Dream and Perspective: American Scene Painting in Southern California

by Susan M. Anderson

 



 

The following essay was written by Susan M. Anderson. It is an essay written for, and included in, the 1991 book titled American Scene Painting: California 1930s and 1940s, edited by Ruth Westphal and Janet Blake Dominik, and published by Westphal Publishing, Irvine, California, ISBN 0-9610520-3-1. Essay reprinted with permission of Westphal Publishing.

 

The arts which today have most vitality for the average person are things he does not take to be arts: for instance, the movie, jazzed music, the comic strip, and, too frequently, newspaper accounts of love nests, murders, and exploits of bandits.

JOHN DEWEY [1]

 

In 1932 when Thomas Hart Benton, the most active participant in the American Scene movement, introduced Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters into one of his panels for the Whitney Museum of American Art mural, The Arts of Life in America, he demolished the usual boundaries separating "high" and "popular" art. In the same mural, he alternately celebrated various aspects of American culture and "thumbed his nose" at the political world.[2] Benton's artistic act, considered brazen at the time, gave visual form to a direction for American art that became established coast to coast and that continues to lend vitality to contemporary art today. Nowhere was the merger of "high" and "low" so compatible in 1930s and 1340s America as in Los Angeles, an irreverant city in which popular culture and fine art went hand-in-hand, and where art and artists played a dual social role: they reflected a growing awareness and concern about social issues, while they participated in the American dream by projecting an image of optimistic faith.

In the 1920s, Southern California seemed the promised land of perfect climate and beauty, and of fortunes to be made in real estate, movies, tourism, and oil. Local plein air painters were making images of this golden land at the very moment that impressionism was first becoming widely appreciated by publics in Europe and America. In Europe impressionism was popular due to its simultaneous and seemingly contradictory projection of the nostalgic aura of "paradise lost" in the wake ofthe destruction of World War I and the "radicalism" of modern culture. In the United States, Depression-era paintings of the American scene, rather than impressionist scenes, would mirror the
developing machinery of modern, and hence, mass culture, while at the same time reflecting a sense of nostalgia for the agrarian past.

During the first three decades of the twentieth century, Southern California artists still came mostly from distant areas and studied in schools outside the region. In general, the art scene was conservative, and art-making devoid of ideological underpinnings. While a few artists explored new forms and techniques and worked in a modernist vein, the majority broadly interpreted impressionism and focused on pure landscape. There was no strong regional tradition other than impressionism in the visual arts, and there were few institutions -- schools, museums, and galleries -- to support the arts.

In the 1930s artistic activity in Southern California shifted to Los Angeles. A greater openness to modernism developed, and painters who had been inspired by impressionist models consolidated their findings. Concurrently a younger generation, largely regionally-bred and trained, came to the fore. This essay examines the contribution of these younger painters and the American Scene movement of which they were a part. Like painters associated with the movement elsewhere, Southland artists articulated personal visions of their native land, creating both positive rural and urban views (commonly called Regionalism) as well as scenes incorporating social and political commentary (called Social Realism). And although the artists depicted a specific time and place -- Southern California in the 1930s and 1340s -- in their best work they made broader comments on the human condition.

No single individual or group of artists wholly dominated the American Scene movement in Southern California. There were the government art projects and the presence of the Mexican muralists which contributed to a strain of Social Realism in the region. Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Lorser Feitelson, who were actively experimenting with modernist forms, were highly influential as the directors of the federal art projects in the area. Barse Miller, Fletcher Martin, Paul Sample, Phil Dike, Millard Sheets, Hardie Gramatky, Emil J. Kosa, Jr., Phil Paradise, Ben Messick, Lee Blair, Rex Brandt, and others formed a loosely-knit group often referred to as the California School, which interpreted the American scene in a uniquely Southern California way.

The California School created mainly positive Regionalist images epitomizing the proclivity to American dream making of the era, although its artists sometimes also painted mild social commentaries. Watercolor, unabashedly traditional and popular, was a major vehicle of expression for artists of the California School. The special climate of the region afforded artists an outdoor existence, encouraging use of the medium in the field. They developed a plein air approach that allowed for improvisation and gestural freedom; completing their paintings in one session, they applied broad strokes of fresh color quickly and spontaneously. The picturesque Southern California landscape and its quality of light drew the artists outdoors to paint, and the power of the land shaped their consciousness, but for the most part, they rejected the traditional painted landscape. They were concerned with the rawness of the Southern California urban and rural landscape, and they incorporated narrative and diverse aspects of popular culture into their art as well.

