The exhibition of more than 30 pieces by the minor 20th Century artist shows the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s and '40s as it was happening. “Maurice Merlin and the American Scene, 1930-1947” is up through April 15.
Merlin lived and worked in the Detroit area, and the industrialized cityscapes of the Midwest's greatest manufacturing sector dominate many of his picture planes. But his factories are often idle, when their smokestacks aren't spewing foul clouds of dark waste. Dingy colors set the tone for the dejected, slump-shouldered men who populate Merlin's oil, watercolor and egg tempura paintings. We've seen much of the tone of this work in more celebrated practitioners like Ben Shahn. Still, Merlin's work has its own charms.
Many of the prints in the exhibition were executed under the aegis of the Work Progress Administration, the Depression-era government agency that put many artists to work around the country. Before the 1930s, the printing media was exclusively commercial in application. The WPA allowed artists like Merlin to learn lithography and silk-screening. They made art for its own sake but often used it for social and political ends too.
Merlin was concerned with race relations and racial bigotry. Maybe the most quietly arresting image in the show is his woodcut, “Black Legion Widow” (1936). In it, a stoic pregnant woman and her young son mourn with bowed heads. A real-life incident — the murder of a black man by a Detroit/Ohio offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan — inspired the work. But Merlin's inclusion of a cartoonish ghost hovering behind the figures mars the image and reduces it to the category of Käthe Kollwitz Lite. Kollwitz, the visual poet of Weimar Germany's self-immolation, could depict emotionally moving themes without resorting to melodrama.
The many styles and formats Merlin used is impressive. “Huron River” (circa 1930s) is a stylized woodcut right out of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School. The muted colors of the farm scene “Wash Day” (1940s) suggest Dust Bowl devastation in the making, while his Detroit images all seem to suffer from visual black lung. A poster for a government survey (1943's “Mobilize Michigan”) has the kind of bold graphic thrust associated with Russian Revolution art, while a placid travel poster for India (both of them silkscreen prints) shows a smart use of white space. Spot illustrations for Stars and Stripes (Merlin served in World War II) presage what would appear on decorative tile 10 years later in SoCal kitchens.
Merlin's portraits are often invested with a soulful quality. “Little Negro Boy” (1930s) shows a bundled-up waif collecting bottles and refuse in an alley. The visage teeters somewhere between hope and fear.
A handful of pieces by Merlin's contemporaries — Basil Hawkins, Frank Cassara and Charles Pollock — sweeten the show and provide a little context for Merlin's work. Nine images keep with the theme of grim faces, depressed people and the craving for work. Like Merlin, their work might not be revelatory, but it's well worth familiarization.
Foreign nationals still risk their lives to cross the border illegally in hope of better lives, “impoverished” families have wide-screen TVs, and nearly everyone has a cellphone. So it's worth a visit to the Huntington to put our national malaise into historical perspective.
Where: Virginia Steele Scott Galleries, Huntington Library, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino
When: Through April 15. Closed Tuesdays.
Contact: (626) 405-2100, www.huntington.org
--KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.