Saturday, January 16, 2016

Anton Refregier: Controversial Mid-Century Modernist Challenges California History

Anton Refregier was one of the most interesting and controversial California modernists of the mid-century. Most of his paintings make a social commentary about the world around him. Utilizing broken planes of color and fractured lines, his modernist style often replicated the tone of the subjects he was painting.

Born in Moscow, Russia in 1905, Refregier emigrated to New York City in 1920. Soonafter he received a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1921, afterwhich Refregier moved back to New York. Refregier was employed as an artist to  interior decorators, creating replicas of François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard paintings. Refregier returned to Europe in 1927 and visited to Munich where he studied under the modernist Hans Hofmann.
Anton Refregier "San Francisco 1934 Waterfront Riot", 1949 Color Screenprint (Collection of DeYoung Museum)

This print "San Francisco 1934 Waterfront Riot" by Refregier was recently appraised on Antiques Roadshow for $3,000-$5,000.

One of Refregier's most interesting commissions was the Rincon Annex Post Office in San Francisco. Commissioned in 1943, it was the last year of the Federal Art's project. In fact, the murals were not even painted until after World War II was over. Since it was an obselete notion to illustrate how hard work would end the economic depression --- Refregier choose to depict California's history, ugly bits an all, including the great Earthquake, the Goldrush, corrupt leaders, anti-Chinese riots, and the Bay Area's waterfront strike of 1934.

The mural was so controversial, that many people including former President Richard Nixon protested to have the work removed. They claimed it had a communistic tone and “defamed pioneers and reflected negatively on California's past.” Eventually the mural was saved, thanks to a group of artists and museum curators. 

Refregier's "Ploughed Under" an oil painting from 1935 serves as one of the artist's most important Depression era paintings. Depicting a Dust Bowl era farmer devastated by his bleak landscape, the painting represents the Depression-era experience. The shape of the broken and dilapidated house is mirrored by the shape of the farmer in his tired, worn overalls.





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