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The Circle Completed

February 19, 2014

This essay was originally published in the book:
Redeemed: Restoring the Lost Fred Ross Mural
UNB Art Centre, University of New Brunswick, 2013.

The recent reanimation of the Fred Ross mural, Destruction of War & Rebuilding the World Through Education, in Fredericton by a group of apprentices and artists, under the supervision of the artist, is not only a homage to the youthful work of Ross, but a reminder of the history of mural painting in Canadian art history. The original mural, now lost, was commissioned in 1946 by the student council of Fredericton High School as a memorial to fellow students who lost their lives in World War II. It took Ross nearly two years to complete the mural which was finally unveiled in May 1948. This was the very young artist’s second mural, he was born in 1927; the first was Annual School Picnic completed in 1946 at the Saint John Vocational School when he was still a student.

If there was ever a child prodigy in Canadian art it would be Fred Ross whose talents were recognised early on by the Saint John art community, in particular by Ted Campbell who was to become his teacher at the Vocational School, his mentor and lifelong friend. Other important influences were, of course, Miller Brittain and Jack Humphrey. The City of Saint John plays a pivotal role in the story of the Fredericton High School mural and the other four major murals that Ross completed between 1946 and 1954.

During the first half of the twentieth century, Saint John, and the rest of the Maritimes, sat in splendid isolation from the history of Modern Art, indeed; most of Canada was out of pace of what was going on in Europe. I would go venture to say that the art in the Maritimes was even far removed from the rest of Canada. This isolation was perhaps not a bad thing, unless you were an artist trying to make a living here, as it made us unique. There were at the time two places to study art in New Brunswick: Mount Allison University, whose degree programme did not start until 1938, but had been teaching art in one form or another since the mid 1800s, and Saint John Vocational School which started in the 1920s. The Owens Art Gallery at Mount Allison showed art, their mixed bag collection, and there was a small collection of art at the New Brunswick Museum, but there was no opportunity to see major art works; this was the world that Fred Ross, with all his natural talents, was born into.

The big elephant in the room when Ross was coming of age was the Depression. This was to affect the very nature of art in Canada and its history of mural painting. New Brunswick had always been, and remains, a difficult place to live. The Depression made it worse. Certainly New Brunswick felt the Depression in a large way and its artists were no exception. Canada had no WPA (Works Project Administration) with its New Deal Art Projects programmes for its artists which was the case with their American counterparts. Frankklin D. Rossevelt spent his way out of the Depression and that included spending money on the arts to promote his vision of a ‘New Deal’ for Americans. That did not happen in Canada where both Prime Minsters Mackenzie King and R.B. Bennett and their respective governments preferred a course of austerity. The enviable results for the arts was that they flourished in the United States as they never did before and possibly never repeated, while in Canada the arts languished along with the rest of the economy. What pulled this country out of the Depression was the war, but even that did little for the arts.

Saint John artists like Brittain, Humphrey and Campbell did, however, mirror their American counterparts with their subject matter of the despair of the Depression’s working class people. This was a time of class warfare–left versus right. Many artists, in both countries, embraced far left, anti-Fascist politics that included in some cases becoming Communists. Visual artists wanted to find a way to use their art to fight Fascism and Capitalism and this led them to murals as a public forum to educate society. Where they found models was Mexico where murals had become the chief source of a new strong public art under the leadership of artists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 20.11.57Diego Rivera was particularly important as he was invited to the USA to both teach and paint a number of murals. As well, a number of American and Canadian artists travelled to Mexico to study mural painting. Indeed, Fred Ross went twice to Mexico to study, but that was just after Destruction of War & Rebuilding the World Through Education was completed. Ross, and his teacher Ted Campbell, were certainly well aware of what was going on in Mexico at the time of the Fredericton High School commission. The golden age of American WPA mural (1933-1943) was over, but there were many books and reproductions of Mexican and American mural art that the young artist could, and did, see during the mid 1940s. These and his teacher’s urgings were to serve as his model for the mural Fredericton High School.

There are many antecedents for Destruction of War & Rebuilding the World Through Education, but this mural was a powerful accomplishment by a young artist with so little under his belt at the time. Murals, or in a broader context, wall painting, go back to the very beginnings of art. The paintings on the wall of caves in Altamira and Lascaux are as early as you can get; Egyptian tomb art; Roman wall painting and, most important to Ross, European religious frescoes from the Middle ages through the Renaissance in particular those from Italy like Giotto, Cimabue, Cavallini, Duccio and Masaccio. The mission of all of this art, as it was with the Mexican murals, was to tell a story generally to a broad, and sometimes illiterate, audience. Much of these works were large in scale as their stories were large and meant to impress.

