Public Art, Private Expression
Gay artists like John Singer Sargent, as well as very straight artists like Thomas Hart Benton, created large-scale works that make you wonder what's just past the lofty ideals of public art.
Part of the pride of being civilized is art funded by institutions such as museums, banks, and even the government, for the enlightenment of the general public. These works are often mythical, religious and allegorical. Because murals depicted lofty realms of thought and philosophy, they naturally tended to include naked gods, muscled shirtless workers, and androgynous angels. Also a lot of bare ass.
Viewing them now through our 21st century lenses, it is evident how much more prim and prudish the general public is. It would be implausible to think of Paul Cadmus's naked native Americans flashing themselves down on the post office patrons of today. What about the children?
In 1939, during the Depression, the Work Projects Administration created job for thousands of unemployed people that often included works of art for public spaces like courthouses and post offices. Many of these celebrated the average American working man, American history, and industry in the United States.
The corollary public art in Europe was similar in that it promoted the current political ideals of the time often veering to Olympic and physical culture. In Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany there are examples that promote a new human ideal. That didn't turn out so well, but the stylized heroic works of art still exist in some places.
Here's a look at what might grab your attention while running errands.
Born in Italy to American parents, trained in Paris, and a resident of London, Sargent became Boston’s favorite painter in the 1880s. Acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic for his brilliant oil portraits, after the turn of the century he applied his talents to other forms and media, including public mural projects. The commissions from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to decorate its new building’s most important public spaces—the grand staircase and rotunda— resulted in one of Sargent’s last and most ambitious works, the culmination of his career as a creator of great decorative schemes. Sargent regarded the entire space as a giant canvas and brought together all the pictorial, decorative, and architectural elements with a painter’s skill and vision.
After a large trove of Sargent's male nudes were published recently, it is generally understood that Sargent was sexually oriented toward other men. To call him "gay" would be misleading, as the modern concept of a gay man did not exist then. His sensual depictions of muscled but weightless forms that verge on campy seem to be a coded message to modern eyes.
Note the ladies intertwined below Sargent's heroic Atlas.
Foro Italico, formerly Foro Mussolini, is a sports complex in Rome, Italy. It was built between 1928 and 1938 as the Foro Mussolini (Mussolini's Forum) under the design of Enrico Del Debbio and, later, Luigi Moretti. Inspired by the Roman forums of the imperial age, its design is lauded as a preeminent example of Italian Fascist architecture instituted by Mussolini. There are possibly the gayest statues ever erected lining the stadium — worth a profile on their own, but we concentrate on the murals in the swimming center here.
German American artist Winold Reiss was commissioned to design and create two 22 foot high by 110 foot long color mosaic murals depicting the history of Cincinnati for the rotunda, two murals for the baggage lobby, two murals for the departing and arriving train boards, 14 smaller murals for the train concourse representing local industries and the large world map mural located at the rear of the concourse. Reiss spent roughly two years in the design and creation of the murals. The murals located in the train concourse were removed when the concourse building was demolished in the 1970s. The murals removed from the train concourse were then placed on display at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport at the cost of $1 million.
Duncan Grant was part of the influential British Bloomsbury Group — an intellectual circle of writers artists and critics, who lived in the Bloomsbury area of London in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1911 Grant painted this work (and another now held in the Tate Collection; Football) for the dining room at Borough Polytechnic in South London (now London South Bank University). Source: Tate.org
Grant was a conscientious objector in the First World War. Though homosexual, he had a daughter, Angelica, by his 40-year largely platonic relationship with Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf), and several notable lovers including Bloomsbury set fellows, the economist John Maynard Keynes and writer David Garnett. His later life was spent with another Bloomsbury associate, poet and translator of the classics, Paul Roche.
The mural paintings in The Russell Chantry, St. Blaise Chapel in St. Mary’s Cathedral are dedicated to St. Blaise, patron saint of wool workers and depict a fanciful quayside scene in 15th century Lincoln. They were painted in 1958, when Grant was in his early seventies and were embroiled in controversy from the start. His initial designs were amended and his open homosexuality and history as a conscientious objector were frowned upon in the early post-war years. The Chapel was kept locked from around 1964 to 1977 when the first colour Cathedral guidebook made no mention of the murals and it continued to be locked and used as a storeroom with cupboards against the walls covering the murals until 1990. Some people objected to the near nudity of the figure of Christ, modelled on Grant’s homosexual lover Paul Roche and athletic young porters loading bales of wool on the quayside. Even today, some Cathedral guides omit the St.Blaise Chapel and Grant’s marvellous murals from their tour. Source: Geograph.org.uk/snippet/4525
Union Station, Ogden, Utah
In 1931, Edward Laning's work formed part of the first major show at the newly formed Whitney Museum of American Art. He painted murals for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. In 1980, Laning came to Ogden, Utah, to personally oversee the installation of his two 50-foot by 12-foot murals in the Grand Lobby of the historic Ogden Railway Station. The northern side depicts the Union Pacific company coming from Omaha, Nebraska, and the southern side depicts the Central Pacific coming from Sacramento, California. The National Academy of Design of New York City granted $100,000 to Union Station as his commission.
When The City Club of Cleveland opened its doors to a new facility on May 12, 2000, all eyes were on the auditorium’s mural, “Freedom of Speech,” the centerpiece of the newly renovated space. Painted for The City Club in 1942 by noted Cleveland artist Elmer Brown, the mural’s sweeping panorama represents the ideals that are the essence of The City Club: justice, freedom, honor, and shirtlessness.
Source: University of Virginia Library
Edward Lanning, "The Role of the Immigrant in the Industrial Development of America," 1935
WPA Federal Art Project mural originally hung in the dining room at Ellis Island and now hangs in the Ceremonial Courtroom at the Theodore Roosevelt Courthouse in Brooklyn, New York. The panels hanging in the court represent a portion of the original work — most of which was destroyed in the early '50s when a violent storm ripped the roof off of the building. The painting depicts the construction of the Central and Union Pacific railroads by Chinese and Irish laborers.