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Hugo Ballin's Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author
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Reluctant Modernist

Ballin’s corporate commissions had provided a reliable source of income and helped him to establish his reputation as a mural artist after his film career failed. But unfortunately for Ballin, the boom in the local economy that had fueled the corporate construction projects in the late 1920s quickly busted as the effects of the stock market crash rippled through the American economy. Once thriving businesses collapsed and others stopped hiring or laid their workers off to weather the economic storm. Unfortunately, Los Angeles’ population continued to grow as thousands of displaced Dust Bowl farmers along with unemployed workers from cities in the East made their way west desperate to find work. 

The Great Depression hits LA
The new arrivals amplified the city’s economic problems and, by 1932, the California State Unemployment Commission estimated that as many as 344,000 unemployed workers were living in Los Angeles.1 The unprecedented need for aid overwhelmed city charities and existing relief programs, and large encampments of unemployed workers and their families, or “Hoovervilles,” developed near the railroad tracks at 85th Street and Alameda, by the city dump, and in the Plaza downtown. Instead of expanding relief programs and offering aid to the new migrants, the city’s leaders blamed the “the incoming hobo army” for the city’s economic woes.2 Further, they racialized the problem. Local officials worked closely with the Border Patrol and the Mexican Consulate to compel the city’s Mexican-born population to return to their home country, resulting in the departures of over 16,000 Mexican citizens living in Los Angeles through forceful deportations and voluntary repatriation programs.3 The city government’s reactionary policies and reluctance to extend aid deepened the Great Depression’s impact in working-class communities throughout the city and slowed the economic recovery. 

As the city’s economy tumbled, Ballin was forced to seek out new forms of patronage to sustain his budding career as a muralist. But he also faced new competition from a rising cadre of mural artists in Los Angeles who had very different ideas about art. These artists, particularly those who had come of age in the 1930s, did not believe artists should strive to create “pure decorative beauty” as Ballin did, and instead strove to use their art to draw the public’s attention to the suffering of the poor and unemployed and expose the social turbulence of the times.4 Many were themselves newcomers to Los Angeles who had been raised in urban, working-class communities by immigrant parents, or recently arrived immigrants from Mexico, and had been attracted to the area by the possibility of creating new forms of culture that could serve as an alternative to the “highbrow” culture of elites. They believed in the power of art to give voice to the marginalized and represent the stories of everyday people.  They experimented with new artistic styles and forms so that they could offer more realistic, gritty representations of American life to a broader audience. 

New artists, new audiences, new patronage
The programs of President Roosevelt’s New Deal provided a new source of patronage for these artists, removing  the need to rely on commissions from conservative-minded elites like Ballin had in the 1920s. Roosevelt introduced the Public Works Arts Project in 1933-1934, the Federal Arts Project in 1935-1943, and the Works Progress Administration in 1935-1943, which funded the construction of hundreds of new schools, post offices, libraries, city halls and other public buildings throughout the Southland, each adorned with decorative art. Across the country, these programs employed 10,000 artists who produced over 120,000 paintings, sculptures, murals and photographs before the programs were discontinued during World War Two.5 The art commissions were granted through contests or open bidding processes to which anyone, regardless of pedigree or education, could apply.  Serving as a democratic alternative to the patronage of the city’s elites, the publicly funded art projects created significant new opportunities for artists who were less known and less connected than Ballin to display their work in Los Angeles.

As historian Sarah Schrank showed in her book, Art and the City, the combination of new artists, new audiences, and new sources of patronage weakened the elites’ control over art and culture in Los Angeles and gave rise to new contests over cultural authority in the 1930s. The new artists created works that countered the booster fantasies of Los Angeles’ romantic past and civic grandeur, and initiated new debates about the meaning of art, representation and American identity. They produced what Schrank described as “an eclectic and public modernism” that flourished in both the films made in the studios of Hollywood, the visual arts, and likewise the murals painted during the decade. But by challenging the more traditional, conservative art culture promoted by the city’s elites, who had invested their social and financial capital in controlling the visual imagery of the city and supporting artists like Ballin whose work would reinforce their marketing strategies, the new artists also provoked an intense reaction from municipal authorities and business leaders. Already unhappy with the changing social currents in their city, these civic and business leaders worked to thwart the “eclectic public modernism” of the new artists of the 1930s.

