If Toby McIntosh were somehow able to sit down across from Auriel Bessemer — the artist who painted seven murals that hang in Arlington’s main post office on Washington Boulevard and died in a nursing home in Merced, Calif., in 1986 — this is what he would ask him: Why?
Why did someone so adamant about the power of a painting never move beyond a style that would quickly become dated?
“I’m pretty fascinated by why he never experimented with his art, why he hated modern art and why he never engaged in abstraction or expressionism,” Toby said.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
Toby, 67, is a “partially retired” journalist who once covered regulatory policy for Bloomberg BNA. He’s fascinated by history, especially the exploits of the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal program that put Americans to work during the Depression. The shelves of his Arlington home hold a complete set of first-edition WPA travel guides, nifty books created in the 1930s and ’40s by out-of-work writers and editors.
The murals in the post office in Clarendon were the same sort of thing. The government hired unemployed artists to adorn post offices, schools and other government buildings. There’s a plaque outside the post office announcing that Bessemer painted the works inside. But the murals are kind of hard to see — they’re not that big, each are a mere 2½ feet by 4 feet and hang just below the ceiling — and Toby thought he’d do a little research and reprint the images.
“Then the research into Auriel Bessemer kind of sucked me into a much longer process,” he said.
The artist turned out to be fascinating, the child of Hungarian immigrants who left Chicago to travel to a Florida commune founded by a man who called himself “Koresh” and set up large T squares along the beach to prove his theory of “cellular cosmogony.”
The Bessemer family eventually left the commune, but Auriel embraced the spiritual fringe — including reincarnation — his entire life, even after moving to Washington, opening an art gallery and toiling on a magnum anti-fascist mural called “The Destruction, Regeneration and Redemption of Man” that he was never to complete.
Toby recount’s Bessemer’s life in a compact, 44-page book, “Apple Picking, Tobacco Harvesting and General Lee: Arlington’s New Deal Murals and Muralist.” (For information, visit virginianewdealart.com.)
“He’s not a terribly well-known artist, that’s for sure,” Toby said.
Nor was he, it seems, a great one. Although Bessemer’s murals were generally praised when they were installed in the Arlington post office in 1940, even one laudatory critic noted that some might find his figures “wooden” and “stiff.”
The murals depict various scenes from the area’s history. There’s Capt. John Smith fighting a group of Indians on the river, Robert E. Lee accepting command of the Armies of Virginia, tobacco being harvested, apples being picked, people picnicking at Great Falls and polo being playing at Fort Myer. The works are rendered in a heroic style, with chiseled facial features, muscular arms and strong blocks of color.
It was a style Bessemer was to hew to his entire life.
In 1936, Bessemer opened the Gallery of Modern Masters at 1367 Connecticut Ave. NW, two blocks from the museum founded by collector Duncan Phillips.
“My surmise is that Phillips didn’t really like his work very much,” Toby said. “Phillips bought a lot of work by local WPA artists, but he never bought any of Auriel’s.” The feeling was probably mutual. He undoubtedly went to the Phillips Collection and saw the unusual and new work Phillips was collecting,” Toby said. “He was not a fan of modern art at all.”
Bessemer was disappointed that his career was not more of a success.
“My speculation was [his art] was just a little too plain for many people,” Toby said. “Lots of exploration was going on in that period. He almost never did anything abstract.”
Perhaps Bessemer limited his exploration to the astral plane, not the canvas one.
After my column last week about Potomac chef David Trevelino and the holiday meals he makes for the crew of the USS Chicago, some old submariners rose to the surface. They took exception to David’s mention that there’s no fridge or freezer on the sub.
“First of all, submarines have refrigerators called reefers and they hold enough meat and other perishables for 60- to 80-day missions,” wrote Gary Cogdell.
And Howard Chatham said that a sub’s oven and stove aren’t powered by steam but by electricity created by steam. “The nuclear reactor heats water to make steam that is used to turn turbine generators which make electricity to run everything on the boat other than the propulsion systems,” he wrote.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Make a charitable donation now and you can deduct it from your taxes in April. The three partners of The Washington Post Helping Hand — Community of Hope, Sasha Bruce Youthwork and Homestretch — are excellent candidates for your largesse. All three work with homeless families and youths in our area.
For more information or to donate online, visit posthelpinghand.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.