Autofabrication through Post Office Murals? (A Plea for Help)

Alexander J. Kostellow’s vibrant Spring Planting (1941) Somerset, Pennsylvania

Alexander J. Kostellow’s vibrant Spring Planting (1941) Somerset, Pennsylvania

As you will have gathered from some of my previous posts (like this one and this one) and from my radio silence in the last few days: I am very busy writing a chapter – two actually – about Roosevelt’s and later agents’ memory-making during and about the New Deal.

Russell Sherman Loveland Colorado

Russell Sherman, Post Office, Loveland, Colorado

The New Deal was Roosevelt’s domestic collection of programs to battle the economic, financial and social crisis during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It encompassed an extremely wide range of programs, but particularly a number of programs that created work for the nearly 25% of Americans who were unemployed. Many of the concrete products of these programs remain visible in the American landscape, in the shape of infrastructure (roads, bridges, electric power plants) and public buildings (post offices, schools). The New Deal also included programs to provide work projects for unemployed artists and writers (creative writers, but also journalists, academics). One popular kind of artwork that the New Deal remains famous for is the post office mural. New Deal agencies like the Federal Art Project and the Fine Art Section commissioned thousands of mural paintings between 1933 and 1942. Many political leaders remain associated with particularly impressive buildings they have created, and the New Deal with its huge scope and nationwide presence left an enormous mark on the American landscape. While few of those New Deal buildings and artworks explicitly portray Roosevelt or refer to him the association remains inescapable. None of the many artists in the New Deal’s service were explicitly (or implicitly) asked to blow Roosevelt’s trumpet, but the government as patron of course exerted influence on the artistic products.

AnsonTxPostOfficeMuralCowboyDance1941JenneMagafan0409BG1

Anson, Texas, Post Office Mural “CowboyDance” (1941) Jenne Magafan

MartTexasPostOfficeMural, 1939 Jose Aceves

Mart, Texas, Post Office Mural, 1939 by Jose Aceves

Most evidence of how this worked precisely is textual. However, to give an impression of what kind of architecture and art the New Deal programs typically produced, I would like to close-read some of these buildings and post office murals. Not something I have much experience with, so perhaps you can help? What strikes me so far is that many of these paintings portray historical scenes or nostalgic images of an America that may have existed in cultural memory more than in real life. Means of transport, people and rural and industrial landscapes seem to be favored, as well as a kind of style that reminds me of social realism. The buildings are consistently referred to as neocolonial (red brick, small windows?), but are also very different from each other. If you have other, more sophisticated views on a particular painting/building, please let me know! Thanks in any case for thinking about it!

post office 1 Post office Athens Pennsylvania  Post office Blackshear Georgia

“Neo-colonial style” New Deal Post Offices in Venice (California), Athens (Pennsylvania) and Blackshear (Georgia)

Over Sara Polak

Blog about my research: The World We Live In Today Is FDR's World
Dit bericht is geplaatst in (New) Media, Autofabrication, Cultural memory, New Deal & WWII. Bookmark de permalink.

4 reacties op Autofabrication through Post Office Murals? (A Plea for Help)

  1. Beerd Beukenhorst schreef:

    Hi Sara,

    For the sake of international disclosure, a quick reply in English. Fascinating images, indeed, and it would be interesting to have a specialist on social realism look at them. There must be some good studies on it – not in my bookcase, though – as the resemblance between the socialist cultural patronage and the capitalist version is so clear.

    In the paintings, the imagened past is also striking. When portraying farming scenes, for instance, there seems to be a suspicious lack in agricultural machinery, even though these would be fitting in a presentation of the ‘modern’. I don’t know about the exact amount of machinery available in that period, but pictures from the 20s and 30s seem to have more machines in them. Could that be related to a diminished appreciation of these machines? So many American farmers in the 1920s put themselves in heavy debt to buy modern agricultural machines and soon payed a heavy price for that – think agricultural crisis and Dustbowl. In any case, the agricultural handwork appears more prominently in these images than the machines of modernity.

    I really like how in ‘Spring Planting’ labor is portrayed in tandem with leisure (guy sitting on the porch watching the ‘gals’) and as a cosy family affair. The girls on the porch contribute, but also the woman coming out of the barn higher up the image. The message seems to be that work, or at least agricultural work, is explicitly not desensitizing, dehumanizing, or ‘estranging’ (‘Entfremdung’ for Marx). To the contrary – it is a fun family activity!

    The Mart, Texas mural is a lovely imagined frontier vision. We have the family on the covered wagon, the trapper gazing at the horizon (kan dat beeld nooit zien zonder te denken aan de flauwe, klassieke lagere school-mop: “waarom kijkt de indiaan zo (hand plat boven de ogen) over de prairie? omdat hij zo (hand plat voor de ogen) niets kan zien….”). If only those stupid cows were not standing in the way, the trapper could see there is a house already right behind him!

