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When Art was Threatening: The Hidden WPA Mural at Skokie School

By Sally Schneiders
Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2014 Gazette

What remains of Breinin's 1934 Mural at Skokie School. The melting paint of the three men is the result of a long past botched renovation attempt. The bottom section had been concealed behind a file cabinet at the time it was painted.

What remains of Breinin’s 1934 Mural at Skokie School. The melting paint of the three men is the result of a long past botched renovation attempt. The bottom section had been concealed behind a file cabinet at the time it was painted. Photograph courtesy of Sally Schneiders.

Peeking out through trays of books, stacks of folding chairs, and tables bearing audio equipment, near the east wall of the Learning Center at Skokie School, are the last traces of a once 40 foot-wide by 10 foot-tall mural. The floor of the Learning Center bisects the work along its width, and aside from the 2-foot or 3-foot by 4-foot high remnant, the remainder is painted over. The mural, described below, required weeks of the artist’s time planning and executing in the summer months of 1934. However, within just one day of its unveiling to Board of Education members, the mural’s fate was sealed. It was completely covered up and hidden away from sight.

The headline and text of an article from the Chicago Daily Tribune on July 28, 1934 reads:

Skokie School’s Mystery Mural on View at Last But it’s ‘Unsuitable’ and Faces Removal.
The painting is the work of Raymond Breinin, 24 years old, one of the artists engaged by the recently discontinued Public Works Art project… The work is entitled “The Two Economic Means of Existence.” … The north end is named “The Unity of the Races” and portrays a Caucasian, a Negro, and an Oriental, arms around one another’s shoulders. The center depicts “Industry” and shows workers working amid heavy wheels. The south end is “Humanity”, where figures stand with arms outstretched, pointing to the center panel and to the south one, which shows farms and farm machinery.

Despite its having been approved by a committee of the Public Works Arts Projects, the Winnetka Board of Education voted to reject the mural at their meeting on July 26, 1934, describing it as “sinister and threatening.” Why the mural was considered “unsuitable” for viewing, by so few, with such immediate effect, prompts further study. The mural, one of hundreds painted onto the walls of Chicago and suburban schools, post offices, and other municipal facilities, conceptualized Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vision to “foster optimism and restore the spirits of the people.”

Writer Heather Becker in her book Art for the People gives us some context for the mural’s creation. During the depths of the Great Depression, “New Deal administrators in 1933 formed the first federally sponsored work relief program for artists, the Public Works of Art Program.” American artists of the era drew inspiration from the Mexican mural movement, a movement fostered by Mexico’s President Alvaro Obregon to “express the social ideals of the Mexican revolution.”

The Lost WPA Mural, now painted over, at Skokie School, Winnetka, IL

“GIVE US THE UNITY OF MEN AND WE SHALL BUILD A NEW WORLD” The Lost WPA Mural by Raymond Breinin  (black and white photograph of the original color mural), now painted over, at Skokie School, Winnetka, IL

 

Mr. Breinin’s style closely resembles the styles of the great Mexican muralists of that time. A Winnetka Talk issue dated August 2, 1934, states: “The mural was done in a modified form of the modern Mexican school, its theme being cooperation, interdependence and coordination of human activities.” Just two weeks later, the Winnetka Talk published a picture of a mural by Mexican artist Valentin Vidaurreta, with the title “The Deer Dance.” The facial feature depictions, simplicity in figure rendering and stark contrasts of darks and whites bear a striking resemblance to Mr. Breinin’s mural. Mr. Vidaurreta’s work was widely heralded as well of that of the other Mexican muralists Diego Riviera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. So why was Mr. Breinin’s rejected out of hand?

Mr. Breinin’s use of unity and industry as the theme for the mural was a popular choice of that era. The organizers of the 1933 and 1934 Century of Progress Exposition, in addition to commemorating Chicago’s 100 years of incorporation, wanted “to attempt to demonstrate to an international audience the nature and significance of scientific discoveries, the methods of achieving them, and the changes which their application has wrought in industry and living conditions.”

Mr. Clarence Randall, President of the School Board of that time, offered very little comment as to what the board found so objectionable in the mural. A writer for the Chicago Daily Tribune (December 24, 1934), expressed a more concrete objection “…not all of the WPA art is suitable for the schools, nor welcome in them. Skokie School, Winnetka has a socialistic propaganda picture…”

Given the nature of the times — internationally, with a very dangerous Adolf Hitler proclaiming himself Chancellor upon Hindenburg’s death on August 2, 1934, and Josef Stalin brandishing his own deadly methods of removing opposition in the growing communist state — and in our own city with gangster violence (John Dillinger was captured at last in July 1934), it is easy to imagine that a palpable feeling of fear factored into the Board of Education’s interpretation of the painting. Artist Raymond Breinin was Russian born, to boot. Maybe that also played into their thinking.

Raymond Breinin, photographed while completing the mural in 1934. © Winnetka Historical Society, all rights reserved.

Raymond Breinin, photographed while completing the mural in 1934. © Winnetka Historical Society, all rights reserved.

One wonders if Raymond Breinin were present at the unveiling. If he were present, he might have allayed the board members’ fears about his intent. He could have told them that his family escaped from communist Russia in 1922, when he was 12 years old. He might also have informed the board that he began art instruction at the age of 7, under the same instructor as Marc Chagall.

In the Learning Center, I looked at the remainder of the mural and felt sad. I expected harsh tones and stark contrasts to hint at the sinister quality perceived by others. In that small piece, depicting the three figures of diverse culture embracing (cooperation), behind the wheel of industry (our nation’s strength), I only saw hope. Go take a look and see for yourself.

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