Lyman Allyn presents New Deal murals

“Onion Topping,” 1942; mural study for post office, Canastota, N.Y.; tempera on board, by Austin Merrill Mecklem
“Onion Topping,” 1942; mural study for post office, Canastota, N.Y.; tempera on board, by Austin Merrill Mecklem

The murals inside the New London Post Office are both pieces of art and pieces of history.

Those glorious city landmarks by Thomas La Farge are explored in detail in a new exhibition at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, "America @ Work: New Deal Murals in New London and Beyond."

The New Deal's Works Progress Administration commissioned the murals in 1938.

Curator Barbara Zabel's wall text for "America @ Work" explains that the show's goal is "to bring attention to our local treasures in the context of mural projects across the country. ... Despite diverse content, the murals share a representational style and a focus on American workers struggling to build a bright future for America in the face of hard times."

Here's how the mural-competition process worked: the WPA would suggest topics to painters based on the planned location for the mural. Among the New London ideas were the Indian Wars, the burning of New London, the arrival of the Amistad and the city's whaling and shipbuilding industries. Artists picked an idea and created sketches indicating what their murals would look like.

La Farge was the big winner in the contest for the New London Post Office on Masonic St. His murals depicted life on a whaling ship; in fact, "Life on a Whaling Ship" was his working title. That life is broken down into segments of sailors working on the "Morning Watch," harvesting the whale's blubber in "Cutting-In" and unfurling sails in "Aloft."

Zabel describes La Farge murals as "incredibly dynamic."

"They're very striking, particularly the way that the artist uses perspective to draw the viewer in," she says. "If you're standing in front of them, you are sort of swept up into the narrative that's presented to you. He uses perspective in an interesting way, in terms of the floorboards of the deck going into illusionistic space and even the tilting of the boat bringing you right there soyou become a participant, in a way."

La Farge featured black and Indian sailors in his murals, reflecting the multicultural nature of the crews on whaling ships.

For La Farge, though, some other images didn't pan out quite as planned. An amusing note, from Zabel's wall text: "Several 'old salts' questioned the accuracy of the whaling scenes. (La Farge) willingly responded to public criticism by reworking details in the original drawings."

La Farge included a whale in those early studies, but, when the public saw the works, they took exception to the placement of the teeth in the whale's jaw, among other things. The final murals don't feature any whales, which, Zabel says, "may have evolved anyway because then your attention is more on the sailors and what they might see."

"America @ Work" provides examples of another artist's works that had been in competition to become the New London Post Office murals. Four of James Daugherty's small studies for his mural contest entries are featured in the Lyman Allyn show; the museum owns six of them. These four, like La Farge's, focus on whaling, but Daughtery's works are brighter and busier - so much so that, at the time, people criticized his pieces for their "swirling frenzy" and "restless rhythm."

The Lyman Allyn exhibition brings together a wide range of mural studies. Jean Swiggett created "Exploration and Mining" for a post office in Kellogg, Idaho, and detailed the silver-mining town's move from past to present, from exploring the West to arriving at industrialization. Austin Merrill Mecklem's "Onion Topping," for a post office in Canastota, N.Y., took on agriculture as its theme.

Not surprisingly, the government funding the WPA murals and the artists creating them didn't always see eye-to-eye on things. The government preferred art that reflected national ideals.

"There was a bit of propaganda going on here, giving America a sense of confidence during the Depression, a sense of hope in the future," Zabel says. "What the artist encountered in these local communities was sometimes very different - mining accidents or racism - so what they depicted sometimes went against this notion that, okay, we need to present a positive narrative of America."

Harry Sternberg's oil painting on masonite titled "Steel," which is part of "America @ Work," reflects the latter notion. As the Lyman Allyn text analyzes it, "The head-to-toe protective garb of the steelworker ... suggests the worker's anonymity as a cog in the machine of American industry."

While the government and the painters might have had differing views, the administrators of the art projects were fairly open; if issues arose, they would write to the artists.

"There was not all-out censorship, but there was a kind of back-and-forth negotiation, let's say, if the government didn't like what they were doing," Zabel says.

Zabel has letters, too, from artists in which they say they'd be willing to change their pieces if the community didn't like what they were doing.

Zabel, professor emeritus of art history at Connecticut College, has long been interested in the New London murals. She often brought students from her classes to the Lyman Allyn to see La Farge's studies and then to the post office to view the actual murals.

"I always thought, 'Gee, this would be a great exhibition, to feature the drawings and take it to the wider sphere of national murals," she says.

Close to 2,000 murals were created through the WPA program for various federal buildings.

Zabel has seen other murals - in New York City's old post office, for instance, where the mural boasts scenes of New York, its ports, boats and skyscrapers.

"Everywhere you go across the country, there are these murals. ... Some are in just terrible shape and are underappreciated," she says.

Part of the impetus for "America @ Work" is to increase the visibility for the New London murals. Ironically, the exhibition opening was on March 8 - the same day that New London was one of seven chosen via a new state competition for a mural project. (Hygienic Art Inc., which applied for the state grant, is accepting proposals for mural designs for a trio of downtown buildings, and a fourth mural will be painted on the Water Street parking garage by artist Peter Good.)

Christopher "Kip" Bergstrom, the deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, attended the opening. Zabel says he and the people involved in the cultural commission recognize the WPA as a forerunner for what they're doing now.

"They saw the WPA had really energized towns by bringing in muralists and spending money on the arts as part of their economic development," Zabel says. "I think that's what Malloy and the state has recognized, that the arts can regenerate the community."

The life of La Farge

Just who was Thomas La Farge, who created the murals in the New London Post Office? Let's go chronologically.

La Farge was born in 1904 in Paris. He grew up in Connecticut, though, and his parents were artists. He studied at Choate, Harvard and Yale Art School. During his 1931 travels to Mexico, he met muralist Diego Rivera, who made quite an impression. As the Lyman Allyn exhibition notes, Rivera's "influence can be seen in La Farge's heroic depictions of ordinary workers." During World War II, La Farge enlisted in the Coast Guard Reserves. He was lost at sea off Newfoundland in December 1942.

Thomas La Farge's scene of a crew at work on a whaling ship.
Thomas La Farge's scene of a crew at work on a whaling ship.

IF YOU GO

What: "America @ Work: New Deal Murals in New London and Beyond"

Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, Williams Street, New London

When: Now through June 9; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun.

Admission: $8 adults, $7 seniors and students, free for kids under 12 and for New London residents and institutional members

Contact: (860) 443-2545, lymanallyn.org

Related events: March 29, "From Ship to Shore: The Whaling Murals of Thomas LaFarge," a gallery talk with Robert Richter; April 5, "Painters, Politics & Propaganda: The W.P.A.'s 'Paint America' Project-An Ongoing Legacy," a lecture by Philip Eliasoph; April 7, Free First Saturday.

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