an information and greeting area for those tourists who visit the Chapel. However, the limited width of the antechamber prevents one from standing back far enough to view the mural in its entirety, for the same reason it is extremely difficult to photograph the complete mural. Given these limitations, I was only able to photograph specific details of Arnautoff’s splendid painting.

The mural was sponsored by the officers of the 30th U.S. Infantry, however, it was funded by California’s State Emergency Relief Administration (SERA); a state agency financed by President Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). Arnautoff’s Coit Tower mural had been funded by Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). These and other “New Deal” programs provided work to 40,000 artists, helping to ease the ravages of the Great Depression. Arnautoff pulled together a team of artists to paint the mural; A plaque painted into the lower left corner of the mural includes Arnautoff’s name as well as those of his assistants; Suzanne Scheuer, B. Cunningham, Edward Terada, Richard Ayer, M. Hardy, P. Hall, P. Vinson, G. Serrano, M. Cohen, P. Zoloth, T. Mead, and W. Mannex. In 1935 the crew completed the mural in 42 days.

The Spanish first erected their San Francisco Presidio in 1776, when Spain ruled over Nueva España (New Spain) - colonial holdings that contained most of what is now the Southwest of the U.S., all of Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and large areas of South America. When Mexico won its war of independence against Spain in 1821, the Presidio passed into Mexican hands. Territorial expansion by the U.S. led to its 1846 invasion of Mexico. After the U.S. Army seized Mexico City, the Mexican government had no choice but to sign the “Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo”, which ended the war but ceded to the U.S. lands that included California, Nevada, Utah, much of Arizona, half of New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

As a political radical Arnautoff was certainly aware of the Presidio’s long history as delineated in the above. He had come under enormous criticism from the U.S. right-wing for his directorship of  the 1934 Coit Tower mural project; San Francisco’s right excoriated the murals as “communist propaganda”, and the press demanded the murals be altered or obliterated. Consequently Arnautoff seemingly avoided a confrontational examination of the Presidio, this was after all a mural commissioned by the U.S. military to be housed on a major U.S. military installation. Still, Arnautoff did manage to include certain understated narratives in his fresco that were quite bold given the political circumstances in the U.S. at the time.

Detail of Arnautoff's portrait of Maria de la Concepción Marcela Argüello, her father Don José Darío Argüello (pictured dressed in a red uniform), and the Russian chamberlain to Czar Alexander I, Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov (in a blue uniform). Photo courtesy of the National Parks Service ©.

Detail of Arnautoff's portrait of Maria de la Concepción Marcela Argüello, her father Don José Darío Argüello (pictured dressed in a red uniform), and the Russian chamberlain to Czar Alexander I, Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov (in a blue uniform). Photo courtesy of the National Parks Service ©.

Arnautoff painted an interesting trio in the upper left portion of his mural; Maria de la Concepción Marcela Argüello, her father Don José Darío Argüello (pictured dressed in a red uniform and standing behind his daughter in the mural), and the Russian chamberlain to Tsar Alexander I, Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov - all historic figures from late 1700s San Francisco,  California.

When the story of Concepción Argüello and Nikolai Rezanov is remembered at all, it us usually framed as “California’s oldest and saddest romance“. Beneath the supposed ardent love affair was the machinery of imperialism and colonial conquest, and though I have no proof, I am convinced that was the actual narrative Arnautoff meant to subtly provide viewers of his mural.

On Sept. 4, 1781, Don José Darío Argüello founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (the Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels), in the Las Californias sector of New Spain; The Pueblo de los Ángeles would of course become Los Angeles, the megalopolis we know today and coincidentally the city of my birth. In 1787 Argüello was appointed Comandante of the Presidio of San Francisco, and his daughter, Concepción Argüello, was born in the Presidio in 1791. Rezanov was a high-level official in the Tsarist regime and a supporter of Russian imperialism; he strove to transform Russia into a dominant power in the Pacific by establishing commercial and military outposts from Alaska to California.

Detail of Victor Arnautoff's 1935 fresco mural at the Main Post Chapel at the Presidio of San Francisco. A panoramic history of the land where the Presidio was established. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of Arnautoff's 1935 fresco mural at the Chapel at the Presidio of San Francisco. A panoramic history of the land where the Presidio was established. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

As part of his imperial mission the 42-year-old Rezanov sailed to San Francisco in 1806, where he was feted by Don Argüello at the Presidio. It was at the Spanish military outpost that Rezanov met the 15-year-old Concepción Argüello, and according to the myth, the two supposedly fell in love and became engaged that same year. Since the laws of Spain prohibited its colonies from trading with foreign powers, maybe Rezanov’s motivation in wanting to marry Concepción had more to do with profitable colonial ambitions than actual romance.

