28 January 2014

Narrative history in mural art - USA and Australia (Tasmania)

The Great Depression of the 1930s was hideous for millions of unemployed workers across the world. Returned servicemen, who had given their all to the war effort in 1914-18, believed that home would be a place fit for heroes. By 1929, it was not.

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

Harry Sternberg
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.


In Tasmania I saw long murals that had nothing to do with Public Works Art Projects, the Great Depression or the American New Deal. But you will see the connection.

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.

In 2003, Greg moved to Derwent Bridge in the Tasmanian Highlands, and designed a purpose-built gallery to house his work. The Wall in the Wilderness is a sculptural mural that will take at least 10 years to finish - it will be Greg Duncan’s commemoration of those who helped shape Tasmania’s central highlands.

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.

The Wall
Derwent Bridge, Tasmanian Highlands
50 ms on one side of the wall, another 50 ms on the other
Low relief carving in Huon Pine.

The Wall,
one panel.

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.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, In public buildings in America you can still see those WPA murals, which often have a characteristic look to them. Also, there are a number of fantastic picnic shelters in the Metroparks that were built by the WPA, as well as trails and less easily seen projects.

Finally, the WPA also sponsored a lot of research, which included the state guides that are still useful today--especially to those who are history-minded.

Hels said...


I remember how excited I was when Pittsburgh friends took us to see a WPA mural...my first ever. It struck me as a progressive and effective response to the Great Depression. And it immediately appealed artistically... clever and beautifully crafted murals.

Andrew said...

The US government funding such arts programmes during the depression was a brilliant idea. In lean times artists are not often thought about. If Docklands here is to ever work, it needs artists in residence. Convert one of the large wharf sheds into modest accommodation with studios and rent them to artists and writers very cheaply.

Hels said...


Our government did soooo well with work programmes during the recent GFC, I could not have been prouder. Even more so for Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression - the man was a giant. Of course in both countries the right wing savaged the visionaries for helping the working classes find work and for building community services like schools and post offices and dams.

Have you heard of a possible Docklands project with artists in residence? How clever and relatively simple that would be. But with right wingers in power everywhere, it will never happen :(

Hels said...

In 1936, Greenbelt in Maryland was the first of the New Deal communities to be built. It was a bold experiment in co-operative living with all the town's businesses co-operatively owned by the residents.

Art Deco Buildings blog showed a series of gorgeous bas-relief panels depicting the Preamble to the US Constitution. They are on the old school building.

See http://artdecobuildings.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/community-center-greenbelt.html

Ann ODyne said...

2 words: Hoover Dam.

but Wow. Duncan is a star and Andrew is right.
Can anybody else remember a huge mural at the old Spencer Street station and was it by Diego Rivera honouring workers?

Thanks for planting in my mind's eye the vision of the staff expressions as the official arriving at some regional post office and saying "OK here's your picture for the wall, it's by Mark Rothko." and wondering if there were joke days when somebody just hung it upside down.

Hels said...


Harold Freedman was appointed as The State Artist of Victoria. In 1972 Harold created a very Australian image in a mural called The Cavalcade of Transport. You are spot on about its location at the Spencer Street Railway Station. It has since been restored and moved.

My favourite is his Legend of Fire mosaic for the Eastern Hill Fire Brigade. That particular mural is very high.. and is still in place!

How did I forget the Freedman murals? Thank you!

Ann ODyne said...

another Australian muralist was Napier Waller who keeps crossing my lifepath: in the 70's as a tenant in Newspaper House which is covered in his I'll Put A Girdle Round The World mosaic for Murdoch press, and attending Christ Church South Yarra where he has windows of stained glass. Waller also did the 8 big murals which give the Myer Mural Hall its' Heritage Listing. My headmistress in secondary school was a Miss Waller and I have wondered if she was a relative.

I am hell-bent on getting to MONA in Hobart where the eccentric gambling genius David Walsh has built a gallery round the room he build to show his really really long mural SNAKE by Sidney Nolan

Hels said...


re Nolan's snake. Check it is in place before you leave home. It was on loan to a Paris exhibition when I was in Tasmania last.

Re Napier Waller, there are two important things to note. Exactly as you said, the Myer Mural Hall and other of his works set the standard for Melbourne. Secondly he was the teacher and mentor of Harold Freedman. The circle has been completed :)

The Drum said...

These murals and mosaics are both part of our history and a rich part of the cultural texture of Victoria. They need to be respected and preserved. The State Government should consider reappointing an Honorary State Artist to promote the arts. The military mural seems unwanted in Canberra and should be brought to Victoria where it could be put on display. An inventory of murals and mosaics should be compiled and efforts made to find those that may have gone missing from public buildings. And our tourist promotion bureau should compile a Melbourne walk for tourists to see our mosaics and murals.

Through these measures, by encouraging the conservation of our heritage and by promoting the arts, governments, State and Federal, can encourage worthwhile job opportunities. Admittedly this is only one small idea for one project, but it could deliver some benefits and could be pursued at minimal cost. Manufacturing is important but it's not the only sector where jobs are important. And with art, instead of shaming great Australian companies as proposed by union bosses, the community could once again celebrate the talents of Australian artists.

The Drum, 11th October 2011

Hels said...

The Drum

Was an inventory of murals complied? And were efforts made to record those that had gone missing from public buildings? There seems to be quite a lot of interest in those historical treasures.

Mandy Southgate said...

What a privilege it must have been to see those murals, when they were brand new and people felt a connection to them. I remember not appreciating these things as a child - they fell under the banner of 'old fashioned' to me. Being a relatively new city, Johannesburg saw a lot of building and development in the first half of the 20th century so there was a lot of concrete and Brutalism. Sometimes the design were abstract, sometimes they depicted scenes. Anyway, these items have largely been removed now, which is sad because I really appreciate them now.

This new mural sounds really interesting! I imagine it will certainly be considered a masterpiece one day.

Hels said...


The USA's Federal Art Project during the terrible depression years was brilliant (not often do I say that about commercial or government programmes):
A) Hundreds of talented but previously unemployed artists
B) who created 20,000 clever, meaningful murals
C) placed in perfect, public locations.

But I don't think most of them disappeared simply because of the passage of time. Rather there was such anger amongst right wing politicians and local officials in the USA, I suspect many murals were actively destroyed.

Bushfires might destroy architecture in Australia, but not politically motivated destruction.

Hels said...

Examine the blog "ineedartandcoffee". The Federal Arts Project was a public arts project the likes of which the USA has never seen, before or since. Artists painted murals, sculpted monuments, decorated public buildings, documented the New Deal, and became part of the massive national development program that saved a country from descending into social chaos. The Project not only beautified a nation, it became a gathering point and training ground for actors, musicians, writers, and artists. It provided a feeling of community, became a rallying cry, and validated the artist's role in society.

See http://ineedartandcoffee.blogspot.com.au/2014/07/fdr-and-arts-federal-arts-project.html

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Hels said...

For John Park's three wonderful WPA murals (1934) in a San Francisco primary school, visit the blog Public Art and Architecture From Around The World:

Joseph said...


Could you add Harry Sternberg's involvement in WPA mural art. Hyperallergic's post was interesting.

Hels said...


absolutely. I added an example of Harry Sternberg's mural work for the WPA into the post.