Conducted by Betty Hoag
At Edward Biberman’s home in Hollywood, April 15, 1964
BETTY HOAG: Mr. Biberman, you were directly connected with the Federal Art Projects work. I know that you did three murals for the Treasury Department: one in Venice in 1941; two of them in the Los Angeles Federal Post Office Building in 1937 and 1940. Are those the correct dates?
EDWARD BIBERMAN: Yes, the dates are approximately correct. The murals in the Los Angeles Post Office were 1937 and 1940. There were two separate murals. The ceiling, however, was the last of the three commissions and was actually not done until 1940 or ‘41. Only the side wall was commissioned in 1937. And the Venice Post Office mural was completed either in 1940 or 1941-I’m not quite certain what the signing date on it was. Let me repeat, they were all done for the Section of Fine Arts, an agency, I believe, under the Treasury Department. And they were direct commissions.
HOAG: Now before we go on I think it might be a good idea to review your life rather briefly.
BIBERMAN: I grew up in Philadelphia as a member of a mercantile family and received my university degree from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce, from which I graduated at the tender age of nineteen. I spent three years, from 1926 to 1929, in Europe-mostly in Paris.
HOAG: Had you been interested in mural painting, in Paris?
BIBERMAN: Only in theory. I was interested in mural painting and I entered my first actual competition for a mural for some industrial firm-I don’t remember its name. The solution at which I arrived was one that received a great deal of attention when the sketches were exhibited. I didn’t get the job, but I got much publicity from it. More and more then, I became interested in the whole idea of mural painting. All of us at that period were terribly excited by the great Mexican mural movement.
I didn’t go to Mexico at that time, but I was a very devoted and partisan follower of the work of Siqueiros, Rivera, Orozco and Charlot, and in theory I became an ardent muralist. I had never actually painted a mural.
Then the Federal programs were instituted. I never tried to enter the Federal Art Projects because I was still in the very fortunate position of coming from a family which was able to see to it that I wasn’t in want during this very difficult period. Under those circumstances, of course, I felt that I could not indicate a desire to be on the Federal Projects, which were predicated on “relief,” although actually I would dearly have loved to have been.
BIBERMAN: Because it was a very stimulating atmosphere. This was the most exciting work that was being done in the country at the time. So, when the Section of Fine Arts competitions were publicized, shortly thereafter, I immediately took this challenge very seriously and started to design murals in open competition with other artists. This was not a WPA “relief” project. As a matter of fact, I had the very peculiar experience during this period of getting a great deal of recognition for work that was never completed to the point where I was asked to be the guest critic of mural painting at the Beaux-Arts Institute in New York. I had never actually executed a mural, although I had designed quite a few at that point.
HOAG: Interesting. Had you seen any of the Mexican muralists’ work in New York? I believe Rivera had his controversial Rockefeller Center mural when you were there.
BIBERMAN: Yes. I had met Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, because from time to time all of them were in New York. I was a very good friend of Alma Reid, who owned the Delphic Studios and who was responsible for much of the work that Orozco was commissioned to do in the United States.
As a matter of fact, I spent an instructive weekend at Dartmouth with Orozco when he was painting his murals there. And I even collaborated: there is one line that I painted on the Orozco mural at Dartmouth! He was doing a kind of architectural decoration over a doorway at one point and-do you remember the gag about, “I can’t even draw a straight line”? Orozco, as you know, had very bad eyes, only one arm and I don’t remember whether it was because the reach was too great for him with his one good arm or whether he was just bored with drawing a straight line, but anyway-
HOAG: You were handy?
BIBERMAN: -he handed me his brushes and he said, “Biberman, would you mind making that line for me?” I said, “I’d be delighted to make that line for you.” So that I can claim collaboration on the Dartmouth murals with Orozco. But the fact is that I, as I say, did meet all of the “big three.”
