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Kresge Art Museum Magazine

Susan J. Bandes

Michigan artist Edgar Yaeger (1904-1997) spent almost his entire life as a painter working and living in the Detroit area. Credited as being among the first modernists in Michigan, Yaeger created a distinctive style influenced by synthetic cubism and surrealism. While his long career is worthy of greater attention, this article focuses upon his Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals painted during the 1930s and 1940s; specifically, the discussion provides a context for his sketches and mural in the Kresge Art Museum collection.

Yaeger, a fourth-generation Detroiter, attended Robert Herzberg’s Detroit School of Fine and Applied Art and the John P. Wicker School of Fine Arts. In 1932 he won the Founder’s Society Purchase Prize from the Detroit Institute of Arts. In a review of this exhibition in Art Digest, January 1932, titled “Michigan’s 22nd Annual Gets Roasted for its Modernism,” the author illustrated Yaeger’s award-winning painting Figures in a Landscape and summarized the critical reaction to the paintings in the show, ranging from praise for those who had “discarded all the old fogy ideas about perspective anatomy, draftsmanship, composition and color harmony” to criticism of the “lopsided jugs and bottles, distorted landscapes, flowers that only exist in the imagination of the artist,” to the contrary view that “Michigan art is getting into its stride.” Yaeger’s work was at the forefront of this experimentation, and his modernism was to be further nurtured that year when the Detroit News awarded him the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Traveling Scholarship. With this support, he went to study in Paris at the Academie Andre Lhote, the Ecole Scandinav with Marcel Gromaire, and the Academie Ranson with Orthon Friesz. Yaeger was forced to return home abruptly when his Detroit bank closed as a result of the depression. However, having proven how frugal he was and how worthwhile the European stay was for him, Mr. and Mrs. Whitcomb gave him the remaining funds in 1935, enabling him to travel by bicycle through France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Belgium and Germany.

As a young artist, Yaeger actively exhibited throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and his activities were often reported in the Detroit newspapers. He entered numerous competitions and was accepted into prestigious exhibitions such as the Corcoran Biennial (1930, 1932), The Art Institute of Chicago exhibition of American paintings and sculpture (1931, 1937, 1941), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1931, 1934, 1958), Minneapolis Institute of Arts (1931), and the Museum of Modern Art (1933, 1936). A high point of these competitions was acceptance into the 1930 Carnegie International Exhibition, juried, among others, by Henri Matisse. What Matisse undoubtedly responded to was the young artist’s sense of color. Yaeger later recalled “My French art teachers always said I was one of the few Americans they had seen with an eye for color. I attribute it to painting directly from nature.” He credited Andre Lhote with teaching him how to use color, how to apply a color and counterbalance it with another. He also recounted that “Cezanne helped me more than anyone – his use of color.” This colorism, combined with the new European modernism he studied in Paris – synthetic cubist still-life compositions and figures practiced by Picasso and Braque in the 1920s, surrealist space especially as seen in De Chirico’s work, as well as the School of Paris artists – helped inform his style.

Yaeger returned to the United States in 1935 in the depths of the depression and soon become employed by the Federal Arts Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). By then, Diego Rivera had painted his Detroit Industry (1932-1933) murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts, which provided a most visible prototype for Yaeger’s own murals to come. The FAP, a relief program to support artists in need, was the biggest and best known of the WPA programs and was an unprecedented venture in federal funding for the arts, employing thousands of out-of-work artists during its eight-year existence. Other federally funded art programs existed at this time also, the most important being the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, which awarded commissions based on national competition for the decoration of federal buildings such as post offices and courthouses. The FAP, working on a local level, provided salaries to artists and gave them commissions for public (but not federal) buildings. Yaeger worked only on FAP commissions around the Detroit area. When asked many years later why he didn’t apply for the section’s post office competitions, Yaeger remarked that “those painters weren’t any good.” Usually a modest man, his uncharacteristic statement probably alluded to the greater freedom artists had in the WPA/FAP projects compared to the section commissions where work had to fit the public art style approved by Washington as well as constraints on its subject matter, style and interpretation.

Yaeger completed six projects for the WPA. These include the Children’s Ward of the Receiving Hospital of Detroit (now destroyed); Brodhead Naval Armory (1936-1937); Ford School Library in Highland Park, ca. 1936-1937 (also destroyed); University of Michigan West Quad Dormitory (ca. 1940); Grosse Pointe South High School Library (1941); and the Public Lighting Commission Building in Detroit (ca. 1942-1943, partially destroyed and parts relocated).

The earliest of the projects, which was done for the Receiving Hospital, probably in 1935, consisted of scenes from childrens’ stories placed high on the walls of the children’s’ ward. From an extant black-and-white photograph, it appears that Yaeger used a pleasant, straightforward illustrative style for the mural. Large leafy vines separated the individual stories which included the three little pigs and two children on a seesaw, among others. Murals such as these, intended to help the children escape mentally from their surroundings, were popular FAP decoration for hospitals across the country, and Yaeger’s fits this type very well.

