Book Review: New Deal Photography: USA 1935-1943, Farm Security Administration, 605pp

Taschen, an international publishing company begun in Cologne in 1980, has achieved international renown for its standout coffee table books. Taschen’s art books span from western masterpieces to pop culture, including illustrated monographs on artists, musicians, and writers, classical and contemporary.

Under its Bibliotheca Universalis imprint, Taschen recently reprised 100 of what it calls its “favorites” in a compact, 6 x 8 inch format. Thankfully, the series includes New Deal Photography, USA 1935-1943, a compendium of more than 400 photographs commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression.

In producing what it calls its “democratically priced” edition, Taschen has not sacrificed the legendary quality for which it is famous.

Author Peter Walther has curated an extensive catalogue of indelible images—a “best of” by the best-known photographers of the era. Many of them got their start with the FSA, one of many New Deal programs to put people to work. In the wake of the short-lived Resettlement Administration, the FSA’s mandate was to combat rural poverty. One powerful weapon was to document it. Roy Stryker, who headed the project, described as its purpose “to introduce America to Americans.”

Photographers like Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, and others fanned out across the country capturing images of the ruined landscape and those whose lives were upended by the nation’s environmental and economic collapse.

Over the course of eight years the FSA project resulted in the most comprehensive collection of social-documentary photographs of the 20th century.

Walther’s commentary, presented in English, French, and German, succinctly describes the historical context that fostered this uniquely American collection. The book includes rarely seen color photographs as well as many familiar black-and-white images of the displaced and desperate, such as Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” and Rothstein’s “Fleeing a Dust Storm.” Also included are brief bios and portraits of the photographers themselves whose iconic images have come to be recognized worldwide.

Book Review: Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene, pp 170

Ben Shahns New Deal Murals

Ben Shahns New Deal Murals
by Diana Linden, Wayne State University, Reviewed by Gabriel Milner, Ph.D.

A prolific visual artist before, during, and after the New Deal, Ben Shahn’s religion (Judaism), place of birth (Lithuania), and first language (Yiddish), set him apart as a member of “the ‘Hebrew Race,’ a racial assignment both inferior and vastly different from white or Caucasian artists among whom Shahn is positioned today.” This identity, all-important at the time but largely overlooked now, accounted for a sense of history, community, and engagement with the world that Shahn manifested in his innovative and unflinching murals.

Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene, a finalist in the Visual Arts category of the 2015 National Jewish Book Awards, examines four works that Shahn completed or envisioned while working for the WPA. Shahn learned fresco painting as an assistant to Diego Rivera in the 1930s and created his own visually powerful style as a muralist for the New Deal Arts Project.  After situating Shahn within early 20th Century New York, the book delves into the conception, creation, and reception of four murals:  “The Jersey Homesteads Mural,” which Shahn painted for a cooperative community of former Jewish garment workers established under the New Deal; the Bronx Central Post Office murals; a mural he proposed for the main St. Louis Post Office; and an easel painting in a Queens post office. Setting them within their national and international contexts, including Jewish agrarian communities in the Soviet Union, the rise of Nazi Germany, and life in Manhattan where Shahn lived and worked, Linden illustrates how the artist layered identities and eras to make America comprehensible to an “in between” people.

For instance, the Jersey Homesteads Mural celebrated American workers while alluding to the promise and disillusionment that the nation held for immigrants fleeing persecution. Linden maintains that it echoes the mass exodus of Eastern European Jews to America and the story of the Exodus from Egypt, calling attention to America’s stringent immigration policies at a time when Jews were fleeing Nazi persecution. In Shahn’s proposed St. Louis mural depicting Missouri’s history, prominent barbed wire suggests “an important tool by which white settlers kept ‘others’ out in order to claim the land for themselves,” as well as the Nazis’ use of “barbed wire as a tool to contain people,” Linden observes.

In Linden’s view, Shahn’s goal was to “spark positive social change.” Her book, bolstered by vibrant reproductions of Shahn’s murals, sketches, and photographs, shows that his view of art was to compel rather than simply commemorate.  Readers interested in Jewish American history, art history, and Depression-era American culture will enjoy this insightful book.

New Study of Ben Shahn’s Murals a Finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards

"Linden shows that throughout his public murals, Shahn literally painted Jews into the American scene with his subjects, themes, and compositions.”


