The Roosevelt Hotel Mural

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The hotel that decorates the prettiest for Christmas has been the Fairmont, which is back to being called the Roosevelt Hotel (it's part of Hilton's Waldorf Astoria collection now); it was opened originally back in 1893 and expanded in 1908. Since I posted something about Huey P. Long earlier this week, when he was a US Senator in the '30s, he took up residence in the hotel.  

The hotel is also famous for the Sazerac bar (where the Sazerac cocktail was developed), and also now has the John Besh restaurant Domenica

But back to the bar -- inside are $4.5MM of murals done in 1938 by artist Paul Ninas.  For a couple of years in the early 1930s, he lived on the island of Dominica, and he drew inspiration from Gaugin and Matisse.  Later on, Ninas would be called...'New Orleans' answer to Gaugin' and the 'Dean of New Orleans Artists'. You can see many of his works at LeMieux Gallery.

Now a massage therapist at the hotel has brought suit in Federal court regarding the murals which appear in the bar (there are actually four, they all depict historic scenes of the New Orleans area) according to the Courthouse New Service:

"claiming its 73-year-old mural of slaves picking cotton and drinking booze holds her and other African-Americans "open to ridicule and shame."

Deandra Pittman claims the hotel blew off complaints that its mural, by nonparty Paul Ninas, "creates a hostile work environment and subjects her to feeling demeaned and looked down upon."

There have been efforts elsewhere to have depictions of people working removed from spaces, like one man now living in Colorado who wishes to have the Bettersworth Section/WPA mural removed from the Columbus, Mississippi post office because it depicts people working in a field. From the Columbus Dispatch:
Downtown Columbus PO

Lanier, who graduated from Hunt (then an all-black school) in 1958, proposes showing the piece at the public library or Mississippi University for Women during Black History Month or housing it at a black-history museum, rather than at the public post office where it invokes "painful memories" of "racial intolerance."

"In Columbus, I think there's a wonderful story to be told of that era," Lanier said over the phone Friday. But the post office, he said, is not the place for the mural.

Downtown Columbus PO
Despite Lanier's objections to the piece, and mixed reactions to the mural by post office customers on Friday, all agreed the historic mural depicts a time that is long past, but shouldn't be forgotten.

"I don't (see it as racist) because we all had to do it in order to survive -- not just the blacks. I see nothing racist about it," said Jeffries, who is black. "People leave (the South) and want to change certain things, but you can''t forget that part because it's a part of your life. That's your beginning."

(Sorry about the quality of some of these images, the one above was hard for me to photograph because of the protective acrylic covering.)

The George Beattie murals that had hung at the Georgia Department of Agriculture -- there were some in the series that included people picking and ginning cotton -- now appear at the Georgia Museum of Art. From the AJC:
"As the official state museum of art and as an academic institution, the Georgia Museum of Art believed it was important to preserve this aspect of Georgia's history," said Paul Manoguerra, the museum's chief curator of American art. "The murals present one artist's attempt to address the complex history of agriculture in our state in 1956."

There have been discussions about the mural at the post office in Eutaw, Alabama also:
Eutaw Section Mural
"The Countryside," was painted by Robert Gwathmey, a Southerner who was known as a member of the Social Realist movement, painted Blacks in a dignified, modernist style (one of the first, and few Whites at the time to do so), and he painted those figures in bold color and pattern.  This work was completed in 1941 -- in 1940, Gwathmey had decided to destroy most of his earlier work, and only a few pieces survived.

For 27 years, he was kept under surveillance by the FBI for his "his Communist Party affiliations, his strong support for black culture and his outspoken, courageous stance against racial discrimination."

However...the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance reports that this mural he did in Eutaw drew controversy during the years of the 'Black Power' movement "when young, black revolutionaries interpreted Gwathmey's depiction of African Americans as subservient or demeaning and called for its removal."

A NYT book review mentions:
Kammen tells the story of a mural Gwathmey painted in 1939-41 for the Post Office in Eutaw, Ala. Depicting blacks and whites hoeing corn, picking cotton and stacking lumber, it was installed over the objections of local white officials who would have preferred something commemorating the Confederacy. Years later, it was denounced by a black judge and a leader in the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as ''dehumanizing'' and ''offensive'' to African-Americans, although its focus was class as much as race: it shows blacks and whites laboring equally at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. A subsequent report on the mural, commissioned by the Postal Service from the Birmingham Museum of Art, recommended that the mural not be removed; ironically, the report identified the artist as ''a black'' from Richmond.

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