Friday, April 22, 2016

Heroic White Men Dominate My City Council

This isn't my first post about the permanent art in my city's most public building, City Hall. Last time, it was the brass elevator doors, with their beautiful renderings of noninclusion.

Today it's the amazing WPA-era paintings from the City Council chambers. I've never been in that room before and didn't know they existed. Guess I should have read up on the building before attending, since the MNopedia knows all about the building's art and other architectural details.

But I discovered them for myself. These four huge paintings by John Norton dominate the ends of the room in chronological pairs:


(click the image to see it much larger)

So we have the voyageur man and the steamboat captain man at one end, with the surveyor man and the railroad worker man at the other. That sure represents the state's history.

The "little people," at the bottom of each painting, have a bit more range, but it's still shockingly narrow:


The voyageur is accompanied by some nearly naked native men, a priest converting the natives, and an ambiguously rendered guy with an ox cart.


Steamboat Willy is paired with a U.S. soldier presenting a treaty to a native chief, a couple of scenes of white men on the Mississippi, and some stoop-backed black guys loading heavy sacks onto yet another steamboat.


Progress! The surveyor stands on a platform above a bunch of laboring white guys.


Finally, the railroad figure towers above a bunch of white guys workin' on the railroad and a well-dressed white woman holding her husband's arm as they follow a black porter past a locomotive.

There are additional figures in each painting above these detail areas, around the knees of the hero images. Those people are rendered in a single color so that they recede behind the dominant man. For the voyageur, it's really hard to make out the figures at all; for the steamboat captain, there are a lot of men in beaver hats and Civil War gear, plus one woman in a bonnet; for the surveyor, it's a bunch of male laborer pulling something with the help of a draft horse; for the railroad guy, it's a bunch of anonymous-looking railroad workers including one black porter.

As the paintings tell us, Minnesota was made completely by men, with white men in all of the roles that are important.

I don't know why I can still be surprised by art like this. The technique and composition are beautiful, but the thinking is shockingly thin. Oh, well.

At least they're consistent with the elevator doors.

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