“The Depression and World War II eras were a time in the arts – painting, printmaking, drawing, film, photography, dance, music, literature and theater – when ideas lifting up the average citizen to a starring role blossomed,” writes Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus curator of Prints and Drawings at the Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar. She explains that central to this blossoming was the renewed belief in the importance of the laborer. The federal government sponsored numerous work programs, including many for visual artists. Wall paintings featuring larger-than-life figures, all involved in some sort of work, covered walls in public buildings across the country.
A new exhibition at Vassar College’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center focuses on the Golden Age of murals in America through a series of preliminary sketches from the Steven and Susan Hirsch Collection. “Celebrating Heroes: American Mural Studies of the 1930s and 1940s” depicts everyday workers: Thousands of realistically portrayed miners, settlers, Native Americans, steelworkers, farmers and others inhabit murals painted during the Great Depression in government buildings and schools across the nation. Such wall paintings were accessible to anyone who could enter a post office or a public school or a government building. The artwork not only featured common folks, but was accessible to the average person.
The exhibition displays 47 paintings and drawings, destined to be reproduced on walls, including some from local artists: Anton Refregier, Judson Smith, Edward Chávez, Andrée Ruellan, John Ruggles, Arnold Blanch, Richard Crist, Juanita Guccione, Georgina Klitgaard and Jenne Magafan. Other artists included are Peppino Mangravite, Philo B. Ruggles, Stuyvesant Van Veen and Poughkeepsie native Thomas Barrett. “Celebrating Heroes” honors Susan and Steven Hirsch, Class of 1971, patrons of the museum since the early 1990s and donors of 45 mural sketches to the Art Center. Additionally, two mural sketches from other sources are in the permanent collection.
The significance of murals created in the era between the Great Depression and World War II exists in their subject matter. Compared to murals of the past that centered on allegories and neoclassical ideals, these celebrated the struggle and effort of everyday people during a harsh period. Phagan writes that they “carved out a new ideal for American mural painting inspired in part by the socially conscious panels of the Mexican muralists and the regional murals of Thomas Hart Benton and Boardman Robinson.” Picturing ordinary historical or contemporary scenes in monumental size, the murals elevated the subject matter to that of the mythological.
“These projects stemmed from a government-led push to put artists to work, just like other citizens,” she says. In what Woodstock painter Judson Smith called a “renaissance,” artists were deemed as workers with skills worthy of keeping alive. The Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration basically hired unemployed artists, while the Section of Painting and Sculpture (later the Section of Fine Arts) hired artists who were considered the most qualified for a particular job. “Artists felt a kinship with the everyday worker, and they felt for the first time that they were a part of the social fabric of society.”
Some murals can still be seen at locations in the Hudson Valley, but many of the New Deal murals have been uninstalled or have been moved to other government buildings where they can be viewed. “The story of their making lies in the sketches made by artists vying in regional or national competitions or given commissions directly,” Phagan notes. There are also those sketches in this exhibition that failed to win mural contests, including ones made for the Poughkeepsie Post Office. Studying these sketches affords an opportunity to see the themes that emerged during the period.
This concept is revealed in mural sketches by Russian-born Woodstock artist Anton Refregier for the Rincon Annex of the San Francisco Post Office. “Refregier’s mural studies on the history of the City of San Francisco open the exhibition and encapsulate several of the heroic subjects in the mural sketches by other artists,” Phagan says. “His themes on Native Americans, settlers, the history of the city, farming, industry and opposition to forces undermining a free society are all topics in the other works on view, and those themes guide the exhibition.”
An opening lecture will be held this Friday in Taylor Hall, delivered by Gerald E. Markowitz, distinguished professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Dr. Markowitz has written several books on American social history and public health. He is co-author of Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal and the exhibition catalogue New Deal for Art: The Government Art Projects of the 1930s with Examples from New York City and State. A reception will follow in the Art Center Atrium.
A second opportunity to delve into the exhibition will take place on Thursday, September 22, when Phagan provides an overview of the “Celebrating Heroes” exhibition as a whole and explores several key works in detail. “Celebrating Heroes,” which is on exhibit until December 18, is organized by the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and supported by the Evelyn Metzger Exhibition Fund.
“Celebrating Heroes” opening lecture/reception, Friday, September 9, 5:30 p.m., Taylor Hall, room 102; Curator’s Gallery Talk, Thursday, September 22, 4 p.m., Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie; (845) 437-5632, https://fllac.vassar.edu.