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Hugo Ballin's Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Wilshire Boulevard Temple - Spandrels over East Arches

  • In Magnin's Words
  • Allegory and History
  • Source/Citations

Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin described Ballin's murals in a book published in 1974:
"The first series of figures on the spandrels or spaces over the east arches beginning on the left, symbolizes the Book of Psalms. We see the priests performing on the musical instruments and singing under the starry skies. Many of the Psalms were written as hymns to be used in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. There were great choirs of priests who lifted up their voices in praise of the God of Israel and humanity. Many of the Psalms were written in antiphonal form. That is to say, some verses were sung by one group of priests and the responses came from others. For an arrangement of these antiphonies, one should consult Moulton's 'Modern Reader's Bible.'

The Book of Proverbs is illustrated by the next group of figures which comprises the woman at the loom and the one in which she is giving drink to the wayfaring man. The entire picture suggests the last half of the thirty-first chapter of the Book of Proverbs which is read on Friday evenings in the Jewish households in accordance with an old and beautiful custom. "A woman of valor, who can find? For her price is far above rubies… She seeketh wool and flax and worth willingly in her hands…Her lamp goeth not out by night. (On the left one may see the lamp burning.) She layeth her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She stretcheth out her hand to the poor: yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy."

The entire picture as portrayed on the walls and in the chapter of Proverbs itself typifies the noblest ideals of Jewish womanhood, beauty of character, dignity, industry and charity.

Koheleth or the Book of Ecclesiastes is next depicted in the form of the old philosopher contemplating life and death. It is one of the smaller books of the Bible, and with the exception of the last part whig was added later, one of the most non-religious books in the Bible. In fact, at times it is almost anti-religious. The teachers of Israel who arranged the Canon or list of Biblical works showed great breadth of mind and excellent taste in permitting this wonderful book to be included in the Bible even though it lacked the spirit of traditional religion. They recognized its beauty and truth of much of its philosophy. After all religion is emotional and cannot meet the test of pure reason any more than pure reason itself can be established dogmatically as the only real guide to truth. 

The particular portion of Ecclesiastes depicted in the paintings is the famous portion of the twelfth chapter which commences with the words, "Remember then thy Creator in the days of thy youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw high, when thou shalt say: 'I have no pleasure in them.'" The chapter from the first verse of the seventh inclusive is a picture of old age and death creeping on. The bird on the left is an allusion to the fourth verse which reads: "And one shall start up at the voice of a bird" and refers to the nervous condition of old people.

On the left of the medallion is a picture of an Oriental street containing a figure in mourning and refers to the fifth verse which says in part: 'And the mourners go about the streets.' On the right of the medallion is a broken pitcher at the fountain which alludes to a portion of the sixth verse which reads: "And the pitcher is broken at the fountain.'

The next figure, the last of those on the spandrels, typifies the Song of Songs or Canticles which was also called the Song of Solomon. We behold a beautiful Oriental maiden typifying the heroine of the poem. The entire book is a love drama and really has nothing to do with religion at all in its original meaning. And again the rabbis evinced their breadth of mind in including this book in the Canon. They, however, interpreted it to mean that the lovers typify God and Israel. The fact is, as we said before, that the book actually is not religious in its meaning at all, but after all, romance is part of life, a very integral part of it; and in its highest form, a very beautiful expression of the human soul.

Taking all the figures together, one cannot but be impressed by the contrast in the messages of these different books. The Psalms stand ing for faith in an invisible God brought comfort and inspiration to millions of people. The woman in the thirty-first chapter of Proverbs typifies the spiritual type of womanhood, while that in the Song of Songs is symbolic of love and romance, and the figure of Ecclesiastes suggests pessimism, doubt and futility. After all, life is a combination of all these things and a normal personality must at some moment or other experience every one of these emotions and moods.

Religion should not be narrow in its interpretation and message and the synagogue must be a haven for refuge and a source of inspiration for every type of human being as well as a source of comfort and inspiration in every mood and attitude that the human mind can possibly express."

Ballin has painted several works in his early career exploring ancient myths, legends and Biblical stories, often using beautiful, female allegorical figures to represent them. Many of his films similarly explored classic stories, Ballin relying on his artistic skills to illustrate the stories in beautiful visuals rather than dialogue or music. Ballin has kept to that pattern in this portion of the frieze, offering interpretations of the Book of Psalms, the Book of Proverbs, the Koheleth (Book of Ecclesiastes) and the Canticles (Song of Songs/Song of Solomon) using human figures to convey their focus and meaning. In doing so, Ballin - who was not religiously observant - reveals much about his understanding of Judaism and the traditions that he embraced as part of his understanding of his own Jewish identity. 

His interpretation of the Book of Psalms highlights music, rather than the messages they carry about faith and man's relationship to God, suggesting that Ballin admired the Psalms for their beautiful lyrical quality and the performative aspects of Jewish tradition.

His representation of the Book of Proverbs focuses on, as Magnin described, "the noblest ideals of Jewish womanhood, beauty of character, dignity, industry and charity. Perhaps not surprisingly, the female character embodying those ideals looks a lot like Ballin's wife, Mabel, who he also cast in starring roles in his films.

Ballin's representation of the Koheleth (Book of Ecclesiastes) highlights the importance of aged philosophers, the figures wisdom conveyed through his facial expression and posture as in Ballin's representation of Jacob in a previous portion of the mural. Throughout his career, Ballin expressed his admiration for the master painters of the Italian Renaissance, and this figure similarly honors the brilliance that can come through thoughtful, lifelong consideration of the meaning, or perhaps meaninglessness, of life. This suggests that Ballin admired the philosophical aspects of Judaism and believed that true religious devotion demanded a lifelong commitment to contemplation and reason as much as it did devotion to God. 

In the final portion, Ballin invokes "an Oriental" motif that echoes his 1920 film Pagan Love to represent the Song of Songs. The book is written as a love story, and although as Magnin notes, most rabbis interpreted the lovers as representations of God and Israel, Ballin chooses to represent the book as a beautiful woman. This was entirely consistent with Ballin's painting style throughout his career for he believed the role of the painter was to create "pure, decorative beauty" in his work.1 For Ballin, beauty and love were to be pursued in art and in life, and deeply ingrained in his understanding of God and religion.

The depictions of the Bible captured in this portion of Ballin's murals at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple suggest that although he was not a member of the congregation, he agreed with Magnin's assertion that, "Religion should not be narrow in its interpretation and message and the synagogue must be a haven for refuge and a source of inspiration for every type of human being as well as a source of comfort and inspiration in every mood and attitude that the human mind can possibly express." It is likely that Ballin would have argued that art too should be a "source of comfort and inspiration…" and that he pursued a life defined by those ideals throughout his career.

Caption from Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin's book, The Warner Murals in the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles, California, published by the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 1974.

1. Ballin’s “determination to get some element of pure decorative beauty into every picture that he paints…” was noted in a review from an unknown author written Feb. 28th, 1911 that appears in the scrapbook housed in the Hugo Ballin Papers, Charles Young Library, Dept. of Special Collections, UCLA, Box 29, Folder 2.

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