I happened to be in Radio City watching Rivera work the night before his murals were destroyed-just one of those strange coincidences. He used to hold court. He was a great showman and he loved to paint with an audience. And one night I had decided-just by chance-to go to the foyer where he was painting this large fresco. I watched him work for a couple of hours, then it got late, I was tired and went home. I found out the next day that at some ungodly wee small a.m. hour the mural was covered and either destroyed then, or subsequently.
But the point is that all of us in the East at that time were very excited by the phenomenon of a great Mexican mural movement and were delighted when our own government instituted, both through the WPA projects and the Section of Fine Arts, something that we felt represented a counterpart to what was being done in Mexico.
HOAG: They were the direct result of the work that you had done there? [in New York]. You came here in 1936, didn’t you?
BIBERMAN: I’ve been here ever since. That’s a much longer story of my life than I had planned telling you; but anyway, that’s how I became a Californian.
HOAG: That’s interesting. And in Venice, California, the Post Office mural you painted is done in oil on canvas?
BIBERMAN: Yes, it’s oil wax emulsion-technically, oil was emulsion on canvas. For this mural I was given the commission and asked to submit a sketch. So I read all I could about California’s Venice and it is a fabulous story which I hadn’t known before. The story of the founding of Venice is quite unbelievable. It would take much too long now to go into it in detail.
When Lion Feuchtwanger was still living I was at a dinner party with him one night. I don’t know how it happened, but I began to tell him the story of the Founding of Venice and he was so fascinated by it that he expressed the desire to write a novel about this strange place.
But to capsulize briefly the intriguing quality-I found first of all that the concept of a Venice in California was the brainchild of Abbot Kinney, the scion of a very wealthy tobacco family, who decided that he wanted to build the great cultural metropolis of the United States in this particular area.
Having had his schooling in Europe, and as a young man becoming enamored of Venice, Italy, he decided that he would also call his dream city “Venice.” He imported architects and engineers from Europe. For the city’s opening he actually had gondolas and gondoliers imported from Venice and there was a performance of Sarah Bernhardt playing I don’t remember what. Hers was, of course, the greatest name in the international theatre world at that time.
He also had the finest symphony orchestra of the day as the resident music component of this whole concept. And the many lovely bridges and canals were in use. He wanted this new Venice to be a place of culture and the enjoyment of things beautiful. Well, a great deal which was unforeseen happened, and in a few years the entire venture, for reasons which are very complex, did not turn out as he had envisaged.
HOAG: Was this mainly because of oil being discovered in the area?
BIBERMAN: No, that came later. When oil was discovered the city had already begun to take on a completely different character. The cultural orientation had been a financial failure so things went from one extreme to the other. Venice began to take on the quality of an amusement park. Very quickly the great dream of Abbot Kinney turned into, a) an oil field, and b) a honky-tonk amusement park. Of course from the painter’s point of view all of this is a wonderful bit of material to use.
So, my mural is designed around the man, a large portrait of Abbot Kinney, which I painted from photographs that I obtained from surviving members of his family who still live in that area. They furnished me with the photographs, described the quality of his skin and the color of his hair, his eyes, and so forth.
I painted the over-life-size portrait of him against a background of his vision of what Venice would be, framed in an arch with the great Corinthian columns which were used in the decorations there. From the dream the design goes on to actuality: on the one side the oil wells, on the other side the amusement park.
This is factually the story of Venice. A fascinating story. I sent the sketch to Washington expecting to be answered with a letter replete with expletives and four letter words. To my great amazement I got an answer saying they were crazy about the mural, to please proceed with it.
There was only one thing that I was asked to do: in one place where I had depicted the amusement park with all the signs, billboards, and so forth, I had shown what was recognizably the lettering used in advertising Coca Cola. I was told that I could not do this because one could not advertise in a government building: So I agreed to strike out the Cocoa Cola strip and substitute some amorphous or non-existent piece of advertising, which from my point of view carried the same idea.
HOAG: It’s a delightful mural. I think you must enjoy knowing that when I was standing looking at it some old lady came up to me and watched me for a while, then said, “Do you know what this building used to be?” I said, “I beg your pardon?” And she said, “Well, I was raised here and when I was a little girl this building where the Post Office is now was the boathouse. This is where we used to come to get the boats.” I said, “Were they gondolas?” She said, “No, I don’t remember ever seeing any real gondolas, but we all had our own boats down here.”