The merging of traditional art with popular or democratic notions about art occurred in the United States during the 1930s in the midst of political and economic turmoil. Many regions throughout the country forged their artistic identity under the influence of the New Deal. Southern California art reflected the national American Scene movement, but grew out of the existing cultural fabric of the state. It was the unique product of the particular historical condition and economic circumstance of the region. Southern California, with its Hispanic legacy, large population of Pacific Asians, and influx of European emigres, was conditioned by its multicultural nature. Murals and paintings of the California scene such as Tom Craig's Plaza Los Angeles, 1935, reflected that reality. During this period the region grew to over two million inhabitants, first emerging quickly from its rural status, then suffering the collapse of its boomtown image. The area witnessed the arrival of whole populations from the Midwest and other points in the United States harder hit by the Depression, who were seeking Southern California's mild climate and healthier economy.

Southland artists prospered under the sheltering umbrella and glamorous appeal of Hollywood. The region's entertainment industry, which was a locus for such popular arts as film, radio, animation, graphics, and photography, fostered the vital interaction between the popular and fine arts which Los Angeles has since come to epitomize. The city was a magnet for those seeking employment, and many artists pursuing serious careers as painters survived the Depression by working in the film industry, which provided major economic support to the arts and contributed to the economic recovery of the area as early as 1934.

During the Depression, just as Hollywood films captured and disseminated the dream life of the masses, so did the California School. Like other expressions of the American scene, films and California School painting articulated American cultural ideals and projected an image of optimistic faith in the democratic ideal. They have, therefore, special social and cultural significance as embodiments of the American dream, which promises freedom, individualism, and new possibilities. Even in the era of the Depression and the New Deal, the image of California as a golden land prevailed, and the paintings reflected a mobile society that emphasized recreation and entertainment as a way of life. Many of the paintings featured those qualities which make the state a tourist mecca such as Barse Miller's Balboa Inlet, 1942 and Phil Dike's California Holiday, 1933.

There was a vital interaction between film, an indisputably popular and American art form, and the more traditional arts during this period. This was true to a lesser extent in other parts of the country -- even the imagery in Thomas Hart Benton's America Today murals made reference to early Hollywood films -- but this was especially the case in Southern California. Many artists associated with the California School actively worked in the film industry, especially in the animation field, and in the Disney studio, where they were influenced by the technology and enriched by the discipline of studio work. The industry became an important support system for some of them.

Southland artists also made major contributions to the film aesthetic. Historian Richard Schickel claimed Disney was "a man almost totally disengaged from the realities of the larger world" but acknowledged that the animated cartoons nevertheless "caught something of the truth of the American Scene and situation of the time."[3] Cross pollinations between the animated film and the Regionalist expression was inevitable. Band Concert of 1935, the first Mickey Mouse film in Technicolor, was a Regionalist cartoon and was widely considered a work of high artistic merit.[4] This crossover between the arts was recognized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1940 when Roland McKinney organized a Walt Disney retrospective entitled Walt Disney Medium.

Signs of this interaction are also found in the curious illustrational quality and popular appeal of Southern California Regionalist paintings, especially the watercolor expressions. Chouinard School of Art, where many of the California School artists studied and taught, supplied Walt Disney Studios with many of its artists. Most of the preparatory work and backgrounds for the Disney films were made in watercolor. The Disney cartoons and the California School watercolors shared formal features, too: they eschewed realistic detail and preferred well-defined outlines, undulating curves and serpentine lines; they used large areas of white paper, and relied on representational cliches and compositional schemes. The artists were also masters of characterization and the depiction of action or movement. Phil Dike's Echo Park, 1935, personifies the happy, cleaned-up world of American life that Disney loved to portray. It may be that 1930s movies, which used a strong vertical tilt of the camera, inspired the eccentric angle in this and other California paintings.

Hardie Gramatky, Charles Payzant, and Phil Dike held important jobs at Walt Disney Studios during the 1930s. Dike, nationally prominent for his watercolors and oils of the Southern California scene, was an instructor, color coordinator, and story designer on such animated classics as Fantasia and Snow White. In 1941 he told an interviewer for Time that,

It's an obvious fact that cartoons reach a much greater audience and therefore have a bigger influence than the single picture exhibited in some museum. I'm not ready to say that a Disney film is better than a Rembrandt or vice versa. This business is really too young to tell . . . how far an artist can go if he makes a career of it. I'm inclined to think, however, that in time artists will be developed in this field who will be just as great as some of the past masters whom we use now as source material.[5]

Twenty years later Roy Lichtenstein took the image of Mickey Mouse, introduced it into the "high" art context, and epitomized the basic premises of the American Pop aesthetic.

