Note: This is an encore post from 2005 and originally appeared on the 1947project.
The California Art Club yesterday lambasted the current Los Angeles County Museum art exhibit—the museum’s eighth annual show—as favoring “radical art” and containing “subversive propaganda.”
…Edward Withers, painter and retiring president of the 500-member club, wrote [museum Director James H.] Breasted Jr. that his group cannot “condone the expenditure of tax funds for the display of subversive propaganda inimical to our form of government.”
Breasted answered: “We deny without reservation the charge that there is any subversive element in a single work in this exhibition.”
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Breasted, the son of noted Egyptologist James H. Breasted, had been hired as museum director the year before, bringing in several blockbuster shows of the day, notably one of works by Rubens and Van Dyck, and another of works by Frans Hals and Rembrandt (including “The Vision” and “Juno”) that was supposedly the largest gathering of Rembrandt’s works to date.
He had noble ambitions in building membership, better maintenance of the buildings, adding staff, increasing collections and dealing with its unique mission covering history, science and art. But he also encountered challenges so vast and complicated that it’s impossible to deal with them here.
The complaints came over the annual show of works by local artists, featuring such paintings as Saul Steinlauf’s “Past Symbols,” which depicted:
“…a church divided, the two parts set slightly apart, with one apparently converted into a market and with what looks like a smokestack of an industrial plant arising from the rear of the church.”
After the controversy erupted, the painting was purchased for $300 by actor Vincent Price, one of the exhibition’s judges, and presented to the museum.
Under Breasted’s administration, the museum set a one-day attendance record of 39,117 for the 1948 Freedom Train, which featured such historic documents as a letter by Christopher Columbus.
But there was also criticism that he failed to get along with museum staff, had missed opportunities for several important donations and had failed to book a traveling exhibition of selections from the Hapsburg art collection on a goodwill tour of the U.S.
Breasted resigned Feb. 5, 1951, less than five years after being appointed.
One of the other prizewinners in the 1947 show, Burton Freund, was identified as a member of the West Adams Communist Club in 1953 during testimony by Edith Macia, a 68-year-old grandmother who infiltrated Red cells on behalf of the FBI.
Sources: Los Angeles Times May 1, 1946; May 5, 1946; June 22, 1946; Sept. 15, 1946; Dec. 10, 1946; May 15, 1947; May 22, 1947; May 24, 1947; Sept. 7, 1947; Dec. 1, 1947; Feb. 25, 1948; Jan. 1, 1951; Feb. 4, 1951; Feb. 6, 1951; Feb. 11, 1951; March 29, 1953