“Linden shows that throughout his public murals, Shahn literally painted Jews into the American scene with his subjects, themes, and compositions.”  SourceWayne State University, 2016

Ben Shahn’s celebrated New Deal murals can be found throughout the United States. Born in Lithuania, trained under Diego Rivera, Shahn’s work for the federal government depicted a diverse nation of workers, dedicated to the twin aims of progress and justice. (Appropriately, his mural for the recently-sold Bronx General Post Office, painted with his wife Bernarda, was inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing.”) We are extremely happy to report that Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene (Wayne State University Press, 2015), by art historian (and friend-of-the-Living New Deal) Diana L. Linden, has been named 2016 Finalist in the Visual Arts Category by the National Jewish Book Awards. In Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals, Linden explores the ways in which the artist’s Eastern European Jewish background informed the conceptualization and production of his celebrated murals.

 

From the publisher: “In four chapters, Linden presents case studies of select Shahn murals that were created from 1933 to 1943 and are located in public buildings in New York, New Jersey, and Missouri. She studies Shahn’s famous untitled fresco for the Jersey Homesteads—a utopian socialist cooperative community populated with former Jewish garment workers and funded under the New Deal—Shahn’s mural for the Bronx Central Post Office, a fresco Shahn proposed to the post office in St. Louis, and a related one-panel easel painting titled The First Amendment located in a Queens, New York, post office. By investigating the role of Jewish identity in Shahn’s works, Linden considers the artist’s responses to important issues of the era, such as President Roosevelt’s opposition to open immigration to the United States, New York’s bustling garment industry and its labor unions, ideological concerns about freedom and liberty that had significant meaning to Jews, and the encroachment of censorship into American art. Linden shows that throughout his public murals, Shahn literally painted Jews into the American scene with his subjects, themes, and compositions.”

 

Here at the Living New Deal, we showcase the era’s commitment to pluralist democracy, past, present, and future. In what is the first monograph of any artist’s New Deal-era output, Diana Linden makes a case for the role of the arts and imagination in this all-important endeavor.

For Sale: America’s Historic Post Offices

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office
Berkeley, California

 

Despite growing public protest, the U.S. Postal Service is moving apace to sell the public’s historic post offices. Last month, the Postal Service added four more post offices on the National Register of Historic Places to its “For Sale” list: California’s La Jolla Wall Street Post Office, built in 1935; New York City’s Old Chelsea Station on West 18th Street, and the Bronx General Post Office on the Grand Concourse, both built in 1937; and the Berkeley Downtown Post Office, which, in spite of a year long campaign to keep the century-old building in the public domain, was recently slated for sale.

Like many other endangered post offices, these buildings contain unique New Deal artworks.

During the 1930s the federal government put thousands to work building the nation’s postal system.  In big cities and small towns alike, New Deal post offices are among the most artful, architecturally distinguished, and beloved buildings.

The thirteen murals in the Bronx Post Office created by New Deal artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson are considered masterpieces.

The Bronx Post Office
The thirteen murals in the Bronx Post Office created by New Deal artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson are considered masterpieces.

“Apparently the country is done with that kind of idealism,” notes Gray Brechin, geographer and Living New Deal Project scholar, “Rather than building beautiful public places, the federal government is selling them off.”

Buildings on the National Register of Historic Places are afforded some protection—their exterior must be preserved. But once sold the buildings are often gutted. In at least one case, a 1937 post office in Virginia Beach, Virginia was demolished to make way for a Walgreen’s pharmacy.

The National Historic Preservation Act ensures public access to public artwork, but when post offices are sold the murals and sculptures often are removed to storage. Even when the art remains in place, it’s up to the new owners whether the public may view it.

The Postal Service financial crisis started in 2006 when Congress required the Postal Service to pre-pay 75 years of workers’ benefits within ten years. Although many blame email for the Postal Service’s demise, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 is responsible for $4 out of every $5 in Postal Service debt—more than $15 billion in 2012. In response, the Postal Service is cutting services and selling many of its most valuable properties.

CB Richard Ellis, a giant commercial real estate firm, holds the exclusive contract to sell postal properties worth billions. CB Richard Ellis’ chairman is Richard Blum, a University of California Regent and the husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein. So far, the press has shown no interest in investigating how that contract was awarded, nor its terms.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced legislation to repeal the law responsible for the Postal Service’s death spiral. The bill recently passed the Senate but the other has yet to be voted on in the House.


The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Historic Post Office to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places of 2012.

Read Francis O’Connor’s open letter about post office art »

For a list of endangered post offices go to:  http://www.savethepostoffice.com