The spirit of artistic exchange that contributed to the emergence of the California School began at Chouinard School of Art in the late 1920s (reincorporated in 1935 as Chouinard Art Institute and in 1961 as California Institute of the Arts). Founded by Nelbert Chouinard in 1921, the school developed a national reputation which has persisted to the present day. During the 1930s it was at the heart of the vital Los Angeles art community, centered in Westlake Park and consisting of the Art Center School, Otis Art Institute, the Federal Art Project Center, the Foundation of Western Art, Stendahl Galleries, Dalzell Hatfield Galleries, Jake Zeitlin's Bookshop, the Los Angeles Art Association, and a number of art supply stores, chief among them Ted Gibson Framers.

The artists connected to Chouinard lived together in boarding houses in the neighborhood and shared studios near the school. Many regularly gathered in the barn behind Chouinard to work and talk about art; some took painting trips together. They shared many common interests including "the fundamental problems of aesthetics and meaning of painting,"[6] though their relative isolation from more established art centers contributed to an innovative disregard for stylistic influences. Though the students were somewhat scattered throughout the large Southern California area after their experiences at Chouinard, they continued to support each other throughout the difficult period of the 1930s, exchanging ideas and dipping out of a communal artistic pool. They created lasting bonds through their joint involvement in educational institutions and associations such as the California Water Color Society, and through their work together in the film industry and on the federal art projects. This artistic interchange resulted in a unified approach to the Southern California environment and shared aesthetic concepts, though the artists developed individual styles.

Millard Sheets, who studied and taught watercolor to many of the California School artists at Chouinard, was an early driving force behind the American Scene in Southern California. He, as well as Dike, Blair, Gramatky, Miller, Messick, Paradise, and others who studied at the school, experienced early success (touching off a pattern still enjoyed by California Institute of the Arts graduates today). In October 1930 the Art Digest announced that Sheets was the only West Coast artist accepted into the International Exhibition of Painting at the Carnegie Institute, the largest and most prestigious of the annual exhibitions of oil painting in the United States, and articles on his achievements soon began to appear with regularity in national periodicals. It was in this same year that Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood individually began to receive national recognition as well. Four years later these midwestern artists would appear on the cover of Time magazine and the American Scene, especially Regionalism, would become nationally popularized.

The painting that Sheets entered in the Carnegie International, Women of Cartagena, 1930, was not an American Scene painting though it incorporated some of the same elements. Sheets took the influences of postimpressionism, the early Italian Renaissance, and the Mexican muralists to create a flat design infused with an awareness of contemporary European modernism -- what was missing to make it an American Scene painting were the interest in spatial depth, illusionism, and the local subject matter popular at the time. His first major American Scene painting was Angel's Flight, 1931, which contrasts to painting of the urban poor made in other parts of the country in its spectacular use of color and because it depicted the scene without focusing on hardship or squalor. He portrayed the brilliant California sunlight -- a feature of the work of other area artists as well. And he used a dizzying perspective, coupled with a dramatic close-up and action in depth -- possibly related to contemporary filmic devices.

This painting, as well as Sheets's Tenement Flats, 1934, recall George Bellows's influential painting Cliff Dwellers, 1913, in terms of subject matter but not in terms of stylistic approach. Sheets's prominent influences at the time were the Ashcan School (especially Bellows) and Thomas Hart Benton, whose America Today murals at the New School for Social Research he had visited in 1930.[7] The stylistic influence of Benton is most obvious in Sheets's Jasper Biddle's House, 1934, as well as in Phil Paradise's Carl, a portrait of artist Carl Beetz.[8] Several of Sheets's paintings from this period are a mild form of Social Realism (he assisted the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros in the completion of a mural at Chouinard in 1932) and some, such as Tenement Flats, also show traces of precisionism, an influence also visible in Paul Sample's early paintings such as Speech Near Brewery, 1932. According to Sheets, he was also influenced in his choice of new subject matter by the Eastern artist Edward Bruce, who visited California and befriended Sheets at this time (and who may have been a source for Sheets's new stylistic approach in watercolor beginning in 1932).[9] Bruce was later extremely influential as the national director for the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project.