Arnautoff's mural depicting a Spanish soldier and priest from the earliest years of the Presidio's founding. Does the priest's gesture welcome or bar the indigenous Ohlone warrior? Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Arnautoff's mural depicts a Spanish soldier and priest from the earliest years of the Presidio. Does the priest's gesture welcome or bar the indigenous Ohlone warrior? Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

At any rate, the Spanish Catholic priests refused to bless Concepción’s marriage to Rezanov, who was Russian Orthodox. Six weeks after arriving at the Presidio, Rezanov began a return trip to Russia, he intended to send entreaties to the King of Spain for royal consent to marry Concepción Argüello. Perhaps he considered it even more important to appeal for a trade agreement between Spain and Tsarist Russia. Whatever the case, Rezanov died of fever in 1807 before reaching home, and the young Concepción “renounced the world” to become a nun. She died in 1857 as Sister Mary Dominica Argüello of the Dominican order in Monterey, California.

Arnautoff's vision of the Ohlone people, the indigenous tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area. The artist no doubt studied the paintings, drawing, and lithographs of Louis Choris, who first depicted the Ohlone in his 1816 artworks. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Arnautoff's vision of the Ohlone people, the indigenous tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area. The artist no doubt studied the paintings, drawing, and lithographs of Louis Choris, who first depicted the Ohlone in his 1816 artworks. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

As a sidebar to the 1806 Rezanov-Argüello story, in 1816 another Russian sailing ship named the Rurik landed at the Presidio. Among its 30 man crew was Louis Choris (1795-1828), a talented 21-year-old Russian/Ukrainian artist. Choris was the expedition’s official artist and during the month the Rurik was anchored in San Francisco Bay, Choris created the earliest depictions of the region’s indigenous Ohlone tribe. He made stunning watercolor paintings portraying individuals and groups of people going about their daily routines.

In this detail Arnautoff depicted an Ohlone woman at work weaving baskets from tule reeds. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In this detail Arnautoff depicted an Ohlone woman at work weaving baskets from tule reeds. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

After his Rurik journey Choris traveled to Paris in 1819 where he produced portfolios of hand-colored lithographs that illustrated his encounters with the Ohlone nation. In terms of ethnographic study, Choris’ artworks provide in-depth and accurate observations of a way of life now vanished.

The Ohlone lived in over fifty different villages and tribal groups throughout the San Francisco bay area and beyond to the shores of Monterey Bay and the Salinas Valley. They were hunters and gatherers that lived off the bounty of the land. They believed an enormous flood had once engulfed the earth, leaving only two small islands to be inhabited by only three survivors… Coyote, Eagle, and Hummingbird, who together created the human race. The Ohlone said that Hummingbird brought fire to the people.

Tule reed was used to make Ohlone homes, clothes, baskets, mats, and boats. The people fished in salt and fresh water catching all types of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans. They gathered endless varieties of nuts, seeds, bulbs, tubers, acorns, mushrooms, greens, and berries. Rabbits, deer, antelope, and elk were hunted, as well as a sizeable array of birds. Many other creatures large and small were a part of the Ohlone diet, grasshoppers, grubs, lizards, snakes, squirrels, even an occasional beached whale.

Detail of an Ohlone warrior's hands as he makes fire using a "fire drill" made of soft wood. The Ohlone believed Hummingbird spirit was the bringer of fire to humanity. In this detail one can see how a fresco mural looks up-close. Since water-based pigment is quickly painted onto wet plaster before either can dry, the effect can look somewhat like "magic marker". Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of an Ohlone warrior's hands as he makes fire using a "fire drill" made of soft wood. The Ohlone believed Hummingbird spirit was the bringer of fire to humanity. In this detail one can see how a fresco mural looks up-close. Since water-based pigment is quickly painted onto wet plaster before either can dry, the effect can look somewhat like "magic marker". Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

I consider the principal focus of Arnautoff’s mural to be his depiction of the Ohlone tribe. Compositionally the mural’s central motif is a religious one that depicts a monument to St. Francis. Franciscan Friars not only founded and named the first Catholic Church in San Francisco in 1776, they named the mission church and the entire region after their patron saint, Saint Francis of Assisi. Be that as it may, the first people to inhabit “San Francisco” were not Spanish Catholics but the shamanistic Ohlone, and they settled the region some 5,000 years ago.