The WPA & the fight for cultural authority
The most notorious example of these new contests over cultural authority occurred during the development of Olvera Street downtown, an area designed to celebrate the city’s Mexican past to by blending “art, commerce, cuisine and costume” and thereby offer tourists an “authentic” Mexican experience. The Olvera Street developers commissioned a mural from Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros on a building nearby to be an aesthetic complement, hoping he would lend authenticity and cache to the development. But Siqueiros had his own ideas for the commission and designed his mural as a purposeful anti-Imperialist statement. He called the mural “América Tropical,” describing it as “a violent symbol of the Indian peon of feudal America doubly crucified by that nation’s exploitative classes and in turn by imperialism” and as a monument to “… the destruction of past national American cultures by invaders of yesterday and today.” Siqueiros believed that artists should create “democratic art” that would advance the revolutionary struggle of the working class, not decoration that would advance the commercial ambitions of city leaders, and used his mural to draw attention to the continued mistreatment of Mexicans and Mexican Americans living in the city. Almost immediately after his murals were revealed, the portion of the mural visible from Olvera Street was painted over with whitewash and by 1934, “América Tropical” had been whitewashed completely. Siqueiros left Los Angeles was eventually deported to Mexico for his radical beliefs.7

As Schrank argued, Siqueiros’ mural was a seminal work, which despite its destruction, accelerated a shift away from the “high art” of the Beaux Arts movement and toward an embrace of a more “eclectic public modernism” in Los Angeles. Siqueiros’ style was maintained and expanded after his departure by a group of his loyal students, including Robert Merrell Gage, Fletcher Martin, Myer Shaffer, and others who had worked and studied with him at the Chouinard Institute. Hollywood stars and studio executives, eager to establish themselves as art connoisseurs, served as a source of patronage for their work, as did the public projects funded by the New Deal programs. Artists experimented with avant-garde aesthetics and used their work to explore the social and political complexities of modern urban life in Southern California. In doing so, they initiated a cultural shift away from the conservative styles that had prevailed in Los Angeles in the 1920s and towards a new, more popular and progressive style of modern art. 

Hugo Ballin principally rejected this cultural shift, as it contradicted both his classical style and his vision of art as an elevated, refined form of culture. Although he had lauded the populist potential of art during his years as a filmmaker and experimented with more modern forms in his corporate commissions, he maintained his traditional ideas about what kind of art was appropriate for public spaces. As a result, he was a safe choice for municipal commissions offered by Los Angeles’ conservative civic leaders. In 1932, the same year that Siqueiros’s “América Tropical” was whitewashed, the city hired Ballin to paint murals at two of its largest municipal development projects in the period: its new Exposition Park stadium erected for the Summer Olympic Games and the new Los Angeles County General Hospital in Boyle Heights. In each case, Ballin revived the classical style of the Italian frescos he had studied during his years abroad as a young man, offering forms and figures that diverged sharply from the trend towards “eclectic public modernism” of other mural artists in 1930s Los Angeles. 

Ballin challenges the new WPA style
The contrast between Ballin’s traditional style and those of his contemporaries can clearly be seen by comparing his murals at the General Hospital to those painted by Myer Shaffer at the Los Angeles Sanatorium in 1936, a hospital for victims of tuberculosis in Duarte now known as the City of Hope. Shaffer, a student of Siqueiros, painted a mural he called "The Social Aspects of Tuberculosis" that countered the boosters’ promotion of the region’s climate as a cure-all for chronic lung diseases such as TB. In three panels, he emphasized the class dimensions of illness by focusing on those who bore the brunt of the disease, the patients themselves, depicting their overworked, exhausted bodies depleted of vitality and nutrition by their impoverishment.Ballin’s murals, by contrast, featured the doctors and nurses who treated them, his frescos drawing a direct line between the brilliant physicians of ancient Greece and the cutting-edge medical treatment offered by the experts at County General Hospital. While Shaffer’s murals depicted disease as part of the struggles of the poor and working-class, Ballin emphasized the importance of medical professionals, celebrating the people who ran the institution rather than those who would be helped there. Perhaps not surprisingly, Shaffer’s murals were quickly whitewashed while Ballin’s remain visible at the hospital today.

