- Historic Sites
When Uncle Sam Played Patron Of The Arts: Memoirs Of A Wpa Painter
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
Franklin D. Roosevelt, commenting on the suggestion that the federal government should undertake a relief program for unemployed artists, expressed some misgiving: he didn’t want, he told a friend in 1933, “a lot of young enthusiasts painting Lenin’s head on the Justice Building.” This was an allusion to the brouhaha in New York over Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s insistence on portraying Lenin in a big mural he was painting at brand-new Rockefeller Center. (In the end the Rockefellers ordered the work destroyed.) The mural is the most public kind of painting; consequently it has usually been felt that a good mural ought to be a source of public inspiration, and the preferred themes have been religious, patriotic, cultural, or industrial. The trouble is, of course, that one man’s inspiration may be another man’s ulcer, and on the whole painters are not likely to be overconservative. Nevertheless, the New Deal administration did its best to give American artists easy rein, recognizing that freedom and originality are inseparable. There were exceptional cases, especially in connection with over a thousand murals executed under Treasury Department auspices for United States post offices across the country; but in general the absence of censorship was remarkable. The portfolio that follows is intended to give a small but fairly representative sampling of the more than four thousand murals painted under the New Deal, to suggest the curious problems confronted by the artists in certain cases, and to show what time has done in others. Don’t miss the four-color, four-page fold-out!
Fairly typical of the troubles encountered by some New Deal artists in expressing their views of the American way of life is the history of a post-office mural by the well-known artist Ben Shahn. The location was the new Bronx Central Post Office in New York City, where the Section of Painting and Sculpture of the Treasury Department had commissioned Shahn to do a series of thirteen large panels. He chose the theme “The Resources of America” for twelve of them; for the thirteenth he planned a scene showing Walt Whitman expounding his philosophy of progress by means of a blackboard on which was inscribed a quotation from one of his poems :
Brain of the new world! What a task is thine! To formulate the Modern out of the peerless grandeur of the Modern Out of thyself—comprising science to recast Poems, Churches, Art (Recast—maybe discard them—end them—maybe their work is done, who knows?)
When Shahn’s cartoons, or full-size sketches for the murals, were exhibited late in 1938, a Jesuit priest at Fordham University publicly denounced the use of the Whitman quotation, not on the grounds of poor poetry but because of the suggestion that the church might some day be dispensable. Under pressure from Washington, Shahn chose a less controversial passage from Whitman, and the execution of the murals proceeded. With his wife Bernarda Bryson as his assistant, Shahn painted them in egg tempera—a medium employing egg yolks as the solvent and adhesive for the pigments used. (“We ate angel-food cake for months,” Mrs. Shahn said later.) After thirty years of exposure to the climate of the postoffice lobby, the eggs and the colors are not doing well, as these recent photographs show.