Yaeger’s succeeding projects were fare more ambitious and even audacious. Among the most elaborate of his WPA projects is the 180-foot-long mural that rings around the men’s mess hall on the third floor of the Naval Armory in Detroit. The building was constructed in 1930, but remodeled and enlarged with WPA funds in 1936-1939. Yaeger worked for one and a half years on the site and completed the murals by 5 September 1937, when a picture was published in the Detroit News. The lower portion of the walls is painted battleship grey, while the upper portion, about five feet high, is painted as if the viewer were on the deck of a large ship looking out at a 360-degree panorama of the sea and distant hills. Yaeger’s imaginary harbor filled with twelve historical ships painted with great accuracy and identified with small plaques contrasts with a view of the Detroit River seen through the windows of the room.

Captain Richard Thornton Brodhead, commander of the armory at that time and for whom the armory was renamed in 1947, took far greater interest and played a more crucial role than was usual in WPA projects, apparently checking daily on the artist’s progress. He suggested to Yaeger the subject for his mural and also provided black-and-white photographs to ensure the accuracy of the various ships that sailed the Great Lakes, including the USS Yantic, the first presidential yacht, built in 1864 for Abraham Lincoln and eventually used for training in Detroit. It seems that Brodhead’s purpose in choosing this subject was to instruct and to instill a sense of history and pride in the men who ate in this room.

When the murals were unveiled to the public, Florence Davies, the enthusiastic Detroit News reporter, wrote of the tremendous feat that Yaeger accomplished in representing these ships and she described “the simple device of bringing the ships nearer to the foreground or further away provides the needed variety in the size of his ships” so that there was no sense of unrest, disturbance or monotony. She praised the way he painted rigging lines that swing into the picture at just the right places and create diagonal movements that gently lead the eye along. She was equally impressed by how daringly Yaeger “slams into a small wall space the bow of an armored cruiser and its two guns pointed at you and following you around the room like the eyes of a well-painted portrait.” Yaeger’s unexpected and ingenious treatment of the room’s corners – in another, one looks directly into the opening of a ship’s ventilating stack – reinforces the sense of being on the ship’s deck and looking out at the ships that sail in serene waters, perfectly reflected on the mirror-calm of the sea.

Yaeger’s mural was part of a larger decorative project at the armory which included two murals by David Fredenthal depicting the shipboard and leisure activities of sailors, completed by 1937, in the commissioned officers meeting and dining room and in the third-floor bar. Subsequently, Yaeger painted an underwater scene in the bar that no longer exists. He also made sketches for other murals doorways, and bas reliefs in plaster. Some of the motifs are wonderfully playful, such as a woman who extends her hand underwater to a man in scuba diving gear with fish swimming past him. For a fireplace screen, he drew a devil who, when the hearth was lit, would breathe fire out his mouth and would appear to be on fire himself.

The final parts of the Brodhead ensemble, completed in 1940, are imaginative incised-plaster reliefs by Gustav Hildebrand on the first floor showing sailors going about typical activities, and John Tabaczuk’s exuberant carvings of mermaids, fish, and underwater plants on the three flights of the wooden staircase railings, benches and doorways. Altogether, Brodhead is a stunning example of a coordinated effort to harmonize all of the decoration, and even if it has seen better days, the lively, often delightful scenes mark it as a major effort of the WPA. As the exhilarated Davies wrote: “If the art project of the WPA never accomplished anything else except the murals at the Navy Armory, it would not have existed in vain.”

Yaeger’s next commission, approved by the FAP in 1936, was the Ford Grammar School Library, where he painted a 60-foot-long mural representing various fables chosen by the students. Although destroyed when the building was demolished in the 1980s, the murals are known through the sketches and photographs. Unlike his earlier hospital mural, Yaeger ties together the different stories seamlessly with a unified background to make a far more interesting and lively composition.

Varying the scale of the figures and taking advantage of the placement of the mural around doorways and windows, Yaeger confounded the separation between the real space of the room and the fictive space of the painting. For example, Jack climbs up the beanstalk on one side of a door, while on the other side a large giant is scrunched between the top of the bookcases and the ceiling. Elsewhere, Pinocchio’s exaggeratedly long nose stretches completely across the top of a doorframe, while the rest of his wooden body is folded into a small narrow space alongside a door. A one-legged, one-eyed pirate rests an elbow on the actual school clock, passing the time as he waits for his helper, seen from the waist up, who seems to dig for treasure in the bookshelves below. Other stories are form Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox, Billy Goats Gruff and the Jungle Book. Scenes from children’s literature to adorn school libraries, as well as large hospitals, were natural choices for administrators and were very popular among artists for FAP commissions. Yaeger’s mural was exceptionally humorous and upbeat.

