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In 1933, during the heart of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his cabinet scrambled to alleviate the misery of a destitute public. A laundry list of programs provided participants with wages and meals while also creating vast new civic infrastructure and radically reshaping the American landscape. An assortment of government agencies took on new tasks, struggling to determine the most efficient methods to mitigate the most pressing needs. Following four years of massive unemployment and grinding poverty, Roosevelt decided the people needed art.
George Biddle, lawyer turned painter and muralist, played a vital role in persuading the president to establish the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). Biddle, a childhood friend of Roosevelt's, lobbied strongly through a series of letters detailing the benefits of public art spending. He convinced Roosevelt of the value of public art and of employing a wide variety of artists working in a multitude of mediums. Roosevelt ordered the Civil Works Administration to allocate funds for the PWAP and assigned the project to the Treasury Department. Edward Bruce, another former lawyer and aspiring painter, led the new department and hired over 3,500 artists across America. In less than a year the program proved so successful and popular that the president reorganized the PWAP into several agencies, each allocated a specific area of responsibility.
Bruce became the director of the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, also known as the Section. Under his leadership, the Section selected murals and sculptures deemed of high quality to decorate federal buildings. The two primary goals were to both provide meaningful work for artists and expose the public to uplifting, inspiring or educational art. Post offices, as government buildings used equally by all, offered an ideal gallery for these new works. Renamed the Section of Fine Arts (SFA) in 1938, the SFA awarded commissions to artists based on a competitive model. The artists submitted proposals for new works and Bruce, along with SFA deputies, chose those with the most artistic merit. In 1940, muralist Edward Biberman won his second commission from the SFA.
Biberman was already an established and successful artist by the time he arrived in Los Angeles in 1936. Having studied in Paris and with influential Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, Biberman painted in a social realist style. His first SFA mural, “Los Angeles — Prehistoric and Spanish Colonial,” decorated the lobby of the newly finished United States Courthouse and Post Office in downtown Los Angeles. The courthouse hosted many notable trials, including the first of the Hollywood Blacklist hearings which led to Herbert Biberman, the painter's screenwriter brother, serving a six-month jail term following a conviction for contempt of Congress. The painter's next commission took him to the beach.
The Venice Post Office stands a stone’s throw from the famed Venice Beach Boardwalk. To memorialize the boardwalk and the man who brought the city to life, Biberman delved into the history of Venice, and over the span of several months created “Abbot Kinney and the Story of Venice,” 1941, oil-wax emulsion on canvas mounted on aluminum, measuring 77 3/4 x 189 5/8 in., or roughly 6.5 feet tall by 16 feet wide.
The three-section painting centers on Abbot Kinney, tobacco millionaire and visionary developer. Kinney traveled around the world and imagined recreating some of his destinations. He dreamed of a new American city with the culture and sophistication to match any in Europe. He chose Venice as his model.
Biberman painted Kinney from photographs provided by his family, capturing the likeness of a driven, uncompromising builder. His tie askew, Kinney stares out from the painting surrounded by the detritus of his dreams. Ornate colonnades support an arch and frame Kinney, evoking the grand classical vision he intended. Columns and arches of this type can be found adorning commercial buildings throughout the city. In the distance behind Kinney, gondolas glide along canals between stylish, upscale homes and public theatres, museums and galleries. This relatively utopian scene represents Kinney's unfulfilled hopes. The reality, painted surrounding Kinney, proved very different.
On the painting's left side, just to Kinney's right, throngs of beachgoers crowd the boardwalk enjoying the popular attractions which came to dominate early Venice. The Dragon Bamboo Slide and roller coaster serve as the background, while in the foreground adults and children enjoy the beach, ice cream and each other. A sailor in uniform, shirtless men in swimsuits and children climbing park benches present an image of the city far from the founder’s aim. The "Venice of America" transformed in its first decade from a city designed as a cultural oasis to a seaside amusement park with rides, game booths and a miniature railway. The city transformed again in 1929, the year oil was discovered, and nine years after Kinney died.
On the right side of the painting, Biberman depicts the invasion of the oil companies and the environmental destruction that followed. In the foreground, businessmen scheme, making deals and drawing plans for the further exploitation of the area. Just beyond, two rig workers oversee the operation of an oil pump. In the background, between the men and several huge storage tanks, lies a lagoon streaked with oil. More oil wells are spread across the painting, receding into the background.
This section of the painting underscores the reality of the Venice oil boom. In the space of a year, over 50 oil wells opened in and around Venice Beach, bringing much-needed income to an area struck especially hard by the Great Depression. With so many out of work, the tourism and amusements which had been the area's main revenue had disappeared. Still, the profits brought problems with them. With little regulation of the industry, the environment paid a heavy toll. Petroleum by-products inundated lagoons and covered Kinney's beloved canals. Industrial waste spoiled the beach and created health hazards. Still, the allure of easy money enabled the oil wells to keep pumping for decades until the wells finally ran dry.
Biberman's evocative portrait of a man, his dream and his disappointment hung in the Venice Post Office from the painting's completion in 1941 until the building’s sale to film producer Joel Silver in 2012. Yet the mural remained technically the property of the U.S. Postal Service. Silver paid roughly $150,000 to Los Angeles art conservationist Nathan Zakheim to restore and clean the mural. It then went on display as the centerpiece for “Edward Biberman, Abbot Kinney and the Story of Venice,” a 2014 LACMA exhibit. Following the exhibition, LACMA returned the mural to Silver.
A significant amount of the art created under New Deal programs can be found online. These murals and statues created by the Federal Art Project, along with the Federal Music Project, Federal Theatre Project and Federal Writers' Project, represent a high-water mark in American public funding of the arts. In the midst of the Great Depression, these projects created jobs in the public service that paid well, educating and inspiring those with nothing left to lose except hope while adding a touch of beauty to a bleak world. The success of these programs offers a workable example of turning hardship into opportunity and demonstrating that desperate times may call for creative solutions rather than desperate measures.
On last report, Biberman’s Venice historic mural sits in storage in an undisclosed warehouse in Compton as the former post office building undergoes renovations.
Top Image: A birdseye view of Venice looking out over the canals and lagoon, 1924 | University of Southern California Libraries/California Historical Society