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Posts Tagged ‘Henry Ford’

166_1934_CCI find it hard to believe that I haven’t mentioned the work of Charles Sheeler here, outside of a mention of his collaboration with Paul Strand on the film Manhatta, a landmark American art film from 1921.  Sheeler (1883-1965)  is one of my favorite artists who as  a pioneer in photography and painting in the early decades of the 20th century is often called the father of Modernism.  Oddly enough, I am particularly drawn to his industrial imagery which replaces almost all evidence of things natural in completely man-made factoryscapes.  This  might seem to be the antithesis of my own work,  which often omits all evidence of human intervention in my landscapes.

Charles Sheeler River Rouge PlantSome of his most potent work came from an assignment where Henry Ford hired Sheeler to photograph his factories, wanting him to glorify them in an almost religious manner, as though they were cathedrals for the new age.  As Ford had said at the time, “The man who builds a factory builds a temple. The man who works there, worships there.”  Sheeler was impressed with the factory complexes and felt that, indeed, they represented a modern form of religious expression.  His painted work from this time glorified the machine of industry in glowing forms and color.

Charles Sheeler Shaker BarnHe saw the factory as a continuation of the American idea of work as religion, one that was rooted in the sense of  reverence and importance of the barns and structures of the farms of the earlier pre-industrial age.  He   painted many scenes of farms and barns, abstracting the forms as he had with the factory scenes.

Charles Sheeler Classic LandscapeI don’t know that I completely agree with Sheeler on his idea of the factory as cathedral but I do have to admit to being awestruck in the presence of large factory structures.  I remember working in the old A&P factory, a huge building that was said to have the capability to produce enough product each day to feed everyone east of the Mississippi.  It no longer exists.  Some of the huge rooms in the building were amazing to stand in, as the machines hummed and throbbed while workers hustled about servicing their needs.  I particularly remember the tea room which was a huge ca cavernous space with row after row of steampunk  looking machines that bagged the tea then sewed it shut.  I cleaned these machines for several weeks and, standing in the grand space in silence after most of the workers had gone and the machines turned off, felt that feeling of awe.   I would sometime walk around from area to area, just taking it in.  I didn’t necessarily adore it in the manner of a religious zealot but there was no denying the  power in its magnitude and the power of the machine.

Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to Sheeler.  Maybe its his use of form and color.  I don’t know.  I guess it doesn’t really matter.  I just like his work. Period.

Charles Sheeler Conversation Sky and Earth

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Yesterday, I wrote about the mural controversy in Maine where the work depicting the history of labor was removed from a state building.  It made me think of other murals and immediately brought to mind the work of Diego Rivera,who I have written briefly about here before and who was arguably the greatest muralist of recent history.  Rivera’s work often focused on the struggle of the worker. 

The Mexican Rivera (1886-1957) was an ardent Marxist who saw the mural as a way to to make expressive art available to the masses, away from the confines of museums and galleries which he saw as elitist.  But it took money to commission his masterpieces so he was often working with those powerful forces that he often eyed with suspicion.    There were episodes where the two sides bumped heads, the most famous coming when his mural at Rockefeller Plaza in NYC was destroyed because of his inclusion of Lenin in the mural and his subsequent refusal to remove it.

The work he considered his finest was centered around the worker and the industry of America.  In 1932-33, Rivera painted , under the auspices of Henry Ford (who is depicted in the mural) and at the height of the Great Depression, an epic mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  Covering more than 447 square yards, Detroit Industry is massive.  It is filled with vibrant imagery depicting the worker, in both a heroic and subservient manner, as integral cogs in the rhythmic throb of the busy industrial world.  It is a feast for the eyes.

I have always been drawn to Rivera’s work on a gut level, drawn in by his gorgeous color and exciting composition.  When I see his grand murals I am deeply humbled and this work is no different.  I am pleased that it has survived the changing tides of political favor without somebody suggesting it be painted over.  If anything, it should remain if only as a reminder of the part the worker has played in building the wealth of this country at a time when the American worker is quickly overlooked by industry in favor of cheaper, unregulated labor on distant shores.

Here’s a video showing the scope of Rivera’s work.  As an artist, I am both inspired and intimidated by the sheer amount of amazing work here. 

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