Human beings have acted to create images on wall spaces since well before recorded history. Cave paintings are well known and powerfully appreciated for their evidence of human creativity. The will to decorate these “walls” has, over time, lead to the development of varied means and modes, beyond pounding colored clay into a powder and mixing it with fat. Generally, walls are decorated by changing the surface by applying objects—by affixing small stone or glass tiles to form shape or pattern, and by coloring or dying the surface.
Thus, the vast, soaring space of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque gets it name from the thousands of beautiful Iznik tiles which decorate its interior. The Byzantine pile at Venice, St. Mark’s Basilica, glows with hundreds of thousands of tiny mosaic pieces, sandwiches of thin glass over leaves of sheet gold. Murals around public buildings in the United States carry on the grand tradition but in the American way, integrated into the community.
Today, muralists such as Robert Dafford, winner of many regional, national, and international awards for his work, and a resident of Lafayette, Louisianan, has painted over 400 works of public art across the United States, Canada, France, Belgium, and England.
Today, muralists such as Robert Dafford, winner of many regional, national, and international awards for his work, and a resident of Lafayette, Louisianan, has painted over 400 works of public art across the United States, Canada, France, Belgium, and England. According to an on-line encyclopedia, the artist has been “painting murals, signs, and fine art paintings for 35 years.
In the past fifteen years, Dafford has concentrated on working along the Ohio River, painting over two hundred large historical images of cities on their floodwalls, using trompe l’œil, advanced perspective, and realist technique.
“Many riverboat tours make stops along the Ohio River specifically to see his murals. Dafford is best known for his murals in Paducah, Kentucky; Portsmouth, Ohio; and Covington, Kentucky. His giant Clarinet in New Orleans, and his depictions of the History of the Acadians are also among his notable works. In 2009 he collaborated with former longtime employee Herb Roe on a poster project for the Zydeco Cajun Prairie Scenic Byway.”
THE FEDERAL ART PROJECT OF THE WPA
Americans know this kind of art from seeing it in local city halls, in schools, and at the post office. In 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt created “The Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration” (WPA) as a practical relief project…
Although many of us have grown familiar with contemporary murals such as those done by Robert Dafford, enormous numbers of Americans know this kind of art from seeing it in local city halls, in schools, and at the post office. In 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt created “The Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration” (WPA) as a practical relief project—to provide work for unemployed artists, writers, and photographers. Within the WPA nested the “Federal Arts Project (FAP), begun in 1935. The FAP sought to employ American artists to enrich daily life for a nation in need.
Art was to be used in buildings that were tax-supported by the citizens—military bases, schools, hospitals, libraries, and post offices. The mural program extended the classical idea of decorated architecture into the lives of everyday citizens by ornamenting public space with appropriate stories. Because of the influential work of Thomas Hart Benton, John Stuart Curry, and Grant Wood, the art produced is often viewed as “Midwestern.” But much more was created than Midwestern scenes alone. The Art Movement of this period is generally referred to as “The American Scene.” Subsets of the American Scene style came to be called regionalismand social realism.
Because of the influential work of Thomas Hart Benton, John Stuart Curry, and Grant Wood, the art produced is often viewed as “Midwestern.” But much more was created than Midwestern scenes alone.
REGIONALISM AND SOCIAL REALISM
Following the First World War, many American artists turned away from European sources, disenchanted with that setting. A “Lost Generation,” as Gertrude Stein called it, emerged from the war, and severed from what some saw as the self-serving myth of High European Culture. Over time in the early to middle of the twentieth century, many American artists sought a homegrown style or method with which to deal with what they understood as uniquely American circumstances.
In some ways this was representative of being “pushed” from the long time reliance on Europe as the center of the art universe. In addition, this process evidenced a sort of “pull” toward the spirit of their own emerging and developing arts culture. Some art historians look at this effort of a “search for a national style of art” as growing out of a reaction against European abstraction, as well as a tendency toward American isolationism following the First World War.
