The Case for New Deal Art

“Women’s Contributions to American Progress,” Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe appear in a mural panel by Edward Millman.

“Women’s Contributions to American Progress,” Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe appear in a mural panel by Edward Millman.
Lucy Flower Technical High School for Girls, Chicago, Illinois  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Registry

President Roosevelt and his circle believed in the value of the public realm and public service, so they made government investment in public goods such as parks, schools and civic buildings a pillar of the New Deal. Along with its immense building programs, the New Deal brought a level of government support for public art never seen before-–or since. This is reason enough to celebrate the legacy of New Deal art.

The Treasury Section of Fine Arts and the Federal Arts Project of the WPA are the best-known programs, but there were others: The Public Works of Art Project of the Civil Works Administration, the Art and Culture Projects of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and the Treasury Relief Arts Project. Together they produced tens of thousands of artworks, most of which still adorn public places and brighten the lives of Americans to this day.

“Espirito Santo Grant, Old Cuba Road” by William Henderson

“Espirito Santo Grant, Old Cuba Road” by William Henderson
In 1938, Henderson completed the six WPA murals begun by Gerald Cassidy for the US Courthouse in Santa Fe, New Mexico  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

New Deal art programs employed thousands of unemployed artists during the Great Depression, establishing careers and sometimes literally saving lives. Some of America’s greatest artists worked under the New Deal, such as early 20th century giants like Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton and Maynard Dixon. Followers of the famous Mexican artists Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, like Bernard Zakheim, Victor Arnautoff and George Biddle, produced inspirational murals. Postwar Abstractionists Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Phillip Guston and Lee Krasner came out of the New Deal, as did a host of artists of color such as Sargent Johnson, David Park, Charles Davis, James Auchiah, Gerald Nailor, Jo Mora, Lusi Arenal, Dong Kingman and Isamu Noguchi.

“Ohio” Mural by WPA artist Paul Meltsner displays the social realism popular during the New Deal.

“Ohio,” Mural by WPA artist Paul Meltsner displays the social realism popular during the New Deal.
Bellevue, Ohio Post Office  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

New Deal artists were not just diverse and prolific, they had wide license to exercise their inspiration and talents. As a result, the quality of New Deal art deserves respect for its aesthetic brilliance and originality. A recurrent thread of celebration of American life runs through much of public art of the era, but New Deal artists frequently infused their works with social commentary and criticism. Because people today understandably question art that includes dishonorable people and practices from America’s past, hasty judgement of New Deal murals frequently miss their qualities and subtleties.

"Scenes of Indian Life" by Allan Cafran Houser, 1949

"Scenes of Indian Life" by Allan Cafran Houser, 1949
Native American artist Allan Houser and other Indian artists were invited by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts to paint murals at the Department of Interior Building in Washington, DC.  Source
Photo Credit: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Full appreciation of New Deal art can also be impeded by the dominant painting styles of the time, Social Realism and American Scene, which have long been out of fashion. Social Realism has often come under attack for its celebration of manual (and masculine) labor and resemblance to Soviet art, while American Scene painting is dismissed for being nostalgic and vernacular. Only recently has art of the New Deal-era enjoyed a revival in the art world.

New Deal art is all around us yet too often poorly maintained, unmarked or inaccessible to the public. A growing number of these artworks are jeopardized when the buildings that house them are torn down or renovated. Our society needs to value and protect the New Deal’s legacy of public-spirited art. Furthermore, we sorely need a new New Deal to support struggling artists of today so that they may create diverse and inspiring imagery for the future.

The Living New Deal offers recommendations to communities and institutions dealing with challenges to New Deal artworks.

Mural Panel, “From Slavery to Reconstruction,” 1934. Aaron Douglas, an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, painted “Aspects of Negro Life,” a four-panel mural, for the Public Works of Art Project.

Mural Panel, “From Slavery to Reconstruction,” 1934. Aaron Douglas, an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, painted “Aspects of Negro Life,” a four-panel mural, for the Public Works of Art Project.
Shomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

“Cotton Pickers,” Linden, Texas Post Office mural, 1939

“Cotton Pickers,” Linden, Texas Post Office mural, 1939
Russian-born artist Victor Arnautoff trained with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and taught at Stanford. New Deal murals portraying Native Americans and enslaved people can be considered controversial today, but are often misconstrued.  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

 

New Documentary on WPA Artist, Tyrus Wong

Pioneer and artist Tyrus Wong

Pioneer and artist Tyrus Wong
“Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise a lot of artists would’ve starved to death.”

A film honoring the 105–year old artist Tyrus Wong recently premiered at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. Tyrus attended! “Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise a lot of artists would’ve starved to death,” says Tyrus in the just released film.