Detail of Ohlone hunter dressing a slain deer. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of Ohlone hunter dressing a slain deer. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Given the short shrift indigenous people have received in both American history and cultural representation, Arnautoff’s focus on the Ohlone was a remarkably subversive gesture for 1935. His well researched portrayal of the indigenous population was no doubt facilitated by the drawings, paintings, and lithographs of Louis Choris.

I would like to re-emphasize to the reader the impact Diego Rivera had upon Arnatauff. As with most other Mexican artists of his time, Rivera sought to create a national art that was independent from Europe. This was accomplished in large part by establishing Mexican art on the foundational bedrock of aesthetics developed by the prehispanic indigenous Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations. When viewing Rivera’s portraits of everyday Mexicanos, it is not the classical beauty of Europe that one sees reflected, but the grandeur of indigenous Palenque and Tenochtitlán. I am sure Arnautoff valued the reasons behind Rivera’s glorification of the Western Hemisphere’s first inhabitants, and so included the Ohlone in his Presidio mural on the same grounds.

If the left-side of Arnautoff’s mural portrays the early history of the Presidio, then the right-side of the fresco depicts the U.S. Army carrying out projects at the Presidio during the 20th century. The two scenes I will focus on from that portion of the painting have to do with General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing, as well as the role the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers played in building the Panama Canal.

General Pershing had, let us say, an “interesting” career in the military. As a graduate of West Point in 1886 he was assigned to the 6th U.S. Cavalry, where he fought the Apache nation in the so-called “Apache Wars”; Pershing took part in military operations to force the Apache onto reservations and keep them there. In 1890 Pershing and the 6th Cavalry were sent to South Dakota to crush the Lakota Nation, then engaged in their last uprising that would culminate in the U.S. Army massacre of some 300 unarmed Lakota at Wounded Knee (Pershing was not directly involved). In 1892 Pershing became a first lieutenant assigned to the 10th Cavalry “Buffalo Soldier” regiment of African-Americans (earning the nickname, “Black Jack”). He fought in the Spanish-American War (1898) as a major with the 10th Cavalry in operations at San Juan Hill. As a Departmental Adjutant General, Pershing fought against the Moro uprising in the Philippines from 1899 to 1903.

In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt promoted Pershing to Brigadier General, but it was President Woodrow Wilson, a “progressive”, that sent Pershing into Mexico in 1916 on a “punitive expedition” to kill or capture the Mexican revolutionary Francisco Pancho Villa. Commanding the U.S. Army 8th Brigade and a force of 11,000 soldiers, Pershing failed to crush Villa and his guerilla army, but the mission was not without its successes. The operation employed the 1st Aero Squadron of eight Curtiss JN-3 “Jenny” biplanes for aerial observation and intelligence gathering, the very first time the U.S. Army made use of airplanes in combat; the application of airpower foreshadowed the mechanized slaughter that would come but a year later. In April 1917, the U.S. entered World War I, and President Wilson promoted Pershing to General in charge of the American Expeditionary Force to Europe.

Arnautoff had to be aware of Pershing’s war record, and as a man of the left he must have viewed Black Jack unfavorably. Arnautoff and his circle of artists, being sympathetic to radical ideas, were alarmed by the rise of fascism in Europe and the growing threat of war. They were no doubt familiar with the speeches and writings of retired Major General Smedley Butler of the U.S. Marine Corps, who in 1935 was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. He was also a spokesman for the American League Against War and Fascism, and had been engaged in a nationwide tour to deliver his speech “War is a Racket. Butler addressed how oligarchs made soaring profits from the blood and suffering of soldiers. In 1935 he published a longer version of his speech as a small book, also titled War is a Racket. To get an idea of how widely distributed and influential Butler’s work was, Reader’s Digest condensed it as a book supplement.