REGIONALISM AND MODERNISM: BENTON, WOOD, AND CURRY
Regionalism—the name was attached by outsiders—germinated in or somewhat before the 1930s in the United States. Although considered to be an attempt to find essential meaning in America through focus on the nation’s rural folk culture, it would be a very great mistake to imagine that the painters themselves were “folk” or naive in any way. The “simple and honest” renderings of Regionalism, artists of extraordinary sophistication and innovative zeal created the search for truth, American values, and “reality”.
The “simple and honest” renderings of Regionalism, artists of extraordinary sophistication and innovative zeal created the search for truth, American values, and “reality.”
James Dennis, professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culturereappraises the work of the so-called Regionalists in his Renegade Regionalists: The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Stuart Curry. In doing so, Dennis provides further evidence of the deeply modernist forces and the social and political texture of the Regionalists’ times. By offering this alternative to the traditional reading of Regionalism as a genre, Dennis provides important insight into the meanings of the FPA murals.
Wood, Benton, and Curry, well-known for their images of the rural Midwest—such as American Gothic, Politics in Missouri, and Baptism in Kansas—have been lumped together under a single label of Regionalist. And although these Midwestern painters played a small part in the federal mural project, their work was well known to mural artists, and it served as a benchmark for many public murals throughout the United States.
Over time, according to Dennis, the “sophisticated modernist tendencies” of the three have been suppressed, played down by “critics and ideologues—from Time Magazineto the Partisan Review, who“pigeonholed, praised, or pilloried the Regionalists to serve their own critical intentions.” Dennis looks into why the Regionalists were essentially forced to avoid the appearance of innovation and the use of contemporary art theory. For reasons that were political and perhaps economic, conservative critics “from 1930 on, consistently demanded that Wood, Benton, and Curry stop straying in their art toward modernist abstraction, caricature, or fantasy, but stick instead to rural subjects and realist styles.”
. . . the “sophisticated modernist tendencies” . . . have been suppressed, played down by “critics and ideologues—from Time Magazineto the Partisan Review, who “pigeonholed, praised, or pilloried the Regionalists to serve their own critical intentions. . . .”
NEW DEAL MURALS AND CUBISM
While traditionalists wanted “inspiring, all-American imagery, not borrowings from Cubism,” more radical critics advocated social realism that would accurately depict the plight of the workers. In fact, the dominant style of New Deal murals was Cubism—an avant-garde style of painting of Modernists such as Picasso. According to Karal Ann Marling’s book Wall-to-Wall America: A Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression (1982), Cubism was seen in the faceted imagery, and in the preference of rendering detail creatively rather than accurately. But while the paintings borrowed from Modernist techniques, they were re-adapting these methods to American social reality.
In some ways, then, while the Benton, Wood, and Curry are certainly foundation to the FPA murals, they themselves may better fit into the school of American Modernism generally seen to embrace Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O’Keefe.
THOMAS HART BENTON
Benton: “Either I would paint in the realistic tradition of Western art with some kind of identification with the natural world, and thus risk being ‘unprogressive,’ or I would follow the new movements toward an unknown goal, a goal which a number of far-sighted critics were already saying might turn out to be an empty square of paint”
Benton has been quoted as saying, “It seemed to me that I must make a choice. Either I would paint in the realistic tradition of Western art with some kind of identification with the natural world, and thus risk being ‘unprogressive,’ or I would follow the new movements toward an unknown goal, a goal which a number of far-sighted critics were already saying might turn out to be an empty square of paint” (quoted in Don Gray in his essay, The Challenge of Thomas Hart Benton, 1985). Benton chose the new movements toward an unknown goal.
Indeed. According to Gray “for ten years during his early period, [Benton] explored all the modern art movements, and remained strongly committed to the underlying abstract framework in his realistic works.” Thus, Benton noted in Grays account, “Contrary to general belief, the ‘Regionalist’ movement did not in any way oppose abstract form. It simply wished to put meanings, recognizable American meanings, into some of it. I have myself spent a great deal of time working with the basic properties of art, combining purely geometric forms. In my case, however, the resulting combinations were not themselves what we call ends. The ends I had in view…were always to create effective vehicles for representing and communicating meanings.”
