Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Pastoral California": The Story of a Mural

I’ve been researching the history of the large fresco mural on the side of Plummer Auditorium of Fullerton Union High School for an article for the forthcoming issue of HIBBLETON INDEPENDENT, our annual art magazine. The theme of this year’s issue is local history and culture. The mural, “Pastoral California”, has a fascinating history. It was painted in 1934, painted over by order of the Board of Trustees in 1940, and restored 56 years later in 1997. Here’s a description of the mural written by LA art critic Merle Armitage in the late 1930s. The review is quoted in superintendent Louis Plummer’s history of the high school:

“Just before World War I Charles Kassler entered Princeton University, though he did not remain for a degree. In Chicago he studied at the Church School of Art and the Chicago Art Institute for about two years...From 1922 to 1924 he taught art at the Atelier, Denver, a branch of the Beau-Arts Institute of Design of New York. After this he was instrumental in founding, together with John Thompson, painter, and Robert Garrison, sculptor, the Chappell School of Art, Denver. Later he went to Europe, where he spent six years of study, travel and research.

The subject Mr. Kassler chose for the fresco at the Fullerton Union High School and District Junior College was “Pastoral California”...The central theme evolves about the architectural form of the doorway. Above this door is seen the figure of Antonio Yorba, who has lassooed a wild horse. To the right of these are more wild horses. The central theme ends on the right with the beginning of the bull and bear fight design and the hen-snatching game. Then one sees the “Wash-Tub Express.” Early California lacked the telephone and telegraph, as well as the newspaper, except in the concentrated communities. Here is gossip, which is broadcast when the women-folk go home to their master’s haciendas or to their own homes. Above is seen the Padre of San Jose, throwing tortillas into the gaping mouths of children, to the great amusement of the visiting padres while just to the left is shown the process of grinding the corn in making of tortillas.

To the left of the doorway are more horses, some of which are being controlled by the cabelleros, as others show some disposition to temperament. Just to the left of this group one finds one of the games much enjoyed by the early Californians. It consists of a lariat placed on the ground in a circle about eight feet in diameter. A horseman starts on a wild gallop fifty yards away and must stop within the lariat, without being unhorsed. Behind this figure are others that are watching the demonstration of horsemanship. To the left of this group is seen the concert-hall singer of early California, Laura Moya. This interesting singer sang early songs which some of the Californians still remember. She was not well known but there are those who remember her with much favor as giving a true interpretation early California songs. Continuing to the left we find Pio Pico, the last Governor of the Californians. He has finished his banquet and is watching Laura Moya as are most of the others who are present at the banquet. Above is noticed the Mission San Juan Capistrano, that served this section of the country. No attempt has been made to depict it as it was exactly in those early times, since most of the authorities are at variance about the subject.

Kassler has adhered not only to the beautiful traditions of pastoral California, but at the same time has also borne in mind the splendid Spanish architecture, and, lastly, created a beautiful fresco of amazing vitality and freshness of viewpoint.”

Immediately after quoting this lenghty, positive review, Plummer wrote, “In 1940 the fresco was painted out on order of the board of trustees.”

An article from August 30, 1939 in the Fullerton News-Tribune entitled “High School Mural Doomed; Paint it Out, Trustees Order” reads:

Fullerton Union high school’s much discussed and criticized mural which covers the outside west wall of the auditorium received its death sentence at the hands of district trustees last night who ordered the wall paint sprayed to cover the painting.

This mural is approximately 75 feet long by 15 feet high with its huge figures of horses and riders and other human forms depicting early California days has been a mooted point since its completion several years ago by the artist Kassler as a federal art project.

Most occupants of the high school will shed no tears over the decision of the board; it was indicated today as the lurid colors and somewhat grotesque figures have apparently failed to capture popular fancy.”

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