When Uncle Sam Played Patron Of The Arts: Memoirs Of A Wpa Painter


Coit Tower, which perks from the top of Telegraph Hill where there used to be (guess!) a telegraph station, is a San Francisco landmark. It is not as functional as its predecessor, having been built in the early thirties with funds left by Lillie M. Coit to commemorate the exertions of the city’s volunteer firemen; but the view of the bay is as good as ever. In the base of the tower the visitor is confronted with some of the first examples of New Deal art: big murals on all four walls, painted in 1934 under the Public Works of Art Project (1933-34), forerunner of the WPA Federal Art Project. They are interestingly typical of early Depression art: stylistically reminiscent of Mexican muralists like Rivera and Orozco, they are half realistic rendering, half montage, with bold, almost crude delineation, hints of ironic caricature, and a selection of details that suggest a point of view somewhat àgauche . Note, for instance, the newspaper headlines being read by the visitors to Bernard Zakheim’s Library (opposite), and the authors of the books prominently placed. (This caused a flurry of complaints from the San Francisco Art Commission, which had not escaped a shaft in one of the headlines.) Note, too, Zakheim’s clever use of an actual Coit Tower window as a trompe-l’oeil door for his library. Victor Arnautoff ‘s City Life , our four-page foldout, also accommodates itself to the actualities of the tower. The painting is otherwise self-explanatory and repays, we think, close scrutiny.