Sheets went to teach at Scripps College in 1332. There he built up an art department around which an art colony developed similar in spirit to the art centers later fostered by the federal WPA, or to Grant Wood's well-known Stone City Art Colony near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Shortly after arriving at the school, Sheets met Hartley Burr Alexander, a philosopher interested in ancient, primitive, and Eastern art. The artist came under Alexander's influence, and it may be due to the relationship that Sheets eventually de-emphasized the social realist subject matter in his paintings and, instead, in works such as Abandoned, 1934, began to create moody and evocative visions exuding a spiritual quality more powerful than a sense of physical time and place.

Most southern California urban scenes were either positive expressions or mild forms of Social Realism. Urbanization, industrialization, and the passing of agrarian life -- popular themes with the midwestern Regionalists Benton, Curry, and Wood -- were perceived as negative processes in Los Angeles much later than in the rest of the country. The veneration of small town existence was not prevalent in the area during the 1920s and 1930s. Edward Hopper's urban visions are certainly tougher and more wrought with existential despair and alienation than Sheets's Beer for Prosperity, 1933, which is full of life and animation. Unlike Reginald Marsh's urban views of New York, which are active and full of crowds into which the individual disappears, Ben Messick's urban paintings of group activity such as Pitchman, 1939, focus on small knots of city dwellers with humor and humanity.

Not all urban scenes were quite so positive, however. The artists of the California School sometimes walked a fine line between playful infatuation with popular culture and the American dream and a sense of a much darker reality. As though disregarding the almost enforced cheerfulness of the official American Scene, Dan Lutz magnified the undercurrent of dread lurking in popular images, creating paintings which nevertheless managed to exude a certain pathos or comic intensity. His painting Neighborhood Theatre, c. 1940, of a movie marquee featuring Greta Garbo -- an image located squarely within the canon of American pop culture -- rather than symbolizing the glamor of Hollywood, elicits melancholy and a wrenching nostalgia.

For a brief period in the early 1930s Southern California did see a proliferation of painting reflecting the difficult social and economic conditions of the time. Following a national trend, this thematic concern declined somewhat in Southern California after 1934. This was the year in which the federal art projects were instituted and in which Regionalism was featured in Time. When important American artists arrived on the scene as champions of the American way of life, they began to soften the satirical and critical elements of their art in order to fulfill their cultural role and, in some cases, in order to capitalize on the new popular image. In general, both watercolor and oil painting of the period in Southern California made a transition from a mild form of Social Realism in the early 1930s, to reflections of American dream-making during the later 1930s and early 1930s, to, finally, paintings of the inevitable build-up to World War II and the war effort itself.

The federal art programs instituted under Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal gave direction to the cultural life of the country and economic relief to artists during difficult times, affording them crucial experience with commissions and group activity, and lending them a sense of mission, impetus, and direction. Many local artists competed for and won prestigious commissions for federal post offices and public buildings in the area under the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture (SECTION, 1934-1943) including Barse Miller, Fletcher Martin, George Samerjan, Edward Biberman, Boris Deutsch, Maynard Dixon, Charles Kassler II, and Lucien Labaudt. Milford Zornes, Paul Sample, Ben Messick, Rex Brandt, Millard Sheets, Hugo Ballin, Dorr Bothwell, Conrad Buff, Grace Clements, Elanor Colburn, Helen Lundeberg, Lorser Feitelson, Murray Hantman (assisted by Reuben Kadish and Philip Goldstein [Guston]), Leo Katz, Haldane Douglas, and Stanton Macdonald-Wright were some of those who worked on mural projects located in civic centers, libraries, museums, and public schools sponsored by the government relief programs -- the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP, 1933-1934), the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP, 1935-1943) and the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP, 1935-1938).[10] Leadership of the projects in Southern California included Merle Armitage as chairman of the Federal Art Project, Stanton Macdonald-Wright as director, and Lorser Feitelson as his assistant. Millard Sheets served on the Art Committee of the PWAP which organized much of the work undertaken by artists and craftsmen.[11] The Southern California committee received national acclaim for the unusual cooperation between artist and public and for soliciting more money than any other region.[12]

All works completed under the federal projects were "officially" committed to the themes and subject matter of the American Scene. Because of this, paintings and murals created under the projects were honest attempts by local artists to respond to the national program while maintaining "an 'ethic towards society' in harmony with the needs and visions of their day."[13] They were also a mild form of propaganda that glorified the American capitalist system. New Deal art in Southern California projected an idyllic image of the region during a period in which Southern California was transformed by poverty, expansion, and cultural diversity. It served the vested interests of both federal and local governments seeking to expand economic and political bases,[14] but it also intentionally started an unprecedented local art movement that redefined the forms and issues of art in the region.