The Men’s West Quad Dormitory murals at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, were painted next, probably in 1940 following construction of the building in 1939. Adorning the upper reaches of the entrance lobby, Yaeger’s six murals in the curved archways of the walls alternate with Hildebrand’s plaster reliefs. Unlike the Ford Library murals, there are no figures and the subjects are vague, relating generally to Michigan and its early history, agricultural resources and industry, athletics, and art and architecture. In style, these murals are closer to Yaeger’s easel paintings, employing flat space, cubist designs, and arbitrary color. For example, in the mural relating to art and architecture, a Picasso-like linear profile on the left is balanced on the right by a still-life composition on a table and a cubist play of collage painting made to look like a wood graining for the floor. A series of arches in the background joins left to right and has a surreal sense influenced by De Chirico. In a mural on recreation, a checkerboard that in a preliminary sketch was dramatically foreshortened, when executed, was turned vertically to flatten any sense of space or recession. On top of this decorative backdrop, Yaeger drew a suspended football, a gracefully curving bow that floats across the composition, several chess pieces, a badminton birdie and a target. Yaeger recounted that he and Hildebrand drove form Detroit to Ann Arbor every day, were paid for the hour commute each way as part of their 8 to 5 day, and were engaged on these murals for many months. Although Yaeger and his assistant worked on site, the murals had to be lifted into position once completed.

More typically, Yaeger worked in the Detroit studio provided for the artists by the WPA, and the murals were moved to the site once completed. This was the case with his three 1941 murals for the Cleminson Library at the Grosse Pointe South High School. According to an article in the Grosse Pointer Review, 24 April 1941, about the forthcoming high school open house to unveil the murals, Yaeger was chosen from among several artists who submitted designs to a jury of three. Yaeger recalled that he spent over a year and a half on preparations for the three murals, although the painting itself took only six months. It is clear from the sixty-three sketches in the Kresge Art Museum collection that he considered details and composition extensively. At first he seems to have pictured only classical figures, including at one point a woman with two men. At another time, he explored using two figures, one of whom was Minerva, goddess of wisdom. A short notice in the Detroit Free Press, dated 21 April 1940, reports that Yaeger was spotted in the library photographing details of clothing and shoes in preparation for this mural. Additionally, before creating the paintings, “he made clay models about eight inches high of all the figures in order to study the effect of light. He also studied the color scheme of the library before choosing the murals so that he could select the colors that would harmonize.”

Unlike the situation at Brodhead, once approved for the project Yaeger was left alone to carry out his designs. The three brightly colored murals, painted in tempera on canvas and mounted on plywood, are placed high on the entrance wall of the large library on the main floor. The room rises two stories and is well lit by windows on the opposite side. The two larger murals (each approximately 12 by 8 feet) represent learning in the ancient world, on the right, and learning in the medieval world on the left. In each, a group of three men is dressed in costumes appropriate to their time; one stands while the others are seated. They read, write, or contemplate. Each trio is set before an extensive landscape, also carefully depicted to evoke the period with classical temples and a sculpted relief and in the other, beyond the leaded glass window, a hamlet of sienna-colored buildings. The smallest of these paintings in the center measures approximately eight feet square and includes symbols of the arts: Music, literature, drama, and architecture. This still life, very typical of Yaeger’s easel paintings, is composed of a lute, a profile head representing the mask of theater (similar to one he painted at University of Michigan), an open book with a red banner across it, a lamp, and a curtain drawn back. The high placement of this painting, coupled with the intrusion of the large clock that blocks the lower portion, challenged the artist to create an image that made sense from the viewer’s perspective. In fact, his early ideas included a one-point perspective view of a street scene with one or two figures, a man operating a large book press, and a simplified still life with a book, hand, and birds. In his final version, he brought the elements close to the picture plane so they would be visible from a distance. Murals in schools, of which the WPA commissioned many, provided the artist with an opportunity not only to educate about aspects of history or literature, but also about art. Yaeger certainly sought to evoke the intellectual life of two past eras in the larger murals, but he also conveyed a lesson about the techniques and language of painting itself. His decision to situate the figures in the large murals in receding landscape space, rather than in the flat modernist he favored in other work, helps to convey pictorially a sense of ancient and medieval perceptions of the world. On the other hand, the still-life painting, symbolic rather than representational, having to do with art and artifice, is in the modernist style of his easel paintings.