Detail of Arnautoff's mural depicting the August 27, 1915 fire at the Presidio that killed the wife and children of General John "Black Jack" Pershing. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of Arnautoff's mural depicting the August 27, 1915 fire at the Presidio that killed the wife and children of General John "Black Jack" Pershing. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In his mural Arnautoff did not directly portray General Pershing, in fact the artist could hardly have been said to paint Pershing’s portrait at all. What Arnautoff did was to paint a high-ranking military man with his back towards the viewer while commanding volunteers in putting out a raging fire; I think the artist was alluding to a terrible tragedy that struck ol’ Black Jack. Just prior to the “punitive expedition” in Mexico, Pershing received a blow he never recovered from. On August 27, 1915, while at the “Fort Bliss” military encampment near El Paso, Texas (the base from which Mexico would be invaded), Pershing received a telegram concerning his home at the Presidio in San Francisco. A fire had burned his multi-storied, wooden Victorian mansion to the ground. Worse still, the inferno had almost consumed his entire family - his beloved wife and three of his four children. One could take this panel as a portrait of a very powerful man laid low by forces beyond his control.

The final tableau in Arnautoff’s mural had to do with the role of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in building the Panama Canal. The mural depicts the USACE construction the Gatun Lock Gate, one of three enormous lock systems that lift and lower water levels making navigation of the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean possible. Ironically, this segment of the painting reveals both the artist’s left-wing ideology as much as it does some apparent contradictions.

Arnautoff's mural depicts the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Presidio planning to build the Panama Canal. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Arnautoff's mural depicts the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Presidio planning to build the Panama Canal. The Gatun Lock Gate can be seen in the upper right of the painting. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Panamanian separatists broke free of Columbia with U.S. military assistance in 1903 and immediate formal recognition of the Republic of Panama came from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt that same year. The U.S. Secretary of State John Hay signed the so-called “Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty” of 1903 with the French engineer and soldier Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, giving control of the Panama Canal to the United States - even though not a single Panamanian signed the treaty. That detail alone would have been important to an anti-imperialist like Arnautoff, but how did he represent the history of the Panama Canal vis-à-vis its relationship to the U.S.?

The artist no doubt thought the U.S. was meddling in Panama, but refrained from criticizing U.S. policy, preferring instead to focus on men having achieved one of the world’s great engineering feats. Arnautoff’s mural glorifies what workers can achieve through the miracles of science and technology; given his benefactors, he could hardly have said more. Thematically, the Gatun Lock portion of Arnautoff’s mural is similar to Diego Rivera’s Allegory of California mural painted at the San Francisco Stock Exchange Tower in 1931.

Detail of Arnautoff's tableau depicting one of the workers that actually built the Panama Canal. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of Arnautoff's tableau depicting one of the workers that actually built the Panama Canal. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

While portraying agricultural richness, scientific innovation, and technological advancement, Rivera’s Allegory of California mural was not a celebration of capitalism, rather, it was a depiction of the working class, its capabilities and its future potential. These views were entirely in keeping with the pro-socialist sympathies of many artists at the time; one should be reminded that in 1934 the Soviet Union was considered a symbol of hope and progress by many, the crimes of Stalinism had yet to occur, and that the U.S. and the Soviets would soon become allies in the war against Fascism.

On a misty San Francisco morning, the Golden Gate Bridge looms above Fort Hood. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

On a misty San Francisco morning, the Golden Gate Bridge looms above Fort Hood. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

It is also interesting to note that the U.S. Army staff in the lower portion of the scene are examining plans to build the Golden Gate Bridge. Construction of the now world-famous suspension bridge began on January 5, 1933, just prior to Arnautoff and his assistants working on their Presidio mural. Arnautoff portrayed American engineer Joseph Strauss, the designer of the bridge, pointing at a model bridge while conferring with army officers.

Although the army did not play a direct role in the bridge’s physical construction, the U.S. Department of War was consulted since its Civil War era Fort Point apparently stood in the way of the bridge’s construction.

Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge would be completed by April of 1937, two years after the completion of Arnautoff’s mural.

I might add that historic Fort Point remained untouched during the bridge’s building; the fortress is a must see tourist destination in its own right, being one of the best preserved all brick U.S. military fortifications in the entire U.S.

The mural located at the Chapel at the Presidio is a little known painting by the underappreciated Victor Arnautoff. While relatively obscure, the work is a gem from the WPA era of American mural painting, in actuality it is a foundational stone of contemporary muralism. Considering the state of the art world and of society in general, it is no surprise Arnautoff’s mural is left unrecognized and uncelebrated. However, its aesthetics, brilliant execution, historical and political insights, and geographical setting make it a “must see” destination for anyone traveling to San Francisco.