SECTION murals, which were awarded by the U. S. Treasury Department following competition, sometimes combined a sophisticated regional statement with social relevance. Most local murals completed under the PWAP and FAP, however, were closely scrutinized by committees of prominent citizens and emphasized regional ideals and subjects, reflecting the resources, industry, and recreational activities of the area, as well as historical phases of early California. They rarely, if ever, made reference to "unpleasant reality or any meaningful social context."[15] Censorship was fairly common, and some murals were whitewashed which did not comply with local standards of "taste," making either social or modernist statements considered too strong. In 1936 H. M. Kurtzworth, director of the Los Angeles Art Association and the California Academy of Fine Arts wrote that

. . murals selected by amateurs and painted by "Our Gang" will stamp many a wall with things of which we will soon be ashamed unless level headed professional guidance is used in their creation or groups of citizens armed with whitewash brushes be called upon to preserve the dignity of a nation . . .[16]

The Depression, coupled with the U. S. desire to maintain neutrality in the face of mounting conflicts in Europe, contributed to a wave of nationalism which was sweeping the country. Artists and critics across the nation spoke out against European art in favor of the development of a truly indigenous art. Los Angeles was naturally in tune with the nationwide critical rejection of European high taste, though Southern California artists were not self-consciously concerned with excluding European art and values, or with forging an artistic nationalism This is not to say that they were immune to becoming heatedly involved in the issue of conservativism versus modernism which was gripping the American art world, however.

For example, artist Rex Brandt studied in Berkeley, where John Haley and Erle Loran had originated a style called by critic Alfred Frankenstein the "Berkeley School." Haley and Loran were professors at the University of California and students of Hans Hofmann. Though the work of the Berkeley School was a manifestation of American Regionalism, the work of these artists exhibited more of the modernist tendency toward abstraction than Southern California paintings. In 1935, while still a student, Brandt completed the watercolor Afternoon at Kellers, which shows the legacy of Hofmann and Raoul Dufy. The painting was selected by Grace McCann Morley, director of the San Francisco Museum of Art, for inclusion in the International Water Color Exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, and subsequently selected by the director of that institute, Robert Harshe, as one of thirty watercolors to represent American painting at the Texas Centennial Exhibition. Yet for all his success with innovation of form, Brandt turned to a purely representational style, as seen in Rain at Box Springs Camp, 1938, shortly after returning to Southern California because of the pressure to paint in a "strictly representational" manner.[17]

During the 1930s, when public murals were destroyed, paintings were also removed from museums under pressure from a broad range of groups. Of interest in this regard is a painting by Barse Miller, quintessentially of the period and of the region. Apparition Over Los Angeles, 1932, which satirized evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, was removed from an exhibit at the Los Angeles Museum because the director believed "the subject matter . . . to be too controversial for exhibition in a county institution."[18] The painting, which had just been awarded a prize for "best interpretation of the Los Angeles scene," depicted the cult leader and her latest husband floating in clouds shaped like sacks of money over Angelus Temple, with a crowd of witnesses below.[19] Miller, who gained national notoriety for the incident, later earned regional distinction as a teacher at the Art Center School in Pasadena. He created many murals for the federal art projects and served as chief of the Combat Art Section in the Pacific during World War II.

Paul Sample, who had entered his painting of revolutionary workers in front of Los Angeles's Mana Brewery, Speech Near Brewery, in the same museum exhibition, regarded the museum's action as "the opening gun in a local fight to 'show whether artists shall paint subjects of vital interest or shall be confined to painting pretty flowers and eucalyptus trees'. "[20] This pressure to conform was stepped up in 1940 when the local Society for Sanity in Art, Inc. formed to "encourage and promote an art that is based on sound, fundamental principles ... To display, exhibit and publicize works of art that are sane, understandable and built upon tradition ..."[21] Even in the late 1940s the Los Angeles art world was a largely conservative society -- so much so that anticommunist crusaders found themselves in alliance with illiberal art groups in mounting attacks on progressive modernism.

The idea that the artist was an integral worker element in the community was common during the Depression and reflected the idealism of the Mexican movement in art and New Deal rhetoric. Social commentary in painting reflected the national interest in subjects of social concern as well as the presence of the Mexican muralists in Southern California. The populism of the Mexican muralists provided the model for the New Deal projects in the U. S. and was a prime factor in the development of American Scene painting in Southern California. Many artists were influenced by their humanistic and political vision in the early 1930s, but the force of their vision extends into contemporary expressions today.