Yaeger’s last WPA mural project, for the Public Lighting Commission building in Detroit, is also his least constrained and most imaginative. Discovered hidden behind and partially ruined by wood paneling that covered them, only two fragments of the murals that encircled the room were in good enough condition to be saved when the building was torn down to make way for the Renaissance Center in 1977. Using the four final color sketches submitted for the FAP competition and now in the Kresge Art Museum collection, we can reconstruct the major scenes. As befits the setting, Yaeger chose scenes of importance for the history of lighting starting with the discovery of fire and progressing to Benjamin Franklin’s discovery of electricity and Thomas Edison and the invention of the incandescent light bulb. Yaeger’s careful study of early to contemporary lamps is also featured prominently through the murals emphasizing progress and prosperity through science and technology. One of the destroyed scenes was a small mural between a door and a window, showing a man looking towards the water, his way lit by a street lamp. A storefront on the right, placed above actual windows, bore the letters ELEC, comprising individual light bulbs that glowed bright yellow.

Yaeger’s depiction of Benjamin Franklin flying his kite was also destroyed. In Yaeger’s final drawing, Franklin is accompanied by a colleague seated on the ground reading a drawing before an open sunlit waterfront with sailing ships on the water and distant hills beyond. Yaeger took care to dress the men appropriately for the eighteenth century.

Preliminary sketches for the scene of early lighting and the discovery of fire reveal that Yaeger decided quickly upon the crouching nude (or half nude) male figure on the right, who creates fire by striking a flint on a piece of stone. The seated man on the left reading a scroll by lamplight was arrived at over time. Only the upper six feet of this mural survives but the drawings allow us to reconstruct and identify the missing lower parts of these two figures. The central figure in the painting evolved the most. In one early sketch, Yaeger drew a standing woman placed in space between and beyond the two men. In subsequent sketches she holds a hanging lamp; in another she lights her lamp from one placed on a pedestal in the center. In some drawings she is replaced by a nude male whose body and outstretched arm form a diagonal across the composition from lower left to upper right. In the final color sketch, Yaeger settled on a seated frontal female, much larger in proportion than the men in the foreground, holding up a small lit lamp. The bare-breasted flying woman whom Yaeger actually painted in the mural appears in none of the extant sketches.

Dramatically foreshortened, she awkwardly soars above the other figures while holding aloft a lit lamp. In the preparatory sketches, Yaeger sometimes included rolling hills in the background, and the aqueduct appears in the final color sketch. However, the small stone building on the left where a woman is silhouetted in the open doorway was added at the time of painting perhaps to imply the implications of fire in domestic use.

The largest expanse of space available for murals, unbroken by doorways or windows, was used to depict Thomas Edison’s laboratory and the invention of the incandescent light bulb. Except for a missing portion from the right side, most of this mural survives in four strips that now hang in the main lobby of the Union Building at Michigan State University. It depicts several industrious men, including Edison on the right, working laboratories and (in the center) inventing the electric light bulb. Again, this scene is dominated by a large bare-chested woman, symbolic of light, who hovers slightly above the other figures. The strong beam of light form her lantern illuminates everything in its path and becomes a wall that turns around on itself to form the background cityscape that appears as if painted on a folding screen. The missing portions on the right, reconstructed from evidence of the final sketch, depicted a female figure with a ladder, and on the far right, a man with top had and overcoat, walking away from the viewer along a street lit with lamps.

Always a bit of a surrealist, Yaeger introduced a sense of unreality into these murals with the change in scale of the figures, the mixture of historical and symbolic figures, the womens’ nudity, and the ambiguous space. At a time when most section art for post offices, as well as WPA commissions, was painted in the predominant social-realist style, Yaeger’s mix of reality and fantasy is surprising. His illusion of depth that shifts and changes into flat planes and his often arbitrary planes of color and surface decorativeness evoke the modernist art of the School of Paris. Nudes were specifically disallowed by the section, and are rarely found in WPA art because they took attention away from the message and onto the image as art. In the social-realist milieu, the government sought to present through public art a world recognizably related to the viewer’s history, time and place. Nudes remove the image from the experience of everyday to that of the extraordinary.

Considering Yaeger’s WPA output, it is clear that he did not use murals as a platform to promote social and political goals, setting him apart from those who followed the tradition of Diego Rivera and the Mexican muralists. But neither was he content to or even interested in producing painting in the sanctioned regionalist or representational style that would have gained him a nationally juried commission. To our contemporary eyes, his style seems quite tame, especially considering the art produced in New York at that time, but to his 1930s viewers in Michigan, it would have appeared quite modern. From his tentative, straightforward early hospital mural, Yaeger evolved to more modernist compositions, especially at the University of Michigan and the Public Lighting building, where he was allowed free rein to produce his murals. Edgar Yaeger clearly considered the appropriateness of art and subjects to their settings, and happily in the last of his mural projects, for the Public Lighting Commission, his unconstrained creativity reduced a felicitous history of visual delight.

(Complete article with footnotes and bilbiography is in the KAM Bulletin)

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