POSTS IN THIS CONTINUING SERIES:

Coit Tower Crisis
Diego Rivera: The Making of a Fresco
Diego Rivera: Pan American Unity

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.

####

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.

The Cradle Will Rock!

In 2005 I created a small oil painting depicting striking workers huddled together in the early morning light in preparation for the day’s labor rallies and picket lines. The painting was inspired by the numerous strikes I had personally witnessed in the City of Los Angeles over the years. Titled Amanecer (Spanish for “Dawn”), my painting was a glimpse of life on the streets of L.A., but it was actually meant as a gesture of solidarity with workers everywhere who must put down their tools and withhold their labor in order to better their lives.

"Amanecer" (Dawn) - Mark Vallen 2005 ©. Oil on masonite panel. 9" x 12" inches.

"Amanecer" (Dawn) - Mark Vallen 2005 ©. Oil on masonite panel. 9" x 12" inches.

In February of 2012, I received an e-mail from Paul Moser, the Producing Artistic Director of the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival (OSTF) of Oberlin College in Northern Ohio. The OSTF is a not-for-profit theater that presents free theatrical stage productions to a diverse audience. Moser requested permission to use my painting in the promotional campaign for the Oberlin’s summer season production of the rarely performed musical, The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein.

I was elated to have my painting associated with the revival of Blitzstein’s classic, and so I enthusiastically granted the permissions Mr. Moser sought. A detail of my painting now appears in the season flyer for the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival, as well as on the company’s web site. The OSTF free performance of The Cradle Will Rock begins July 20, and the musical will run until August 4, 2012.

I first discovered The Cradle Will Rock in 2004 through my friend and associate, Eric Gordon, who wrote the definitive biography Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein; a book that gave me tremendous insight into the life, times, and genius of Mr. Blitzstein. Gordon wrote extensively about Blitzstein’s musical masterwork, its creation, controversial production, and lasting influence. Having brought Blitzstein to life for me, I highly recommend Gordon’s superlative book to one and all.

After reading Gordon’s book I saw Tim Robbins’ 1999 film Cradle Will Rock. Despite the fact that Robbins played fast and loose with history, and that his fictional account was less about Blitzstein’s musical than it was an examination of the arts during the Great Depression, Robbins created a work of cinema worth seeing.

In eliciting my support, the Oberlin’s Artistic Director originally wrote to me:

“As you know, this is an election year, and I felt that ‘Cradle’ even though it is 75 years old, would really resonate with our audience at this crucial time. Oberlin is located in a now economically depressed county that was once thriving with steel and auto companies and healthy unions. We are hoping that ‘Cradle’ will appeal to a lot of families in our larger community that are not used to attending (or cannot afford) live theater, and that it will be an inspiring experience for them. I really felt that your painting captured that same sense of communal hope - and that it would really give potential audiences a feel for what the show was all about.”

Marc Blitzstein wrote his musical in 1937 under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), which was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) set up by President Franklin Roosevelt. The FTP was part of Federal Project Number One, the government organization that provided employment to artists during the depression. Through Federal One, over 40,000 artists were put to work across the U.S. The objective was not just to make jobs, but to enrich the nation by providing every citizen with free access to art and culture. The WPA and Federal One left Americans a legacy they still enjoy today - and The Cradle Will Rock is part of that legacy.

A classically trained virtuoso pianist and brilliant composer, Blitzstein wrote Cradle as an allegory; the story took place in the fictional township of “Steeltown, USA”. An oligarch named Mr. Mister owned the town, from its steel factory and media to its police and courts. The people of the town were denied their rights by the scheming Mr. Mister and his henchmen - so they organized a general strike to sweep away all greed and corruption. In modern parlance Blitzstein’s musical was about the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. Needless to say, the Federal Theatre Project came under intense pressure for producing the left-leaning, pro-labor musical.

Directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman, Cradle was to premiere at the Maxine Elliot Theatre on Broadway with a full orchestra, sets, and stage lighting. However, on the eve of the musical’s opening, the WPA pulled support for the musical in an effort to fend off right wing criticism and avoid funding cuts; federal authorities seized and padlocked the venue, shutting down the production.

Undaunted by the censorship, Welles and Houseman quickly rented an alternative venue, and on June 16, 1937, after some 600 ticket holders gathered at the forcibly closed Maxime Elliot Theatre for the first performance of Cradle, Welles and Houseman led the entire cast and audience on a 20 block march to the substitute venue, the Venice Theatre. Since the Actors’ Equity union prohibited playing a non-union house, the production was left without an orchestra, and worse, actors could not take the stage without violating union rules. What happened next was unprecedented in the world of live stage performance.