Although they saw the work of Picasso, Matisse, and even the Blaue Reiter artists at Stendahl and Hatfield Galleries, it was Mexican art that most impressed the students and teachers at Chouinard School of Art, and this enthusiasm extended to other artists in the region as well. This interest began in 1930 with the arrival of José Clemente Orozco, and it was intensified by the exhibition of Mexican art organized by the Federation of Arts of Los Angeles in 1931. Orozco painted the Prometheus mural at nearby Pomona College in Claremont depicting "the creative rebel who heroically sacrifices himself for the good of man." In all his work, Orozco called for the destruction of the existing order in the service of the creation of a new, more humane, social system.[22]

In addition to Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Alfredo Ramos Martinez were in Southern California during the 1930s (and Diego Rivera was in San Francisco). Ramos Martinez lived in Southern California for fourteen years and died while completing a series of murals for the Margaret Fowler Memorial Garden at Scripps College, also in Claremont. He founded the open-air schools in Mexico which provided the stimulus for Siqueiros and other Mexican artists to enter directly into the revolutionary struggle for freedom.

David Alfaro Siqueiros, a staunch Marxist and the Mexican muralist most involved in the revolutionary and economic struggles of this time, was also the most concerned with the revolutionizing of art materials, tools, and techniques. He first introduced his ideological approach and experimentation with techniques to U. S. artists in 1932, when he taught a workshop in fresco technique to students at Chouinard. Lee Blair, Phil Paradise, Paul Sample, Elmer Plummer, James Patrick, Barse Miller, Millard Sheets, and others, designated as the Bloc of Mural Painters, assisted the artist in the completion of the mural Street Meeting in the courtyard of the school. Siqueiros developed his new methods of mural painting using plastic industrial materials and spray guns while in Los Angeles, and the Bloc of Mural Painters were the first American artists to benefit from his spirit' of experímentation and the spontaneous, direct approach he took to art.[23] These features would become the hallmark of the California School watercolor style, exemplified in Dike's Then It Rained, 1939. Here the artist used the improvisational and expressionistic properties of the medium to create the effect of a torrential downpour.

Siqueiros's assistants also learned greater boldness and stylization of form, as well as deeper concern with social issues. As Lorser Feitelson recalled, "[Siqueiros] brought tenebrism, illusionism, and also this architectonic quality; it had guts in it! It made everything else of the time look like candybox illustrations. Many of the artists said, My God! This is a wonderful vocabulary."[24] Evidence of Siqueiros's influence on these artists is visible in the works of Sample, Blair, Miller, Paradise, and Sheets, but also extended outward to other artists of the California School. Due to this heightened political and social consciousness, Lee Blair made Dissenting Factions, of workers striking in the film industry, and Millard Sheets, Mary Blair, and Leon Amyx depicted the migrant camps and homeless migrant workers. George Samerjan depicted the evacuation of Terminal Island during the World War II internment of Japanese citizens. Ben Messick and Carl Beetz featured the down-and-out unemployed, while David Levine looked at the devastation left by the 1938 flooding of the Los Angeles River. Paul Sample made paintings of labor themes at this time in response to his experience. As historian Robert L. McGrath has pointed out, Sample's painting Speech Near Brewery is closely related to the Chouinard mural, especially in the figure of the labor agitator speaking to the crowd.[25] Sample was regionally influential at this time as chairman of the Art Department at the University of Southern California. Within a few years, he gained recognition as one of America's foremost painters of the time.

Soon after the Chouinard mural, Siqueiros increased the number of his Bloc of Mural Painters to twenty-four and painted another fresco on Olvera Street, the main street of the district that then, as now, conserved the Mexican heritage of Los Angeles. He painted Tropical America in response to the wretched conditions of Mexican laborers in the nearby Imperial Valley and the unwarranted deportation of Mexican nationals.[26] In it Siqueiros depicted a naked Indian body crucified on a double cross with the North American eagle perched on top, making a chilling statement about the consequences of U. S. imperialism. Seen at the time as Communist propaganda, the mural was so controversial that the portion of it most visible from the street was soon painted over, with the remainder whitewashed within a couple of years.[27]

