By Delores Hanney
Since the recent slipping into private hands of the 1939 WPA-built post office in Venice, there has been much anguish and gnashing of teeth mainly due to the loss of an almost constant availability of the pleasure afforded by an offhand gaze at its iconic mural, The Story of Venice, tucked up inside the building. The 6’6” by 15’10” oil-emulsion tribute to the town’s past is the work of one Edward Biberman done in 1941.
The Work Projects Administration was a New Deal agency created during the Great Depression to provide useful employment to the otherwise jobless: constructing roads and bridges, parks and public buildings. Many of those buildings were then festooned with murals capturing a topic of local significance, painted by talented artists such as Biberman who were also working under New Deal programs, The Section of Fine Arts in Biberman’s case.
Not being painted directly onto its host wall, The Story of Venice is separated by process – if not purpose – from those pictographs of the cave painting sort harking back to times of antiquity. By contrast, the Venice post office version of visual life recordation is an oil on canvas that Biberman created in his studio on Vine Street in Hollywood. Actually, the oil was mixed with a wax preparation following a recipe he was given by Hilarie Hiler, a WPA mural-maker working out of San Francisco. It imbued the surface with a lovely eggshell quality and a gentle sheen as opposed to a shine. In completion, the painting was affixed to the wall through a technique called “marouflage,” a kinky kind of name for a procedure not that far removed from a do-it-yourselfer hanging wallpaper in the dining room.
He was way jazzed to receive the commission for this, his second mural. “It’s a painter’s dream to run into that kind of rich material, which also happens to be true,” he told an interviewer for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian twenty-three years later. “Everything about the place is something which one would imagine to have been created from a figment of some very rosy imagination.”
Biberman’s approach, to this pictorial – and picturesque – historytelling project of his, is delicious, as all who ever saw it can readily testify. Following the ersatz triptych model employed on his first mural painted for the Federal Post Office Building in downtown Los Angeles, Venice founder Abbot Kinney is the central image in The Story of Venice, behind him the visionary rendition of his cultural Shangri-La. To the left Biberman depicted its honky-tonk manifestation; to the right in its industrialized form. In this manner, he captured not only Kinney’s fancy but also how it evolved upon making contact with real life. “It’s a wry commentary on what can happen to a man’s dream,” the artist observed. Venetians promptly claimed it as their own.
Stylistically influenced by the work of important Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clements Orozco, all of whom he knew from his days back in New York, it’s not just a sentimental reminder of things past. The piece exudes a certain romantic muscularity that embraces both the idealistic and the pragmatic in a sideways kind of optimism for the future. It offers, however, no hint of the somber social advocacy that later would become the primary focus of his fervor.
For more than seven decades, Edward Biberman’s awesome mural was there to welcome Venice post office patrons who bustled about, task oriented, towards a swift completion of business. The government retains ownership of the treasure but the covenant signed by the building’s new owner, movie producer Joel Silver – of Die Hard, The Matrix and, Lethal Weapon fame – would have him restore it for public viewing at his new digs, by appointment on a bi-monthly basis. That eventuality would have the effect of lifting said mural-viewing from an incidental part of an ordinary day’s errands to the status of a special event. But as Greta Cobar reported in the Free Venice Beachhead, a law suit was filed in Washington D.C. for reconsideration hopefully resulting in re-emplacement in the Abbot Kinney library: the best possible outcome for Venice homies.
In his moody and mystical and impassioned poem, “Sacred Places,” Jim Smith evokes that old post office to enshrine it as a temple, the mural image of Abbot Kinney inside as its resident deity. With it, a piercing howl of pain breaks from Smith’s soul.
Primeval articulation of a community’s grief for things as they stand now.
By Delores Hanney