Marc Blitzstein sat alone at a piano placed onstage. He was prepared to deliver his entire musical as a solo recital, but as he began his performance, one by one, the actors sitting in the audience unexpectedly stood to voice their parts from their theater seats - and so the complete musical was spontaneously performed. In an unprecedented act of courage and imagination, Blitzstein, Welles, Houseman, and the entire cast of The Cradle Will Rock defied government censorship.

Those lucky enough to enjoy the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival’s revival of Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock will no doubt take pleasure in experiencing a rare live performance of an American classic. I am jubilant to have my art linked with the Oberlin production.

Coit Tower Crisis

View of Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

View of Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

I visited San Francisco, California in late 2011, for the most part to photograph the impressive murals in the Bay Area that were painted in the 1930s and 1940s. A few of the murals are still well known, especially to those living in San Francisco, but by and large the great majority of these public works have long been forgotten - even by arts professionals. Furthermore, nearly all of the artists that painted the murals have largely fallen into obscurity, and very few people today can recall their names.

In months to come I will publish on this web log my photographs of a number of the murals, along with biographical information on those artists responsible for their creation. I have long been perplexed by the small number of high-quality, close-up photos of the murals to be found online, something I hope to correct to some small degree with this series of posts. More importantly, my upcoming illustrated essays will offer insights into how the murals were actually produced, providing a unique artist’s viewpoint of the historic paintings.

The plaque affixed to Coit Tower. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The plaque affixed to Coit Tower. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Constructed in 1933, Coit Tower is unquestionably the most well known locale for some of the best 1930s era murals; currently around 200,000 people, mainly tourists, visit the historic landmark each year. In all likelihood the majority of tourists visit because the tower affords the most remarkable view of San Francisco and the entire Bay Area. On any given day one can see hundreds of vacationers disembarking from sightseeing buses to view the famous building that sits atop Telegraph Hill. But all is not well for one of the city’s best known tourist attractions.

Since their creation in 1934, the Coit Tower murals have undergone several restorations. Photos from 1960 show the murals so disfigured by graffiti that the city sealed the paintings off from public view in order to conduct an extensive restoration that lasted from 1987 to 1990. Today the murals are again in poor shape, mostly from water and salt damage due to San Francisco’s well-known fog. During my visit to the tower I was shocked at the level of disrepair; chips and scratches have certainly taken their toll, and water damage is apparent everywhere; the walls and ceiling are peeling, and salt build-up has caused streaks on a number of paintings.

Detail from the Coit Tower mural, "Animal Force", by artist Ray Boynton. The artist painted the celestial eyes over an  elevator doorway on the building's first floor. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail from the Coit Tower mural, "Animal Force", by artist Ray Boynton. The artist painted the celestial eyes over an elevator doorway on the building's first floor. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

An October 2011 article titled Depression-era Coit Tower murals need touch-up published by the San Francisco Chronicle details some of the problems. A January 2012 PBS NewsHour ran a special segment about the Coit Tower murals that detailed the state of disrepair of the historic wall paintings as well as efforts to preserve the murals.

It was Diego Rivera’s 1930-31 visit to San Francisco that truly began the explosion of mural painting in the Bay Area, which I noted in the first essay of this series, Diego Rivera: The Making of a Fresco. At the time many Bay Area artists were involved in the school of American social realism, and more than a few of them traveled to Mexico in order to encounter first hand the masters of the Mexican Muralist School. Bernard Baruch Zakheim comes to mind; having made the trek to Mexico City to meet and work with Diego Rivera in 1930, Zakheim and fellow artist Ralph Stackpole successfully lobbied the U.S. government for a commission allowing artists to paint murals on interior walls of San Francisco’s newly constructed Coit Tower.

Upcoming posts will include close-up views of the Coit Tower murals by Zakheim and Stackpole, but also extreme close-up shots of mural paintings by John Langley Howard, William Hesthal, Clifford Wight, Maxine Albro, Suzanne Scheuer, George Harris, Frede Vidar, Ray Boynton, Victor Arnautoff, Otis Oldfield, Jose Moya del Pino, Rinaldo Cuneo, and other notable masters of American social realism.

