The Evolution of Western Civilization
James Michael Newell
My first consideration in approaching the work of decorating the library of the Evander Childs High School in New York City was its physical dimensions which are approximately one hundred by sixty feet. The space to be decorated, except for pilasters dividing the long wall, presented a continuous stretch about eight feet high around three sides of the room above the wood paneling and bookshelves. Murals for a room of such proportions must be planned to an over-life-size scale and must be bold in design if their meaning is to reach the students seated in different parts of the room.
I offered these first impressions to the principal and art director of the school and suggested for a subject an interpretation of a progression of events, perhaps the story of mankind. They felt that since the high school is located in the Bronx, a series of panels depicting the history of that section of the city would be more appropriate. The Bronx history was gone into thoroughly, and at the same time rough sketches were drawn for a series of murals describing the growth of western civilization. The latter plan was no more than tolerated until the color sketches were completed. Then they were approved with real enthusiasm.
As the painting progressed, the students and faculty of the school showed more and more enthusiasm for the work. In fresco painting, the artist scales up his sketches to a full-size drawing or cartoon as a preliminary to the actual work on the wall. This he judges in place, and makes any necessary corrections in drawing, scale, position and relation of objects, or volumes on the cartoon. The mason meanwhile is preparing the wall for the paint.
Satisfied with his drawing, the artist selects a portion from it that can be painted in one day and the corresponding section of wall is covered with the thin finish coat of mortar (a mixture of marble dust and lime), which is troweled to a smooth finish.
The outline of the drawing is then transferred to the fresh wet mortar and the artist begins to paint. Each day a new section is patched to the previous day's work. The students on their way in and out of the library stopped to ask questions and inform each other about the art process and the meaning of each section. They recognized events, criticized the knot in the cowboy's scarf and the proportion of the mechanic's hand. They were seriously interested in the work and studied carefully an exhibit I arranged in a case in the library to show the process of fresco, its history, and photographs of Italian, Mexican, and American murals. Representatives of the school paper interviewed me and took photographs of the work in progress.
The faculty of the science and chemistry departments were most helpful in technical suggestions and instruction in locating and lending apparatus for models. Wherever possible I have used as models people from the schoolthe engineer, the man pouring glass, the gentlemen of the juryare all connected with the school, so that a great variety of people have contributed to and are enjoying sharing in the work.
The desire to put into concrete form reactions to events, human behavior, the particular beauty of the color and arrangement of a spot in nature is the common urge of artistically creative people. In choosing a vehicle of expression, each artist is guided by his keener sensitivity to the beauty and force of music or words or color and form. And again the musician, the writer, or the painter chooses to express himself, according to his personality and way of thinking, in straight recording or picturization, or in symbols interpreting the significance of a form or an event.
In the first instance we think of the painting of a portrait of a racehorse. Exact to a hair in color, height, length, head and body structure, it is a record of the outward appearance of that horse. The death scene of a general, the coronation of a king are other examples in which the portraiture, the clothes worn, and the attending personages are pictured as they appear to the eye. Because of this fidelity to nature, the exactness in the copying of detail, the picture mirrors the event. Similarly, the landscape that matches blade for blade, leaf for leaf, nature's arrangement stands as a record of the outward appearance of a scene.
In a symbolic painting, the artist utilizes the pictorial record as a dictionary. Out of his experience and knowledge he creates a new and personal form through which to interpret events and feelings. He exaggerates and reserves arbitrarily. There is no attempt to record events exactly. Rather, he tries to recreate the sense of significance of a generalized event.
Mural painting, most often placed in public buildings, is seen by a very great many passing people, who represent a variety of ideas and are engaged in different callings. It is therefore by nature not intimate, but general or universal in thought and appeal. Through its monumental approach it goes beyond the recording of outward appearance to include also the inner significance of the society and time in which it is painted. In expressing himself through the portrayal of his ideas on a limited wall space the artist has a very real need for a universal language in order that his work may be easily read. He therefore invents symbolsa shorthand or phonetic languagethrough which to convey his thought.
A symbol can be conceived as an arrangement of objects or lines or forms whose presence and relationship stand for a meaning. Its power is felt through its concentrated picturization of an idea. Its significance is manifested by its representation of the peaks, the mores, the supremes of human possibilities, of physical properties, of beliefs.
Symbols used in painting have gone through a very academic period. Recognizable objects held in the hand of the stately figure of a woman have sufficed for symbolic reference. Many of the objects can be traced through centuries of painting. The scales of justice are obvious. The triangle and T-square and the mortar and pestle are often-used symbols of the architect's and chemist's professions. Here the material object designates the meaning of the figure, which is, in itself, without expression. It might be said to be negative. On the other hand an inanimate object used alone may have great power and significance. Bread or wheat, which is abundant in life-sustaining food value, becomes a symbol of life itself. Embodied in two pieces of wood in the form of a cross is the supreme sacrifice of Christ and all his moral and ethical beliefs. Through usage, objects become the symbols of qualities or conditions, as the olive branch does for peace. In more formal settings emblems and seals and also flags are the symbols of schools and organizations and countries as they picture what each collective body stands for.
The mural painter today prefers to use for his symbol not the mortar and pestle but the figure of the chemist himself, suggesting his work and its social relationship. Without meaningless gadgets and endowed with human and understandable life, the symbol becomes a real and vital force. Again the figure of the American pioneer might be used, and it will stand not alone for the man but for the physical endurance, the courage, the adventurous, inquisitive spirit that founded a new and free country. As the way of living and the social problem change, new symbols become universally accepted as significant of new ways, new standards. The use of electricity, a new force and necessity in the present-day world, has revolutionized living, comfort, and health. its tremendous powers out of control work immediately for man's destruction. Mechanized transportation and quick communication of various sorts envelop the world, changing time and space. They draw people and countries closer together and also, by eliminating borders, involve people and countries in each other's affairs. These influences are universally incorporated into living so that man's use or conquest of them becomes significant in the world of today.
This wide and varied activity is so highly involved and its reactions and repercussions so far-reaching that it must be simplified by the artist who is attempting, through pictures, to interpret his world. Through the use of such symbols he can throw together with great freedom a variety of situations and point up his belief and emotion through their arbitrary juxtaposition. With economy of line and simplicity of mass he produces a strong clear picture of an idea, recognizable and interesting to consider.
Thus, to return to my work at Evander Childs High School, the murals in progression around the library show primitive man building his society, youth migrating from it to new lands, the meeting and mingling of tribes, the clashing of eastern culture and scientific knowledge with western force, building knowledge and ideas of law and democracy.
The dark ages of plague are shown next, with the church alone perpetuating knowledge. Then come the beginnings of scientific experiment and the awakening of the people to nature, the force of which destroys their bondage and leads to the great flowering of the Renaissance. The exploration which follows founded a new country to which all nations and all time have contributed, and which has developed into a varied, dynamic, and powerful civilization. In this way I have tried to interpret in pictorial symbols the important historical forces that determined the evolution of western civilization.