Benton ultimately fell from glory, though his stunning collapse of reputation thankfully took place after his death, and reflection that his work was often misunderstood. A Gray relates, “I wanted now to see clearly the nature of American life as it unrolled before me and to paint it without my vision being distorted by any generalities of (Marxist) social theory,” he explained at one point, going on to say that, “the exposition of this change of mind caused my radical friends to see me with a jaundiced eye. I became for most of them a ‘reactionary’ and a ‘chauvinist,’ in addition to again being an ‘opportunist’.”
Benton was fully schooled in the avant-garde theories of Europe, but did not entirely accept them as solutions to aesthetic problems framing the nature of America. “We were alike in that we were all in revolt against the unhappy effects which the Armory show of 1913 had had on American painting,” Gray records, describing the first modern art show in the US. “We objected to the new Parisian aesthetics which were more and more turning art away from the living world of active men and women into an academic world of empty pattern. We wanted an American art which was not empty, and we believed that only by turning the formative processes of art back again to meaningful subject matter, in our cases specifically American subject matter, could we expect to get one.”
While much is made of the Regionalists being “representative,” the facts are clearly otherwise (and they show the evidence of the Modernist presence in art made for the United States). Benton’s figures, and by extension the tone, have an intentionally distorted, solid look which reflects the modernist vision of Cubism used to create a representational sence in the viewer. Benton, too, tended toward vivid jewel like colors (this is in part because he often painted in tempera with oil-glazing,) with strong, fresh looks. Again, the claim of simple representation is usurped by the reality that Benton tended to paint what represented the “nature” of work or toil, and not for a particularity of a work or toil filled image. Energy, life force, struggle are “represented” by writhing, heaving, coiling forms, reminiscent, again, of European artists such as Van Gogh, and genre such as Art Noveau.
Benton’s figures, and by extension the tone, have an intentionally distorted, solid look which reflects the modernist vision of Cubism used to create a representational sence in the viewer. Benton, too, tended toward vivid jewel like colors (this is in part because he often painted in tempera with oil-glazing,) with strong, fresh looks.
“Grant Wood was an exceptional artist from a very young age,” Larry Jordan notes in Midwest Today. “When he was 14, he won third prize in a national contest for a crayon drawing of oak leaves and said that winning that prize was his inspiration to become an artist.” His formal art education included work, observation, and travel here and abroad. It is generally true that as a working method, the Regionalist preferred board to canvas. He used a half-and-half mixture of linseed oil and turps, and would routinely look as his work in progress upside down to judge its form and balance.
Wood studied at the Minneapolis School of Design, and then became a designer while enrolled in night course work at the University of Iowa and the Art Institute of Chicago. Finally, back then when it was all the rage, he was able to do his expatriate time in Europe: he visited Paris. Returning in a few years, Wood was able to study art at Academie Julien and eventually visit Italy after the classic fashion. Returning yet again in 1928, the artist discovered German and Dutch primitive painters. Their work would leave a lasting impression on the artist, who returned to head the Iowa Works Progress Administration.
Wood was able to study art at Academie Julien and eventually visit Italy after the classic fashion. Returning yet again in 1928, the artist discovered German and Dutch primitive painters. Their work would leave a lasting impression on the artist . . .
They enjoyed success in 1930 during the Great Depression when the public found some comfort during troubled times. Like Benton and Curry, “Wood was trying to stimulate the birth of a true American national art. The artist prepared a so-called “manifesto” in about 1935, calling for a “renaissance of American art.” Wood found art of the period too dependent on European themes and theory. Perhaps because of his familiarity with it, Wood especially suspected French art, most notably abstract painting. This “arm’s length” approach to the French painters should not be understood to mean that Wood was a literalist—and certainly not that the Regionalist perspective was one of replicating the real in a technique heavy approach. The Regionalists selected elements of the whole, which stood for the whole, as the French abstractionists did. But the American artists selected elements to describe the virile, not yet decadent, New World.