The Teaching American History Project of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), a project funded by the U.S. Department of Education in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley, and the Oakland Museum, provides an overview of the Coit Tower Murals titled “A Social Narrative Depicting ‘Aspects of California Life’ in 1934” (click here for the .pdf document). The online teaching guide quotes extensively from this writer regarding some of the finer details and controversies around the Coit Tower mural project. The document also presents some reasonably sized, clear photos of the Coit murals.

Homeless Woman at Coit Tower. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

"Homeless Woman at Coit Tower". Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

When I visited the historic landmark that is Coit Tower, I found a destitute woman sleeping near the building entrance; her worldly possessions were held in a small pushcart adorned by the American flag.

It is no small irony that the depression era realities depicted in the Coit Tower murals are today seen on the streets of the U.S. during the reign of the Obama administration. One difference between the mid-30s and the present is that contemporary artists have yet to challenge the systemic failures that give rise to economic collapse, mass poverty, and war.

POSTS IN THIS CONTINUING SERIES:

Arnautoff & the Chapel at the Presidio
Diego Rivera: The Making of a Fresco
Diego Rivera: Pan American Unity

Diego Rivera: The Making of a Fresco

December 8, 2011 marks the 125th birthday of the Mexican Muralist, Diego Rivera (Dec. 8, 1886 - Nov. 24, 1957). Few artists have had as much influence on me as Rivera, an artist I discovered as a pre-teen while thumbing through art books. Of course in the 1960s Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros (Dec. 29, 1896 - Jan. 6, 1974) and José Clemente Orozco (Nov, 23, 1883 - Sept. 7, 1949), became icons to the growing Chicano arts movement. By 1968 I had not only read Rivera’s autobiography, My Art, My Life, but I considered myself a partisan of Mexican Muralism and social realism in general - a position I still hold as a working artist.

In September of this year I visited San Francisco and photographed a number of WPA era murals, the photos and histories of which I will be sharing with readers in the coming months. Rivera painted four superlative murals in the San Francisco Bay Area, the first being Allegory of California, painted 1930-1931 and located in the city’s downtown financial district Stock Exchange Building. The second, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, was painted from April-June in 1931 at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Still Life and Blossoming Almond Trees was a small mural originally painted at the private residence of the Stern family in the town of Atherton, on the San Francisco Peninsula; the mural is now found in Stern Hall on the University of California, Berkeley campus. Finally, there is the astounding Pan American Unity mural, painted for the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1940 and now located on the campus of the City College of San Francisco. This post concerns Rivera’s Making of a Fresco, and to celebrate the master’s 125th birthday… I am posting some of the photos I took of this remarkable work.

The "Diego Rivera Gallery" at The San Francisco Art Institute. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The "Diego Rivera Gallery" at The San Francisco Art Institute. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) is found in the Russian Hill district of the city, fairly close to the famous landmarks of Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. The institute relocated to its present address on 800 Chestnut St. in 1926, but as an institution it was established in 1871, making it one of the oldest art schools in the United States.

Located in a hilly area that affords practically no parking, the institute is hard to miss because of its Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. Passing through the Baroque arched entrance door to the campus you’ll find an inviting red-tiled courtyard with trees and a charming concrete and tile octagonal fountain. To the fountain’s immediate left you’ll find the “Diego Rivera Gallery“, a beautiful sunlit hall where the mural was painted. The gallery is open daily from 9 am until 5 pm, and the day I visited and photographed the mural, a small crowd was in the gallery. Speaking English, Spanish, and German, the multi-aged pack of visitors was indicative of the art lovers who continue to visit this most remarkable mural.

Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco is a traditional Buon Fresco, painted directly on fresh lime plaster using water-based tempera pigments. One must be accomplished and fast to create this type of mural… the painted on colors are absorbed by the wet plaster, and as the plaster dries the pigments are permanently set.

Full view of Diego Rivera's The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City at the San Francisco Art Institute. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Full view of Diego Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" at the San Francisco Art Institute. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

A large mural like The Making of a Fresco is created in sections, with fresh plaster spread over the wall in a given area, a drawing transferred to the wet plaster, and then pigments applied in quick brushstrokes before the plaster dries. Obviously there is little room for mistakes with such a method, and Rivera meticulously worked out his drawings and compositions in exacting detail before beginning such a project. Visually The Making of a Fresco is divided into six sections; while this served a narrative purpose, it also had much to do with the technical aspects of painting such a monumental work.

