Celebrating Self-Taught Social Realist Ralph Fasanella
Happy 100th birthday, Ralph Fasanella. A self-taught artist who painted for 30 years before his greatness was recognized, Fasanella (1914-1997) is being celebrated this year with exhibitions that illustrate his dedication to working people and the America he loved.
Here in Washington, the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibition “Lest We Forget” features paintings of strikes, laborers, political events including the Rosenberg trial and the Kennedy assassination and members of Fasanella’s Italian American family, such as his father, who delivered ice in the Bronx (“Iceman Crucified #4).
The show opens with a nine-foot-long triptych of New York City that began as a single canvas, with Broadway at its center, and grew to include the Queensboro bridge and the uptown neighborhoods bordering it in Manhattan. The canvas extends to the waterways bordering the city, the sightlines forming an outline of the borough of Manhattan from its tip at Battery Park up through Harlem to its northern edge. Its complexity begs us to inspect each neighborhood and each group of New Yorkers as we follow them across the horizontal canvas.
A homegrown social realist, Fasanella worked as a union organizer and was involved with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade protesting fascism in Spain. He painted the possibilities of Americans, telling them where they had gone wrong and showing them the way to achieve an America that provided justice for all.
Politics is at the forefront in works such as “McCarthy Era Garden Party,” depicting what Fasanella believed was the wrongful execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In “Garden Party,” he shows the enveloping ring of protesters and the Disneyesque and perhaps Colonial-referencing palm trees, in pots clearly held by a photographer and other observers. The Rosenbergs face the crowd of protesters, not the House Un-American Activities Committee – on a raised stage in the painting – who indicted them.
“McCarthy Press” and “American Tragedy” use color and content to let the public know Fasanella’s view of McCarthyism and the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a tragic period in American history, dominated by the iconic “A” form, representing the shadow of the atomic bomb.
Farther into the exhibition, “The Great Strike” depicts what became known as the Bread and Roses Strike, which took place in 1912 in Lawrence, Mass. Here, we see people of varied ethnicities protesting together to bring about just wages, much as the protesters seen in “Garden Party” protest. This recurring theme of people demonstrating their beliefs is also seen in “Modern Times,” in which 1960s-era youth protest American involvement in the Vietnam War, showing the strength of common people, real Americans, to effect change.
These paintings showing the involvement of many people protesting unjust policies and leaders express Fasanella’s faith that justice can prevail if the people do not give up. Indeed, for thirty years, until he achieved the recognition of the art and wider world, he kept painting, revealing historical events that needed to be witnessed and talked and learned about, “lest we forget.”
“Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget” is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through Aug. 3. A complementary exhibition, “Ralph Fasanella: The Art of Social Engagement,” is on view in the lobby of the AFL-CIO Headquarters through Aug. 1.