Ross’s audience was, of course, not illiterate, but the work was intended as a memorial to the fallen and as an example what was possible, because of their sacrifice, of a new world made possible through education. These goals were a tall order for a young inexperienced artist. The model he uses is a diptych of contrasting themes, in his case war and peace. The result is a secular version of what would have at one time been a religious work. The models I have in mind are from religious art like Rogier van der Weyden’s Last Judgement were of Heaven and Hell. Ross’s follows the general pattern of early church iconography with Hell, war, on the left panel and Heaven, peace, on the right panel. Besides the idea that left usually stands for bad and right for good such a placement also makes visual sense as well as we normally scan works of art from left to right. As well, it does make sense to look at the left panel first and then go on to the right–from what is bad to what is better. The images in the two panel viewed as pair form a triangle or pyramid that leads our eyes upward which again follows religious conventions–upwards towards the Godhead and, in any case, the top half of a composition is a stronger area. In their original placement the paintings were high on a wall which also forced the viewer to look upward.

The images on the panels mirror one another which is a strong visual device. The figures are drawn with very strong outlines which are more linear than painterly and strongly relate to the cartoons for the murals. The full scale cartoons survive and are in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. There are also smaller scale surviving drawings all which were a great help in the recreation of the murals. While I have written about the early religious models for Destruction of War & Rebuilding the World Through Education the most obvious precedences are the Mexican murals of the Rivera school. The Mexican murals, and those Rivera did in the US, were meant to impress and impress they did not only in their scale, but in the boldness of their subject matter and political content. While some of today’s postmodern art does reflect social concerns they are often presented in ways, and places, that are remote from the general public’s understanding and gaze. The mural art of the thirties and forties, and in Ross’s case, the early fifties was meant to be in your face and clearly understood by all who saw it–in short, a populist art. There is a long social history of art that was meant to be art in the service of the people. As an art student in the fifties and early sixties, I was an avid reader of Arnold Hauser’s epic multi-volume The Social History of Art and firmly believed that art could, and should, be a tool of social revolution. The muralists certainly thought this and I am sure that the youthful Ross did so as well, but alas both of us are older now and far away from the bloom of young ideals.

Oddly, the uniting factor between Ross’s two panels is the mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion that appears in the top facing corners. On the right panel is the bomb that was the result of world war and, on the left panel, it is the threat to world peace. The atomic age rested heavy on the public psyche of the late 1940s. Death it appeared was just the push of a doomsday button away, but in Ross’s vision perhaps this could be avoided by the lessons of education. Panels in the Gothic period promised eternal damnation on Judgement Day unless one had lead a good Christian life. Ross’s mural, like the Gothic models, is a moral lesson that if ignored promise a bad end.

Not all murals of the American WPA period and those of Ross were left wing polemics. Ross’s first mural from 1946, Annual School Picnic, was an innocent image of a happy event. A seminal figure in the development of mural painting in Canada was the American regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, a teacher of Jackson Pollock and certainly not a left wing figure. He gave a keynote address at the 1941 Kingston Conference on the arts where he spoke of the importance of murals and their role in public education. Several Saint John artists, including Ted Campbell, were at the meeting where Benton’s message was enthusiastically received. Public art was seen by many artists at the time as a method of bringing art directly to the people in a way that was available to everyone.

There is the question of when public art becomes propaganda, but that all depends on one’s viewpoint just as myth can be viewed as someone else’s religion, propaganda can be seen someone else’s politics. In the best of worlds, public art mirrors the artist’s personal beliefs rather than those of the state or who was paying for the funding of the work. It should be noted that some of the very best religious mural art of the past was done by artists on direct commissions from the church and we know very little of the artists’s personal ideas. For instance, we know little of what an artist like Jan van Eyck thought about religion, but The Ghent Altarpiece (1432) is a masterpiece of the first rank on the subject. So quality art is possible in spite of what an artist believes.

Another factor, and this is the case with Ross’s Destruction of War & Rebuilding the World Through Education, is that artists as they mature can change both their minds and direction. This mural is a youthful work of the artist who was very much under the direction of his teacher and symbolic of the time when it was painted. Ross’s mature works are more classical in nature, more painterly and limited to traditional easel painting. Those things aside, I believe that this lost work, now reanimated, is very important in an understanding the artist’s development. Clearly Ross has always followed his own vision wherever it has taken him. He has avoided the trends of contemporary art be they abstraction or post modernism. He has stuck to realism and craftsmanship through thick and thin. He has remained in Saint John when the centre of Canada’s art universes are elsewhere.

Has the world been rebuilt through education since 1945 and the end of World War II? One would like to think so, but looking around us some nearly seventy years on there are serious reasons to doubt such a rosy conclusion. One thing is certain: the destruction of war is still with us. Fred Ross’s 1948 mural Destruction of War & Rebuilding the World Through Education in its new manifestation is a symbol of hope and a reminder that art, and artists, have something to say and, in this case, a way of doing it. It was a unique project, to my knowledge of a type not, to my knowledge, done before where a living senior artist witnessed and supervised a reanimation of one of his youthful works.

There is hope that the reanimated Destruction of War & Rebuilding the World Through Education in its new home in the Richard Currie Centre at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton will serve the same purpose the original did at Fredericton High School and which is to remind students, and, indeed, all of us, that while the world is a messy place, that there is hope through both sacrifice and education.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Tuesday, 20 August, 2013.

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