    I think the ‘neo-colonial’ symbolism in the post-offices relates to the mix of, on the one hand, a reference to practical construction constraints and possibilities of American colonial times (no large windows but many small glass rectangles in a wooden frame, ‘modern’ fireproof brick-structures) and the neo-classical symbolism on the other hand. Especially the face of the Blackshear Georgia postoffice reminds me of a simplified version of Jefferson’s University of Virginia design, which harked back at Rome’s Pantheon. Yes, the rotunda is absent, of course, but the windows and the pillars in the front seem to make a statement. The other two seem to have drawn their inspiration more from Boston-style colonial buildings (http://www.tcroninarchitect.com/posts/page/2), with a little less prominent but still obvious neo-classical components.

    Luckily all of these observations are much helped by my lack of actual knowledge about art and architecture… Clearly I am not the expert here, but these are great images to look at and have an opinion on – as was probably one function of these public art-products.

    Nice blog, Sara!

  2. Sara Polak schreef:

    Hey Beerd!

    Thank you so much for this great reaction – you’re well on the way to becoming the main protagonist of my footnotes 😉 Although I obviously don’t mind reactions in Dutch (particularly jokes about indianen) I’ll also respond in English for the sake of international hospitability.

    You’re absolutely right that there are books about this, which I’ve borrowed and some of which I’ve read. Interestingly though, I can’t find much about the interpretation of American history in these (although Michael Kammen does discuss this issue to some extent in Mystic Chords of Memory, though I don’t really agree with his account). Part of the problem also is that I don’t know enough really about art/architecture history to find what I want to know in those books, like ‘what is neocolonial?’ and ‘why are buildings that to my untrained eye seem so different in style all called neocolonial?’ (both questions to which your answers are probably very much more useful than any in those texts!) Antoher issue is that I’m not really looking for readings of specific paintings, but rather for reading a few representative ones, and it’s hard to tell what is representative (& representative of what?), so as to give an impression of what New Deal post offices and murals typically looked like; and specifically, how they typically dealt with history.

    Having said all this, your points about machines, agricultural work as a family bonding activity and the idealization of the frontier all are really useful and inspiring! Thanks!

  3. Gerben Schooneveldt schreef:

    Hoi Sara,

    Evidently, architecture in general and these ultra-modern examples in particular are far from my area of expertise, but I would venture a guess that ‘neo-colonial’ is everything that is (loosely) inspired by colonial buildings / styles (you wouldn’t have guessed…), and that those are in turn based upon what the colonists took with them from home — and that it therefore varies with the location the majority of the (first wave of) colonists came from. Assuming the neo-colonial post offices are based upon the local colonial examples, that would probably mean Spanish roots for the Californian one, English roots for the Georgian one and Northern (Lutheran?) European roots for the Pennsylvanian one (and looking at the provided images, I would say that that is not completely implausible). I am not sure what that would mean for the interpretation, though.

    (Actually, my first association with the Californian post office was “gemaal uit de jaren ’30”; but that was before looking attentively enough to see the ornamentation around the entrance, and noticing on another picture that it had a slanted, tiled roof instead of a flat, concrete one as I first thought).

  4. Hi Sara,

    Interesting blogpost you have there! Of course this might be my particular occupational tic, but I see some primitivist elements here, and strong similarities with the 18th century outlook on things. Back then, the wild west still had to be conquered, which led to the specifically American ‘frontier’-ideal (which you undoubtedly know about already): the unorthodox but brave colonist venturing into wild, unknown lands with nothing but his own ingenuity to help him. Especially in the light of America’s problems in the 1930s, this could be an allusion to the inventiveness of the original American, who faced even more difficult challenges and (lo and behold!) overcame them. A primitivist element might be perceived in the absence of machinery, and in the almost pastoral scenes of happy farmers living the honest, simple life.

    About the neocolonial buildings you showed here: they strike me as quite austere, with simple lines and very little ornament. Two of them have the brick exposed instead of plastered over, while the plaster one lacks any decorative framing around the windows. This, again, could be a primitivist preference for simplicity, and an implicit renouncing of luxury and decadence and ‘visual dishonesty’ similar to that seen in mid-eighteenth-century France, where neoclassicism started (and where Jefferson saw it first, when he came to Paris as ambassador, in 1784). Around the same time a renewed interest in agriculture could be seen, for instance with the Physiocrat movement.

    Finally, that first painting by Kostellow reminds me of 16th and 17th century images of the Silver Age, according to the classical myth of the Ages of Man (the Golden, Silver, Brazen and Iron age) the stage of human development when agriculture and housing were introduced. For more on this topic, see my blog on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the myth of the Golden Age, with some engravings: you’ll see what I mean when you compare them 😉

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