In Munich, Germany, supervising the glass making for an important commission he’d received in the States, the artist saw and “admired 15th century Northern Gothic painting at the Alte Pinakothek Museum. This style had enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in Germany during the 1920s as part of a broader return to realism, objectivity referred to as ‘die Neue Sachlichkeit.’ He demonstrated a tendency to render rounded forms in a simplified, schematic fashion with the clear definition of Northern Gothic painting and modern German art” (Jordan).
Wood is well known for concentrating on local color, struggling to bring it to life in such works as ‘Appraisal, 1931,’ and ‘Dinner for Threshers, 1934.’ Yet, Wood’s artistic vision did not develop in a Midwestern vacuum. “Wood’s work reveals the influence of German and Dutch primitive painters through his attention to minute treatment of details, including the architecture of farms and built environments” (Jordan). Thus, while the Regionalists were rebelling against many European conceits and formal practices, they were also extending and attenuating both traditional and modernist streams in the fine arts.
“Wood’s work reveals the influence of German and Dutch primitive painters through his attention to minute treatment of details, including the architecture of farms and built environments” (Jordan).
His realism is by no means simple, straightforward, and unsophisticated, as some claim in dubious support of the artist’s “honest” approach. Certainly, “Wood painted the people and landscapes of the Middle West in an idealized way, inspired by his personal universe filled with tales and legends thus paying homage to those people who worked hard without bothering about earning money.” Indeed, the Midwesterner may be said to have painted in a style reminiscent of Holbein with satirical if not surrealistic twist. Paintings such as ‘Parson Weems,’ and ‘Fable,’(early 1930s) seek to tell the well known history of George Washington when he admitted to cutting down the cherry tree.
“Wood painted the people and landscapes of the Middle West in an idealized way, inspired by his personal universe filled with tales and legends thus paying homage to those people who worked hard without bothering about earning money. . . ”
“Wood painted George Washington with the head of the first portrait of the U.S president produced by Gilbert Stuart,” one art historian tells us “while Parson Mason Locke, the teller, was placed in the right of the painting opening a curtain on the scene. Such humorous interpretation shocked many patriots.”
Woods landscapes were sometimes called “unreal realism,” hinting at the tension hidden in the notion of “realism,” and this effect was furthered by that sence of innovation and humor. “All my pictures are first planned as abstractions,” he once admitted. “When I think it’s a sound design, then I start very cautiously making it looks like nature. But I’m so afraid of being photographic that maybe I stop too soon.”
A HUGE INCREASE IN PUBLIC SPACES DURING THE 1930s
During the 1930s, three times as many post offices were built as had been constructed in the previous 50 years. The “Public Works Administration” (PWA), which was in operation from 1933-1939, was responsible for approximately 25% of these new public buildings. Established as part of FDR’s New Deal, the PWA was meant to stimulate the economy through increased employment, particularly in the building trades. During the Depression, nearly one-third of the nation’s unemployed were in building trades, and the PWA gave them an opportunity to not only gain viable employment, but also to make a distinctive architectural mark (Elizabeth A. Moore Preservation in Print).
During the 1930s, three times as many post offices were built as had been constructed in the previous 50 years. The “Public Works Administration” (PWA), which was in operation from 1933-1939, was responsible for approximately 25% of these new public buildings.
Many of the post offices and other federal buildings were embellished with interior artwork, particularly murals. While the WPA Project produced much Depression-Era art, mural projects were under the control of a different agency, the “Treasury Section of Fine Arts Program,” known generally as “The Section” to distinguish it from the WPA arts projects. Funding for the artwork amounted to one percent of a building’s construction appropriation.
Edward Bruce was the head of The Section until he died in 1942. During these years, he works to employ not necessarily “needy” artists but, rather, artists who would be chosen according to their merit. These artists were to “embellish Federal buildings with the best contemporary American art” as Sue Beckham puts it. Many WPA programs stressed financial aid; The Section stressed their notion of “quality art.” Bruce’s assistant, Edward Rowan, was the person who actually communicated with local residents in communities to identify their needs.