Comparing Ballin’s mural at El Rodeo Elementary School in Beverly Hills to Charles Kassler's mural at Fullerton Union High School offers another clear contrast. Both works were commissioned in 1934 with funds from New Deal programs, but offered remarkably different visions of art’s educational value. Kassler’s mural, a 75–foot long fresco titled “Pastoral California,” depicted the lives of both indigenous and Spanish residents in Alta California and emphasized the disparities of wealth and power in the colonial period. At a time when Mexicans were being blamed for the city’s economic woes, Kessler celebrated Los Angeles’ Mexican history.  His mural presented students at the school a history lesson about inequality and racism, prompting the school’s Board of Directors to whitewash the mural in 1939. Ballin’s mural, titled "Rudimentary Education" avoided the politics of the period entirely, offering a somewhat disjointed portrayal of the civilizing role of education in society through the ages. While Kassler’s mural capitalized on the power of mural art to educate viewers about the stories of the marginalized, Ballin used his mural to celebrate the value of traditional education.

Ballin the Prankster: the Inglewood Post Office mural
Over time, Ballin became even more vocal in his criticism of the shifting trends in mural art in Los Angeles. He criticized the other WPA artists he worked with on "Rudimentary Education" at El Rodeo Elementary, saying that, "not one of [them] knew the rudiments of art training."9 In 1936, he decided to challenge the taste of the government officials awarding the mural commissions by submitting a sketch of a mural he believed was “not fit for a public building” among a group of sketches for the new Post Office being built Inglewood. While most of his paintings had fine, delicate forms, the hoax sketch was done in a cruder, more cartoonish style “with the unusual perspective adopted by ultra modernists.” The sketch depicted “the worst side of life in the California gold rush” – drunk miners reveling in a saloon and downcast miners suffering below a corpulent couple dining to excess – intentionally designed to look “decidedly communistic” as a means of mimicking the blatant political content of murals like those of Kassler and Shaffer. When the commissioners accepted the sketch, Ballin took the opportunity to publicly ridicule the program by sending copies of the sketch and an account of the affair to local newspapers. And as a final act of protest, Ballin refused to paint the mural, saying it was unfit for public consumption.10

Despite Ballin’s espoused hostility towards the art being produced by other muralists in 1930s Los Angeles, the influence of “eclectic public modernism” on his work can be seen in some of his best-known works from the period. This influence was most pronounced in the murals Ballin painted for the lobby of new headquarters of the Los Angeles Times, erected in 1935. Architect Gordon Kaufmann, who had worked with Ballin on the Getz House, designed a massive structure for the Times that mimicked the basilicas of European cathedrals to house a marvel of modern industry: a fully operational power plant and three printing plants on the lower floors and several floors of offices above, complete with modern amenities like air conditioning and sound proofing.11 Unlike his early designs, Kaufman embraced a streamlined, modern style that emphasized efficiency over ornamentation and modeled the building’s circular, marble lobby on one in the skyscraper that housed the New York Daily News (1929-1930). To complement this aesthetic, Ballin featured dynamic male figures, or, as he called them "Monumental Men." in each of his panels. On the north wall, Ballin showcased those who worked inside the building by depicting men working in various arenas of the newspaper-making process: those engaged in setting the type and casting the printing plates, an engraving department photographer, a news editor at his desk, and newspaper delivery truck with a newsboy passing out papers. The south wall panel featured three "Monumental Men" representing the technologies that carried the news - a radio, a telegraph and a camera - surrounded by the modern technologies used to transport the news - planes, trains, ships and wires - and symbols of the industrial age including a futuristic car, the dome of a civic capitol, and factory smoke stacks. Ballin abandoned the rich color that had been his signature in favor of tones of orange and copper and included only one tiny female figure in the corner observing the developments from afar. The murals in the Times lobby were the farthest Ballin would ever stray from his Beaux Arts training and the closest he came to embracing modernism in his work.12

An eclectic public modernism
While Ballin’s open criticism of his peers helped him to secure commissions, spared his works from being whitewashed, and benefitted him financially throughout the later years of his career, he was not entirely aloof to artistic trends. A subtle influence of “eclectic public modernism” also can be seen the murals he painted at the Griffith Observatory in 1935 and his murals at Burbank City Hall in 1943, two of his most famous works. Ballin’s murals in the late 1930s and early 1940s show that the period was another chapter in his ongoing personal quest to honor the traditions of the European Masters while keeping his work current, fresh and modern so that he would be recognized as a leader among American artists. Over the course of his career, Ballin never abandoned his classical Beaux Arts style, but instead added new dimensions based on his experiences as a filmmaker in Hollywood, a corporate raconteur, and a public artist in the latest incarnation of metropolitan Los Angeles.
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