The third and last mural that Siqueiros executed in Los Angeles (and in the United States, as he painted no others), was made in the Santa Monica home of Dudley Murphy, the film director. Portrait of Present-Day Mexico dealt with contemporary Mexican political concerns and included a portrait of the president of Mexico, according to Siqueiros the "lowest symbol of corruption." [28] Fletcher Martin, Luis Arenal, and Reuben Kadish assisted Siqueiros in this fresco. Fletcher Martin was strongly influenced by Siqueiros's ideology and later became head of the American Artists' Congress in Southern California, an organization that put on exhibitions and was a forum for political ideas.[29] Dan Lutz, Phil Dike, Barse Miller, Paul Sample, and Merrill Gage often met in Martin's studio where they would draw and discuss art theory and the politics of the day. In 1936 Martin painted a mural for North Hollywood High School, then won a competition for a Treasury Department mural at the U. S. Post Office in San Pedro. He became extremely well-known and influential nationally after leaving Los Angeles in 1940 to replace Grant Wood as artist-in-residence at the University of Iowa. The following year he succeeded Thomas Hart Benton as head of the Painting Department of the Kansas City Art Institute.[30] Many of his greatest works were completed in Los Angeles, however. The classic Trouble in Frisco, 1938, a painting of labor struggle on the waterfront, shows the influence of Siqueiros in terms of form as well as subject matter; Martin may have learned from Siqueiros the accentuation of the illusion of sharply receding space and crowding of action into a tondo shape.

As the work of the California School developed throughout the decade of the 1930s, it reflected the artists' increased experimentation with new materials and techniques and interest in movement or action. This was a major direction for American art which would take hold in the post-World War II period. By the late 1930s, many California School artists had mastered their craft and were refining an established direction. The work of some lost its original vitality as the spirit of improvisation in response to one's locale became codified into a certain look or style. Others, such as Dan Lutz, Barse Miller, and Phil Dike, were already experimenting with new forms and a more gestural approach. By about 1938, when the country was opening up again with the waning of isolationism, criticism was already mounting against the American Scene movement which began to be seen as chauvinistic and narrow at a time when fascism was on the rise in Europe.

With the U.S. entrance into World War II, the activity of the nation became directed toward defense and international affairs rather than the local scene, and California artists were enlisted into the service of the country. Exhibitions lost their regional focus, and art in general suffered a loss of direction.

The Los Angeles of the 1940s, noted for its rapid growth, differed very much from the previous decade. The sense of euphoria and optimism that sprang up immediately after the end of the war during postwar expansion was shortlived. By the late 1940s, when the disastrous effects of urbanization were fully recognized, Angelenos suffered a sharp sense of loss over a passing way of life because it was so rapid and so visible. The art scene in Southern California was also rapidly changing and, though bound by tradition, was becoming fertile ground for a myriad of vanguard European and American influences. Though it was not until the 1950s that Los Angeles, already a decentralized suburban society, was characterized in Hollywood films as a wasteland, the image of the city began to change during the 1940s. Los Angeles became a national symbol of the manipulation of mass culture and the leveling of the arts, popular taste, and values -- a negative view of the merger of "high" and "low" which arose in knee-jerk reaction to the rhetoric of the previous decade.

Although the contribution of American Scene painters was overshadowed by postwar artistic developments, their accomplishments served to consolidate and expand the artistic activities of the region, thereby providing the foundation upon which postwar art was able to mature. The American mind set which gave birth to Abstract Expressionism formed during this period. Work by the California School in watercolor anticipated postwar Abstract Expressionism mainly in terms of the values it embodied, values often remarked on by critics across the country and extolled as intrinsically American: spontaneity, rawness, emotionality, directness, and an original point of view. But American Scene painting of the 1930s and early 1940s, especially in California, equally yielded a Pop legacy in its discovery that mass popular culture presented valid sources for art.

The decline and fragmentation of the California School during the postwar period was similar to the path taken then by such popular arts as comic strips. It was not until the advent of Pop Art in the 1960s, when images were frequently drawn from motion pictures, comics, billboards, and popular heroes, that American artists began to draw on the legacy of prewar art and on the popular imagery of middle-class America.

It is clear now that during the 1930s and 1940s in Southern California, pressure from certain forces at work in that time, and in that place, combined to create a regional art that merged popular culture and fine art and fulfilled a dual social role, reflecting pertinent social issues as well as projecting potent images of the American dream. The Southland was ripe for the rise of a regional art that was appropriate to modern developing culture and which brought national recognition to Southern California for the first time.


Notes:

1. John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934; reprint, New York: Capricorn Books, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1958), 5-6.

2. Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1389), 188.

3. Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 155, 163.