In the tug of war, which developed in the politics around choosing mural designs and artists to conceive and execute them—-two very different roles—the individual personality of painters, especially as creative people, is often forgotten.
In the tug of war, which developed in the politics around choosing mural designs and artists to conceive and execute them—-two very different roles—the individual personality of painters, especially as creative people, is often forgotten. At times, while supporters or detractors of Regionalism, and thus of the selection of images for these Louisiana murals later, were mired in largely economic questions, artists inserted irony for their own glee.
THE SELECTION PROCESS OF ARTISTS
Artists selected to paint murals were identified through competitions. Some national projects, such as the Justice and Post Office buildings in Washington, opened competitions to all American artists. Otherwise, The Section worked to employ local talent wherever possible.
People in the communities who, according to The Section, understood “good art” conducted competitions, under ideal circumstances. Such criteria made it difficult for Southern states, which boasted very few art schools. Finding a community educated in art was a challenge. As a result, many of the artists who painted Southern murals were from New York and New England—outsiders who entered communities and then had to reconcile their artistic goals with the desires of the community.
According to Sue Beckham, “Bruce and Rowan had a very narrow idea about what constituted excellence in art”. Their definition included notpainting in the style of “old masters.” The work could not be “academic” or “modern.” The paintings were supposed to be “popular,” in other words, accessible to the masses of people who would view them on an everyday basis. Good Section art “had to be so innocuous that it offended no one, so realistic that every post office patron could identify with its figures, so general that murals painted for one post office could be installed in another one” (Beckham). Community leaders had to be pleased by the art, so that the artists’ goals were often negotiated with community input.
In short, The Section required mural art to reflect “The American Scene.”
THE AMERICAN SCENE IN PUBLIC MURALS
During The Section’s push for mural art in federal buildings, twenty-three postal facilities in Louisiana were decorated with Section artwork. Today, only 17 of these buildings remain decorated. Others are either missing or have been relocated. Public opinion wielded a great deal of power over the content of the art. Artist Laura B. Lewis, who painted the mural for Eunice’s post office, was compelled to modify her initial proposal to paint a deserted Texas Army base in the 1939 post office. Her final product was an agricultural scene, “Louisiana Farm,” in response to community outcry. Unfortunately, this mural is no longer available.
During The Section’s push for mural art in federal buildings, twenty-three postal facilities in Louisiana were decorated with Section artwork. Today, only 17 of these buildings remain decorated. Others are either missing or have been relocated.
If an artist was selected and assigned a post office in a U.S. town, s/he might well have to research the them from a distance, time was hard for many people. But sometimes artists would make a site visit to the town and the region, or even reside there. In any even, based on his research, s/he would choose a theme, and submit three sketches, along with ideas, to the Section. Then, if all went well, the Section would select one sketch. Or, personnel with the Section might recommend a combination of the three sketches—it could be a time consuming process. Once there seemed to be a meeting of the minds based on these cartoons or preliminary drawings, then the artist would usually paint the mural on canvas, as essentially easel work. This would in turn be transported to the local post office and then mounted in place.
Some of the murals painted during the Depression have been lost or damaged beyond repair; many still exist and because the settings were indoors, are often in fairly good condition. Although there was some variation, as a general rule, the murals in the United States public buildings were painted for the purposes of “community uplift.” The intention was to produce positive social effects. Because of this, a number of dominant themes can be identified. They include the celebration of local farm life; a kind of technological optimism; a reliance on historical scenes; and, most importantly, images of community cooperation. At the same time, this cycle of murals rarely show people working in isolation.
Themes in the Murals:
Positive social effects
Images from popular culture
Immutable images of home
Avoided unpleasantness of present and looked to future
Humble origins of heroes
Orderly life, protection from catastrophe
For example, a 1938 Life Magazine article about the post office murals reports, in what is a pretty accurate assessment of the pattern, that “only a handful suggests the possibility that the most highly industrialized nation in the world has any industry at all.” More often than not, the Section murals show people coming together to survive during one of the hardest economic periods in this nation’s history.