In the Australia there were important make-work projects like the Shrine of Remembrance and the Great Ocean Road that absorbed some of the workers who would have otherwise starved. In the USA federal work projects like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided work creating roads, parks, bridges and dams. President Herbert Hoover (1929-33) started the process and President Franklin Roosevelt (1933-45) really made the programme successful.
One of Ben Shahn's three mural panels, painted in 1937
This panel is 15' wide
New Jersey Homesteads
New Jersey Homesteads
Chicago: Epoch of a Great City, 1937
24' 2" x 7' 7"
Lakeview Post Office, Chicago
But for me it was the American Government’s federally funded art projects that made the most difference to men of letters and in the arts; these were people whose careers had been totally ended by the Depression. The WPA's Federal Art Project hired professionals to teach art, perform music, act in theatres and write books, plays and music.
20,000 paintings, murals and sculptures were produced by artists who were paid up to $42 a week, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko when young. The art they created was not to be placed in secluded galleries; rather it was to be placed on schools, post offices and city walls for all the population to learn history from and to be inspired towards a more optimistic future.
The first Public Works Art Project was funded in late 1933. By 1935 the WPA was establishing quite a few projects in Illinois, presumably because in that state there had been a hub of muralists studying at the Art Institute of Chicago when the WPA began.
Once again, post offices were often recipients of these art works, framed paintings, long murals, sculpture and graphics. To reach ordinary citizens going about their daily lives, a mural was to be hung on the walls of every newly constructed post office in each of the 48 states.
Let me give two examples. The mural in the photo below was created by Ben Shahn in 1937 to commemorate the New Deal resettlement community of Jersey Homesteads N.J, now called Roosevelt. The very long, very detailed mural can still be seen in the Roosevelt Public School today. The three panels of this 12 x 45’ fresco mural depicted the history of Jersey Homesteads, from Jewish Eastern Europe, the residents’ arrival at Ellis Island to the planning of their cooperative community. As the mural showed, theirs was the story of escape from tenements and sweatshops in the city to simple, light-filled homes, a cooperative garment-factory, store and farm in the country. Narrative tales from history.. hope for the future.
There were many divisions of the Federal Art Project that had social goals, but the Mural Division had a particularly grand vision. It showcased the talent of many artists in the 1930s with varying artistic styles, visions and messages. One artist in particular was Harry Sternberg, an artist from New York. Sternberg spent a year studying the working conditions of coalmine and steel mill workers. This was prominently featured in his first mural ever, Chicago: Epoch of a Great City 1937 for the Lakeview Post Office in Chicago. This mural, like other New Deal post office murals, showed scientists, metal workers, factories, railways, well known Chicago architecture and less known Chicago agriculture.
Artist Greg Duncan was born in a rural part of Melbourne where he always had a fascination with sculpting in wood. In 1982, he decided to take up sculpting as a full-time career, moving to Hobart in 1994. Greg eventually planned to design a large-scale work, celebrating the rugged, but beautiful Tasmanian Highlands and its history.
The Wall has been carved in low relief from three-metre high wooden panels made from solid Huon Pine. The carved panels tell the history of the harsh Central Highlands region - beginning with the indigenous people, then to the pioneering timber harvesters, pastoralists, miners and Hydro workers.
Derwent Bridge, Tasmanian Highlands
50 ms on one side of the wall, another 50 ms on the other
Low relief carving in Huon Pine.
When completed, The Wall will be 100 metres long i.e a series of 100 panels, each one being one metre wide and three metres high. Greg has carved scenes depicting the workers of the Hydro-Electric Scheme and of the forestry industry in the highlands. Others of his scenes cover the environmental plight of the wedge-tail eagle and the extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger. Each panel is carved in immaculate low relief, and includes horses, Tasmanian tigers and men labouring. The timber is very smooth to touch, amazingly detailed and honey coloured.
There are two important links between a] the American Depression-era murals, created under the aegis of the Federal Art Project, and b] the Wall in the Wilderness in Tasmania. Firstly they both employed long strips of mural art, enabling the viewer to walk slowly along the length of the murals and to read the panels in chronological order. Long continuous narrative tales have been created in art before, of course - consider Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD, Trajan’s Column in Rome 113 AD and even the Bayeux Tapestry 1070s AD.
Secondly in eras and areas of struggle, it has been important for artists to celebrate the history of their local areas, historical events both glorious and not so glorious. And the more ordinary the humans and animals in the murals, the more likely it is that viewers will identify with the characters - factory workers, scientists, artisans, farmers and steel workers, not kings, generals and archbishops. Thus the modern murals were conceived as a way of celebrating and learning from the past, good and bad, in order to move into a more hopeful future.