Bathing beauties of the past

May 17, 2015

20150226_111558It’s summer and bathing beauties are enjoying a dip in the San Francisco Bay area. These are circa 1937 WPA murals at the Beach Chalet in San Francisco and they depict Depression-era life in the city. A dip was an easy way to keep cool. But, I wonder, why did they need to keep cool in a city that has summers colder than some winters? And in water that is pretty darn cold? Yes, the beaches in northern California are cold and this is a pretty idealized version of bathing.

Actually, we’ve had a lot of summer these days, and a whole lot earlier. We could use a little cold bathing. As in “swimming.”


San Francisco is full of hidden treasures.

Speaking of bathing, I remember my confusion when I first saw the word used for “swimming.” Even though we commonly use the term “bathing suit.”  Back then they were called bathing costumes.  I’m just grateful men didn’t wear banana hammocks back then. But back to these stunning works of art.

These murals were part of the amazing Federal Art Project, which provided paying gigs for creative people, who were having a hard time finding work during the Depression.

Under the FAP, nearly 100 community art centers were funded to give art classes for kids and new artists. The project is best known for providing jobs for 5,000 artists who made almost a quarter of a million works of art for Americans to enjoy. The project asked artists to infuse their new types of art with American values. In the case of these works of art, the revival of the Italian Renaissance fresco was the style, inspired by muralists such as Diego Rivera, whom I wrote about HERE.

These artists didn’t make a lot of money, but they worked with pride at their crafts and left us a stunning legacy. To stand in front of one of these massive frescoes is to step back in time for a while and really feel what it might have been like..

Did you know there was a Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture? It and all of the creative projects that made up the effort fostered awareness of the visual arts–and a much-needed appreciation for them as something beautiful in a hard time. The program also helped further the development of artists like Pollack, Rothko and deKooning, who later created the Abstract Expressionist movement in the 1940. Did you know they were helped by WPA art projects?

It’s pretty certain that artists today would not want to be bound by any creative restrictions and would insist they had a right to be compensated for whatever topic they wanted to cover. If that had been the case in the 1930s, we might have missed these beautiful and historical murals that tell us so much about the life and psyche of Americans at the time and about our government back then. It was a government that actually provided work for artists and writers to help them through the Depression.

It’s difficult to even imagine the government doing anything like that today. It can’t even pass a budget. But back then, the New Deal helped a lot of people, including creatives.  It’s one government effort that we can look at with pride, because by giving them paying work, pride is what it aimed to foster in Americans.  We can learn something from that and by looking at the WPA art that still stands all over the United States.


5 comments on “Bathing beauties of the past
  1. It was a great program. I’ve read about it and seen some of it before. With so many people struggling today, you would think something like this might take off again. But, as you say, with the government we have now it’s not very likely.

  2. Estelle says:

    Wow! Another fascinating artist program shared by you. Thanks for this walk down history lane.

  3. Love this. We need to do more to encourage artists and to get art out to the public. Those murals are awesome.

  4. Alana says:

    We have WPA art in our local post office here in Johnson City, NY. I’ve taken pictures of several of the murals. It was a wonderful program. And, one of my late aunts (she would be over 100 if she was still alive) called swimming “bathing”. You brought back some memories.

  5. James says:

    Thank you for sharing and illustrating us with these wonderful paintings.

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