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Shahn and Bryson Post Office Murals, The Bronx

January 22, 2015

Last summer I was in lower Manhattan and had 6 hours to kill before a meeting Washington Heights. l took the opportunity to visit the Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson murals painted in 1938 at the Bronx Post Office. As part of the New Deal in the 1930s the Works Project Administration commissioned artists across the country to paint murals in public spaces, especially in post offices. Shahn stated that this particular mural was to show aspects of the rest of the country to New Yorkers. They depict working people, cotton pickers, welders, and weavers, amongst others. The mural is centered around an image of Walt Whitman pointing to one of his own poems on a chalk board.

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The poem As I Walk These Broad, Majestic Days, is excerpted here:
What else is so real as mine?
Libertad, and the divine average—Freedom to every slave on the face of the earth,
The rapt promises and luminé of seers—the spiritual world—these centuries
lasting songs,
And our visions, the visions of poets, the most solid announcements of any.
For we support all, fuse all,
After the rest is done and gone, we remain;
There is no final reliance but upon us;
Democracy rests finally upon us (I, my brethren, begin it,)
And our visions sweep through eternity.

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Ben Shahn was a giant of 1930s social realist painting, a photographer, and also a noted designer of books and album that helped set the aesthetic for the jazz-influenced graphic design of the 1950s. Bernarda Bryson was an artist, illustrator, writer, and photographer. She met Shahn when he was an assistant on Diego Rivera’s New York murals. They later worked together and collaborated on several depression-era documentary and art projects. Shahn and Bryson married in 1969.

The murals are in sad shape, I have no idea how luminous the original colors were, but I can assume that they were not the brown (with shades of yellow brown) that the murals are currently. Nonetheless, they still remain a beautiful addition to a stately building, and a monument to a time when there was an ideal of creating permanent, stately, structures for the people. Unfortunately, the post office just sold the building to a private developer to become an ‘urban marketplace and restaurant’. Ironically, from a preservation perspective the murals will probably face a better fate with private developers who may actually commit to restoring them, but the meaning of the murals is corrupted and negated as window dressing for modern development and gentrification.

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