Frescos and Murals
Frescos and Murals during the Great War and Depression
“The next group are of early murals painted in Harvard University Art Museums. To understand them I think I need to give a little background. The early 1930’s were the time of the great depression, and the time of the growing Nazi threat in Europe—the time of considerable radicalization in American thinking. I had just come back from two years in Europe on a Harvard University traveling fellowship. I learned fresco in Rome with Rico Lebrun. We both studies and worked in Galimberti’s studio, on the Via Margutta. We were both completely under the influence of the great Italian fresco painters—Piero della Francesca, Massaccio and Signorelli. We wanted to paint murals in the Renaissance tradition, but concerned with contemporary themes.
After I returned to America in 1932 I went on a hunger march to Washington in the winter. We went in buses that were crammed full of black and white men and women together. We slept on floors of churches, union halls, and on the street. Once after we had been sleeping in one of these places at night as we were running down stairs, we were beaten up by the police. Outside Washington we slept on cold highway. We had fires at night from any wood we could pick up from hills overlooking the railroad tracks. I made mural design based on this march When I got back to New York. Rico returned from Italy to the United States in early 1993…We made large figure drawings for a fresco of the march. We’d pick up models from the unemployed men hanging round Union Square. We painted the frescos on what is now the Conversation Center of the Fogg Art Museum. Rico and I would alternate painting from each others drawings. One day I would do the plastering and Rico would paint. The next day we would reverse roles…
“As a result of the Fogg job, Charles Kuhn commissioned me to paint frescos in the entrance hall of the Germanic, now the Bush-Reisinger museum at Harvard. On the North wall I painted a lunette and two panels based on the German Niebelung Legend. It was actually an attack on Hitler and the Nazis. After a big controversy I painted the East wall frescos based on the Norse Ragnarok Legend. The lunette painting was a protest against fascism and war….I worked two to three years. I made a great many figure drawings from models for the full sized cartoons….On paintings days I would paint from 12 to 16 hours as long as the plaster would absorb the pigment. There were major setbacks on the job. After completion of the North wall there was a great controversy involving the German Embassy and Harvard. This was all over the Boston newspapers. I had to hide out so reporters couldn’t fine me while Cockie Kuhn stonewalled. In the midst of painting the lunette of the east wall the entire scaffold collapsed and I landed in the hospital. After a long struggle I finished the frescoes in January, 1937. For a year or two after that I traveled around the country, first down South and then out west. I was mostly interested in industrial subjects such as the steel mills near our home in Buffalo, copper mines in Jerome, Arizona and San Francisco waterfront. I felt I was seeing real life in America.”
The Rubenstein drawings of the hunger march which are held by the Smithsonian Museum and formed the basis of the Fresco Structure at the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.
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