The artist used painter Viscount John Hastings (left) and sculptor Clifford Wight as models for the mural. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The artist used painter Viscount John Hastings (left) and sculptor Clifford Wight as models for the mural. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The Making of a Fresco is a trompe l’œil depicting Rivera and assistants on a scaffold painting their fresco mural. While Rivera included a portrait of himself in the work (the central figure with his back to the viewer), the real focus of the fresco is a gigantic worker; an iconic figure representing the entire international working class. In the detail shot above one can see two of Diego’s assistants at work; the artist used painter Viscount John Hastings (left) and sculptor Clifford Wight as models for the mural.

Detail from "The Making of a Fresco". Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Detail from "The Making of a Fresco". Photo/Mark Vallen ©

In the above detail the artist painted a worker operating a forge bellows (left), a sculptor hammering a massive block of stone with a chisel (middle), and a belt-machine operator. For Rivera the depiction of workers in his mural was of paramount importance, since from his Marxist perspective the workers produced all wealth and so should be the masters of society.

Detail from Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco." Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Detail from Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco." Photo/Mark Vallen ©

In the above detail taken from the lower center portion of the mural, Rivera portrayed Timothy Pfleuger (left), who was responsible for designing the San Francisco Stock Exchange; William Gerstle (center), a banker, philanthropist, and president of the San Francisco Art Association, and Arthur Brown, the architect who designed Coit Tower, The San Francisco Opera House, and San Francisco City Hall. Again, it must be noted that looming over these three very powerful individuals is the colossal proletarian, Rivera’s not so subtle message that the working class will one day prevail over capitalist elites.

Rivera's portrait of artist Marion Simpson, a detail from Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco". Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Rivera's portrait of artist Marion Simpson, detail from Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco". Photo/Vallen ©

In this detail Rivera painted the portrait of artist Marion Simpson, who was a mosaic artist in Berkeley of some renown (you can see two beautiful mosaics she designed for the Alameda County courthouse here). Rivera painted Ms. Simpson as an architect working in an Architecture and Engineering office, he depicted her standing next to real life architect Michael Baltekal-Goodman (not pictured). For Rivera there was little distinction between those engaged in “manual labor” and those involved in intellectual work; both were exploited by bosses, and in the future both would give their productive energies to the service of humanity rather than profit.

Artist Marion Simpson, a detail from Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco". Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Marion Simpson, a detail from Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco". Photo/Mark Vallen ©

In the above detail of the portrait Rivera created of artist Marion Simpson, one can see the qualities of a traditional fresco. Having an almost marker pen characteristic, one can see how the water-based pigments were soaked up by the plaster. The artist painted with a quick but assured hand, using each brushstroke to indicate form… but in an almost shorthand style.

Viewing Rivera’s frescos up close is a marvelous experience; one is immediately impressed by the textures, brushstrokes, scale, and luminosity lost in photographs. What truly astounded me was seeing Rivera’s preliminary charcoal drawings beneath the layers of paint! While most of the groundwork drawings were covered with vibrant pigment, the artist allowed some of the outlines to show through.

In keeping with the celebration of Rivera’s 125th birthday, I have to mention the currently running exhibition at New York’s MoMA, Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art. Running from Nov. 13, 2011 to May 14, 2012, the exhibit displays eight portable mural panels the artist painted for his historic retrospective at the museum in 1931.

Since it was to be painted in an art school, Rivera decided that his mural would show the actual process of creating a fresco mural. In this detail he depicted himself sitting next to an assistant, who is covering the wall with fresh limestone plaster for the artist to paint. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Since it was to be painted in an art school, Rivera decided that his mural would show the actual process of creating a fresco mural. In this detail he depicted himself sitting next to an assistant, who is covering the wall with fresh limestone plaster for the artist to paint. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

This detail from Rivera's mural depicts a sculptor at work. In reality the painting was a portrait of Ralph Stackpole (1885-1973), Rivera's friend and associate. Stackpole was not only a leading American social realist painter, printmaker, muralist, and sculptor; he was one of San Francisco's leading artists. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

This detail from Rivera's mural depicts a sculptor at work. In reality the painting was a portrait of Ralph Stackpole (1885-1973), Rivera's friend and associate. Stackpole was not only a leading American social realist painter, printmaker, muralist, and sculptor; he was one of San Francisco's leading artists. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

POSTS IN THIS CONTINUING SERIES:

Coit Tower Crisis
Arnautoff & the Chapel at the Presidio
Diego Rivera: Pan American Unity