From his early artistic work with Works Progress Administration (WPA) Tyrus went on to become the creative force behind the Walt Disney film, Bambi, and later, the classic Rebel Without a Cause. He designed sets and storyboards for Hollywood studios. His artistic work spanned greeting cards and popular pottery designs and, later in life, intricate and colorful Chinese kites. He once exhibited with Picasso.

Directed by Pamela Tom, the film begins with Tyrus’s emigration from China at age 9—he never saw his mother again. When he arrived in the U.S. he was detained for months at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay.

Support from his father enabled Tyrus to pursue his talent. Teachers at the well-known Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles further encouraged him, as did other WPA artists like Benji Okubo and Hideo Date. Tyrus produced watercolors, lithographs and murals for the Federal Art Project. As he tells it, his success was based on “luck and hard work.” His wife, Ruth, and their three daughters, also featured in the film, attest to Tyrus working late into the night.

Tyrus’s dedication to his art and soulful approach to life and family shine through in the film. His story is another example of a young artist nurtured by the WPA at critical period in their career. Watch for a screening in your area – http://tyruswongthemovie.com/screenings/.

Lakeview Post Office Mural – Chicago IL

During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration was the greatest and most ambitious agency to come out of FDR’s New Deal that employed mostly the unskilled. One sector of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was the Federal Art Project (FAP), and from that was born the Mural Division. This sought to not only employ artists that were struggling financially, but also to bring art to the public. There were many divisions of the FAP that had similar goals, but the Mural Division had a grand vision, and a lasting legacy. It showcased the talent of many artists in that era with varying artistic styles, visions, and messages. One artist in particular was Harry Sternberg, an American painter from New York.

Harry Sternberg was born in New York City on July 19, 1904, to parents that were European immigrants. He was raised on the Lower East Side before moving to Brooklyn. From an early age, Sternberg was very interested in art. He started classes at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1915, and then from 1922 to 1926 he began part-time study at the Art Students League of New York. These many years of study culminated into his future career of etching, printmaking, and painting in 1926, just before the Great Depression. [2]

Sternberg had his first exhibition in 1931, in New York City at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He soon went back to work at his former school in New York where he remained an instructor until 1968. During the time as a teacher, he was also very involved in social issues related to art. He was appointed to the Graphic Art Division of the Federal Art Project, a sector of the WPA. Sternberg spent a year studying the working conditions of coalmine and steel mill workers. This was prominently featured in his first mural ever, “Chicago: Epoch of a Great City” for the Lakeview Post Office in Chicago, Illinois. This mural, like other New Deal post office murals, was actually funded by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts rather than the WPA. [1] [2]

Sternberg traveled to Chicago in 1937 to begin studying the city’s history, culture, work conditions, and architecture. This was used to influence his famous mural for the Lakeview Post Office, which depicts the history of Chicago up to the then current day. [1]

The mural, “Chicago: Epoch of a Great City” has many individual elements that while that show a clear timeline of Chicago’s history. The bottom center of the painting, a focal point, stands Fort Dearborn, which was the first settlement in Chicago. Right above that is a great fire engulfing Chicago, representing none other than the Great Chicago Fire. People flee from buildings to escape the flames that crawl through the streets. Smoke feeds into the fire from the left side of the mural, which represents the industrial side of Chicago. We see scientists, metal workers, and tall smoke stacks. Off in the distance are three separate railroad lines. The farthest of the three trains is a locomotive, which was very typical of the time. The middle most train is an updated commuter train, and the closest appears to be a much more updated commuter train, one similar to modern day Amtrak trains. Sternberg hints at the revolution of trains to come in putting that futuristic train closest to the center of the mural.

Sternberg was sure to include the city’s signature skyline, including many famous buildings known throughout Chicago still today. At the time, the Conrad Hilton hotel was the largest in the world, and that is prominently featured at the front most part of his skyline. Also making an appearance is the Wrigley building, the Art Institute, the London Guarantee building, the Civic Opera House, Hutchinson Tower at the University of Chicago, the Field Museum, and the Water Tower. [3]

The right side of the picture focuses more on the agricultural side of Chicago. Of course at the time, Chicago was known for its vast stockyards of cattle, and the controversial meat industry. Something worth noting is that in this section, and the left hand side of the mural in the steel plant, Harry includes African American workers. Most of the other workers depicted in the painting, and in American art at the time, were white. Sternberg really tried to accurately represent the working conditions of American workers. This move made his work more revolutionary, and helped it keep its relevancy today.

Sternberg’s mural proved to be a lasting legacy of the Great Depression, as it remains one of the better restored murals that survived the Federal Arts Project. Sternberg was quoted saying, “My Chicago mural is still in a very good state. It would be a great loss to our history if the more neglected murals were allowed to further deteriorate”. (Becker, 2002)