BIBERMAN: For goodness sake. Well, that is fascinating. This I didn’t know.
HOAG: She lives on one of the canals.
BIBERMAN: But whether the lady remembers it or not, there were gondolas and there were gondoliers imported from Venice. That is historic fact. There are many fabulous and fantastic stories about the whole thing, but it would take too long to talk about now. Some day the story of Venice is going to be written and when it is, it will be unbelievable. Everything about the place is something which one would imagine to have been created from a figment of some very rosy imagination. But it happens to be fact. The way the land was acquired is in itself quite a tale.
HOAG: Your portrait of Abbot Kinney is very beautiful. You certainly have that dreamy quality and a certain wistfulness with it, too.
BIBERMAN: Well, he was no longer living at that time. As I said, I had to rely on the photographs which members of his family gave me, and their description of his qualities as a man, and his coloration. I don’t know whether it looks like him or not, since I never knew the man, but I tried to stay as close to the documentary evidence which was supplied me as I could. Incidentally, I enjoyed painting that mural enormously. I found it a very exciting project. As I say, it’s a painter’s dream to run into that kind of rich material, which also happens to be true.
HOAG: It’s very colorful and very beautiful. The Post Office was recently repainted almost a creamy white. I imagine it was originally a vivid color, but the white is a good background for the mural.
BIBERMAN: I haven’t seen it in years.
HOAG: It looks very fresh and well-preserved.
BIBERMAN: Periodically I go down to look at the condition of my three murals because, by now, they are all pretty old, but I haven’t been to Venice in some little time. The next time I’m at the beach I shall go by and have a look at it.
HOAG: I’m glad you told it to us. I’d like to talk a little more about your opinion of the contribution to the art of California made by work done under the Federal Art Projects, or any of the Federal art work of this period-whether you felt that it helped it or retarded it. For instance, perhaps some of the younger artists were influenced by men like you who were expert painters at the time. Do you feel this? Did you see any place where it was beneficial to them?
BIBERMAN: Well, of course I have a very partisan attitude to this whole matter. I am unequivocally in favor of it. I think it was one of the brightest spots in the history of American art, and I hope that we will see a revival of a government program. I fervently hope it will not be necessitated by another depression, which of course is what started the WPA project. That was a relief measure primarily, not a cultural measure. But irrespective of what brought it into being, and irrespective of the arguments against any government art program, and I think I’m familiar with all of the “anti” arguments, I find that this was an enormously productive period in American art. I think it actually brought into being and furthered the careers of many painters. The names of these artists are legion.
HOAG: There seems a little confusion in my mind. Often the people who worked on these projects criticized the existing social situation, which was the one feeding them and helping them to get through this period. That was always very hard for me to understand.
BIBERMAN: Yes, but I suppose that this was also a very real part of the quality of the period. This was a period of great social dislocation, so I think that it is necessary to understand the fact that naturally this quality of dislocation often was reflected in the work being done by some artists.
Trying to place the onus on some particular persons is not the important thing. At least I don’t think it’s what we’re discussing at the moment. And the question as to whether there was, or was not, gratitude on the part of the recipients of the very modest-what was it?-$90 a month which was paid is open to question on both sides, I suppose. But the thing that so impressed and interested me at that time was the fact that it was possible for a painter to be a painter.
This is the paramount fact. I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that today even the most successful painters-and there have been many surveys made in this field-either teach, or they write, or they lecture, or they do one or another group of things to make it possible for them to pursue their careers.
Excerpt of an oral history interview with Edward Biberman, 1964 Apr. 15, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Betty Hoag was part of the New Deal and the Arts project for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
The entire interview may be read at http://bit.ly/jasTTA.
Edward Biberman died in 1988. A film of his life, entitled “Brush With Life: The Art of Being Edward Biberman” (2005 by Jeff Kaufman) may be obtained at http://www.organa.com.