The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Washington, D.C. Exhibits Fasanella, Painter of Working People

Aug 4, 2014

This September marks the 100th birthday of an interesting self-taught painter, the little known Ralph Fasanella. The American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. is just ending a show of Fasanella’s work, seldom seen in art museums.

Fasanella was born to an Italian immigrant family in Queens, New York. He helped his father from an early age, to deliver ice in the era before refrigerators. Fasanella worked in garment factories and later as a machinist, becoming an organizer for the UE, electrical workers. He was influenced by the radical activists of the 1930s to go fight the fascist government of Franco in Spain.

Fasanella did not begin painting until the 1940s, and both his style and subject matter were unusual. He painted people in a cartoon-like style, because it was the subject that interested him, not imitating the old masters of art. He took the experience of working people as his subject matter, such as the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, later purchased by the union confederation, AFL-CIO. He painted riders on the subway and fans at a baseball game. He depicted his father, the iceman, as Christ on the cross. Fasanella understood the difficulties workers had in making a living.

Fasanella couldn’t gain an audience for his art in the McCarthy era of the 1950s, due to the radical ideas and subject matter in his art. He was on the blacklist for art dealers. But in the 1970s, his reputation took off. At that point he was able to give up his gas station in the Bronx and sell his paintings.

The show at American Art has an interesting canvas of the “death” of the Soviet Union, showing the many people who supported the idea of a revolutionary state, starting with Marx, and including labor leaders and left-wing artists.

Today one of his works is on permanent display at the Ellis Island immigration museum and another is in the Flint Michigan Labor Museum. His painting of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike is on the cover of a book about that strike. That must have pleased him.

Fasanella hoped his art would reach out to ordinary people. As he put it, “I didn’t paint my paintings to hang in some rich guy’s living room.”