Ralph Fasanella, Iceman Crucified #4, 1958, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Estate of Ralph Fasanella, © 1958, Estate of Ralph Fasanella
The director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Elizabeth Broun, described Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997) as "a potent reminder that the power to effect change lies in the heart of every person."
And so it is, an unmistakable message which speaks loudly from the 19 large Fasanella canvases and eight sketches whose last day to hang together at the museum is today.
The exhibition was timed to celebrate the artist's 100th birthday, September 2,1914, Labor Day that year, a more perfect day for the birth of a later spokesperson and artist for the common man, the working class, unknown.
Mr. Fasanella was a self-taught artist who quit school before he was a teen and later spent hours, after he got out of reform school, in libraries, educating himself, and visiting art museums in New York where he realized the power of art to communicate with others.
He was born in the Bronx to Italian immigrants who taught him all about hard work, the importance of family, and the necessity to fight for and preserve individual and civil rights.
Before his father abandoned his family to return to Italy, Ralph helped him at his work, delivering ice, becoming aware of the differences between the "haves" and the "have nots," burying growing feelings and emotions which showed up many years later in his art.
One of Mr. Fasanella's most famous series is the Iceman Crucified, based on Mr. Fasanella's father and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Three of the four Icemans are in the show, including a recent gift to the Smithsonian from the Fasanella family, the last of the series, #4, on which the artist included the phrase, "Lest We Forget," which is the sub-title of the show. He used "Lest We Forget" often in his art to remind viewers about their origins and rights, borrowing the idea from the initials for Jesus, INRI, Latin for "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews."
Thirty minutes for each Fasanella piece is not enough time to take in all the parts and messages, as complex, detailed, and fascinating as they are, not only for adults, but the content has much to offer children, too.
This is a close-up of McCarthy Era Garden Party, 1954, one of at least three paintings in the show which feature Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only American civilians executed by the U.S. government for espionage during the Cold War. Mr. Fasanella passionately believed the couple were government scapegoats, used to convey a message to others, as the government uses Chelsea Manning today, that tolerance is unacceptable when it comes to leaks. Here the Rosenbergs are drawn together in a fiery pit, underneath the dome of the U.S. Capitol where members of Congress, behind them, attend a "last supper."
His pictures present a 20th century popular look at modern U.S. labor history, in a folk art style, reminiscent of Grandma Moses with flat, bright colors, stick figures, and intense purpose.
Wikipedia says Mr. Fasanella painted large canvases since he thought they would eventually hang in union halls.
The years he spent in a Catholic reform school turned him bitterly against the church and against organized structure which restricts the human spirit.
As an adult, Mr. Fasanella held blue collar jobs, became a union member, and volunteered for paramilitary duty in Spain where he joined other Americans in the late1930s to fight unsuccessfully against General Francisco Franco. After he returned to the U.S., Mr. Fasanella became a labor organizer, and painted in his spare time. About 30 years later, when a dealer discovered him and New York magazine put him on one of its covers in 1972, Mr. Fasanella gained immediate fame which brought sales, independence, and more time to draw.
His art helped him expel some of his demons and put on paper his passion to help the working classes survive and advance their knowledge of social injustice and their rights.
After he saw a Fasanella show in 1974, Ron Carver, a union organizer, wrote "I was overwhelmed with emotion at Fasanella's depiction of ordinary people...painted...with such verve and heart." In 1986 Mr. Carver mounted a campaign, Public Domain, designed to rescue Mr. Fasanella's art from private collections so the works could hang in public spaces, and with the help of many, including the artist, he succeeded.
The Smithsonian's Leslie Umberger curated the exhibition. In a statement she called Mr. Fasanella's art "a tool to be wielded like a hammer." He did.
At a time when the voice of labor in the U.S. continues to weaken, Mr. Fasanella's colors, boldness and imagination present stories and voices of the common people, often not heard or seen in Washington or on Wall Street, unless it is the banks seeking to increase their profits with services for the poor.
We the people are grateful to all and extend appreciation to Tania and Tom Evans, the Herbert Waide Hermphill Jr. American Folk Art Fund, and Paula and Peter Lunder for making the exhibition possible.
The show next moves to the American Folk Art Museum in New York to open on Mr. Fasanella's 100th birthday, September 2, and continue through November 30, 2014.
Power to the people!
What: Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget
When: Closes Sunday, August 3, 2014. The museum is open from 11:30 a.m. - 7 p.m. every day.
Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F streets, N. W., Washington, D.C. 20004
How much: No charge
For more information: 202-633-1000 or visit the web site
Metro station: Gallery Place-Chinatown or walk 10 minutes from Metro Center