4. Karal Ann Marling, Wall to Wall America: A Cultural History of Post Office Murals in the Great Depression (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 39-101; San Francisco Chronicle, 24 December 1933.

5. "Disney's Dike," Time, 3 March 1341, 62.

6. Millard Sheets, interview by Paul Karlstrom, 28 and 29 October 1986, edited draft manuscript, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 40.

7. Mary MacNaughton, Art at Scripps: The Early Years, exhibition catalog (Claremont, California: Scripps College, 1988), 7; Kenneth Ross, Los Angeles Times, 4 November 1976.

8. Paradise entered the painting into the 1939 exhibition at the Faulkner Memorial Art Gallery in Santa Barbara the year after Thomas Hart Benton exhibited his very similar Portrait of Charles Ruggles in the same gallery in the exhibition Artists West of the Mississippi.

9. Millard Sheets, interview with author, Gualala, California, 17 January 1988.

10. New Deal Art: California, exhibition catalog (Santa Clara: University of Santa Clara, 1976), 85-107.

11. Merle Armitage, "The Public Works of Art Projects," California Art and Architecture (February 1934), 20.

12. Susan Silberberg, "New Deal Murals in Los Angeles: Federal Ideals and the Regional Image," Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art Journal 11 (May-June 1970): 18.

13. Francis V. O'Connor, introduction to New Deal Art: California, exhibition catalog (Santa Clara: University of Santa Clara, 1976), 14.

14. Silberberg, "New Deal Murals," 18.

15. Ibid., 20.

16. Ibid., 22-23.

17. Rex Brandt, interview with author, Corona del Mar, California, 18 March 1988.

18. "Barse Miller's Award Winning Picture Removed from Show," Art Digest 6 (1 May 1932): 9. Also see Robert L. Gambone, Art and Popular Religion in Evangelical America, 1915-1940 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1983), 87-93, 101.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Charles Bensco, quoted by Arthur Millier in "The Art Thrill of the Week," Los Angeles Times, 25 August 1940. This was a national society founded in Chicago in 1936.

22. Laurance P. Hurlburt, The Mexican Muralists in the United States (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983), 6, 28. It should be noted, however, that the interest in Mexican art went back as early as 1923 when the first Mexican art exhibition in the United States was held in Los Angeles at the McDowell Club. In 1925 the Los Angeles Museum organized a well-attended Pan American exhibition which included the work of twenty-nine Mexicans. In 1928 the Art Center Gallery hosted an exhibition which included the works of the muralists and others under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation. See Margarita Nieto, "The Mexican Presence in the United States: Part 1," Latin American Art (Fall 1990): 28-34.

23. Hurlburt; The Mexican Muralists, 205-207; Shifra M. Goldman, "Siqueiros and Three Early Murals in Los Angeles," Art Journal 33 (Summer 1974), 323.

24. Goldman, "Siqueiros and Three Early Murals," 325.

25. Robert L. McGrath and Paula F. Glick, Paul Sample: Painter of the American Scene (Hanover, New Hampshire: Hood Museum of Are, Dartmouth College, 1988), 31.

26. Hurlburt, The Mexican Muralists, 210-211.

27. During the completion of Tropical America Siqueiros again made a great impression on his young assistants, including Philip Guston (then Goldstein). Guston ( 1913-1980) was at this time participating in meetings of the communist John Reed Club and began, along with others, to paint a series of mural panels in fresco on black American themes. Guston's panel, eventually shot at and destroyed by the L. A. Police Red Squad, represented a bound man being whipped by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1934 Reuben, Kadish and Guston traveled to Mexico, where with the help of Siqueiros, they painted a large public mural. Upon returning to Los Angeles, they joined the WPA Federal Art Project and assisted on a mural for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Tuberculosis Sanitorium in Duarte. Patricia Hills, Social Concern and Urban Realism: American Painting of the 1930s (Boston: Boston University Art Gallery, 1983), 54.

28. Hurlburt, The Mexican Muralists, 213, 215.

29. Barbara Ebersole, Fletcher Martin (Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida Press, 1954), 21-24; Ted Cook, "Fletcher Martin," California Arts and Architecture (September 1940), 17.

30. H. L. Cooke, Fletcher Martin (New York: Abrams, 1977), 28-32.

 

About the Author

At the time of publication of the book American Scene Painting: California 1930s and 1940s, Susan M. Anderson was associate curator of the Laguna Art Museum, was co-curator of the exhibition and essayist for Regionalism: The California View, Watercolors, 1923-1945, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1988.

 

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