SWARTHMORE COLLEGE

THE FRESCOES IN THE AUDITORIUM OF
HICKS HALL

Painted by JAMES D. EGLESON

    The frescoes at Swarthmore depict conditions and concepts out of the life of our times in America. Painted in a building devoted to the teaching of engineering science, out of which has developed industrialization as one of the orienting conditions of modern life, most of the work deals with the effects of that condition upon human beings, ourselves and our fellow-men. The murals do not pretend to give a factual account of those effects, nor to tell a story.  Rather they are a dramatization of the human values involved,  of the people of our times in the struggles and aspirations that constitute the fundamental realities of a civilization and a culture.

    Mural art has a twofold function. Its esthetic one, as in all ages and civilizations, is to give to the wall colors and patterns that will be pleasing to the eye and in harmony with the surrounding architecture. As we have in America no long or well developed tradition of decorative art, the painter is inescapably a voyager, seeking by intuition and observation those colors and patterns and densities that have the capacity for growing to seem right and familiar to our eyes. The work at Swarthmore is frankly an experiment in which both the artist and those who live with the work, the faculty, students and workmen of the college, are participants mutually, and time alone can determine the stature of the work as a contribution to a genuinely American culture.

    The further function of a mural painting that is to go beyond the purely decorative is to communicate something of the spirit of man and of the times in which the work is done; something of the circumstances of life that have a meaning for the majority of people. Hence the devotion of these spaces to the common, the universal aspects of contemporary life rather than to the exotic or the romantic.  Such things as work and war and unemployment and the great structures of dams arc all familiar to us, conditioning our lives and thoughts whether we have been close to the physical reality or not. Thus I have painted them, and to the men and women involved I have given the mien and character of people we have known and worked with, loved or mourned, as likewise I have depicted them with that essential dignity and the will or the resignation with which people everywhere meet the fortunes of circumstance. 

   Dealing with life itself and derived from that life that is familiar to all of us, it is inevitable that the paintings should trace on the minds of people looking at them views as divergent as the antipodal opinions that men everywhere arrive at regarding the same reality. That there should be discussion and differing opinions over the work, therefore, is to be expected, and in the degree in which it may cause people to ponder the realities of our times may be the measure of its contribution to the real educational and cultural mission of the college.

SOUTH WALL
opposite the windows

I. Science and Poverty: A group of scientist-engineers are absorbed in their work about a table, while in the foreground an aged woman, seeking the material necessities of life, salvages a potato from a pile of refuse.  At the foot of one of the scientists, between himself and the woman seeking food, is a gear wheel and a pile of artillery shells, suggesting both the constructive and destructive possibilities of science.

   The representation of the co-existence of the condition of poverty and want with engineering science, the available means for eliminating them, may suggest the moral problem that confronts society: with regard to the constant use of scientific and engineering facilities constructively to fill legitimate human needs and to prevent their misuse for destructive ends.

II. Work: The constructive application of engineering science.  Men entering a mill to work, a daily occurrence in many parts of our highly industrialized country, suggests something of the vast tide that pours in and out of factory gates. It is a simple, familiar act that constitutes one of the aspects of our civilization which distinguishes it from those of the past, and is depicted here with some of the rush and movement that seem peculiarly American.

III. Unemployment:  The failure to utilize productive facilities.  Men outside the walls of an idle factory.  The stacks give out no smoke, and the wall separating the men from the factory, from the means of producing those things which they and others need, looms large and solid.  With one of the men is a little girl as symbol of the fact that behind every man there are wives or children or old people who suffer also when he is without work.  A feeling of somberness and quiescence pervades the scene of that condition we call "Depression," to convey something of the tragic situation of human beings out of work.

REAR WALL

I. War:   Soldiers fallen under a mass of guns and steel, while over them wave flags of different colors. The whole is surmounted by emblems of aggressor or imperialist nations, among which are the swastika and fasces of contemporary significance; an imperial eagle, symbolizing conquest; and behind them the dove of peace which surmounts the sceptre of imperial Britain. .

    The prone figures flung over one another, the fragment pattern of weapons and wreckage and the sweep of the flags over the mass have been interwoven to convey a feeling of the war machine overwhelming men with its fury, chaos and ruin.

II. The Refugee: A man, a woman with a child and a little girl flee from the war chaos. A flag almost touches them, and the swastika seems to reach out over them. In the background, wreckage and a fiery sky.

    The representation of the plight of the peoples of our times in many portions of the earth links the two major themes of War and Peace; the family group, together with the woman in the first panel of the side wall and man and child in the third, provide a recurrent motif of "the individual" within the larger struggles and movements.

III. Peace: Constructive elements in society, represented by four men of engineering, laboring, farming and cultural occupations standing shoulder to shoulder across a factory background. From the chimneys smoke rolls across t h e sky, suggesting the activity of production. Massed men on either side give support  to the four central figures, and some  of them have hands raised in resolution for peace.

   The painting depicts peace as an ordered, productive society achieved through the cooperation and resolution of constructive elements of mankind. Hence the grouping of all elements about the four dominant figures of men of work standing together in peace and dignity as masters of their environment. The tools and book which they hold contrast sharply with the destructive implements, the misused potentialities of society, which appear in the panel War.

NORTH WALL

The vertical panels which interspace the windows have been utilized for further concepts of peace. In the corner, adjacent to the rear wall, is a painting of wheat and a grain elevator. The handclasp, a universal gesture of good will, is used in the two central panels. In the one, different races art depicted, a brown hand and a white clasping across a curved horizon. in the other, hands clasp across smoke-stacks and ripe grain, emblems of productiveness.

FRONT WALL

At the extreme left and right, two narrow panels depict concepts of culture and education related to the conditions of Peace and War represented on the rear wall. The left panel, with the harmonious relation of the book and tools, emblems of education, labor and engineering, suggests on order of peace and growth. The opposite one, with a bomb plunging through a book under a swastika-surmounted flag, depicts the pillaging of culture and education under the rule of violence.

The three central panels, with their dominant position in the room, have ken devoted to aspects of engineering, suggesting the purpose of the building. They have been treated as simply as possible in order not to distract the attention of lecture audiences. The large central space shows the engineers at work with materials of construction in the back-ground.  On the right is a row of the dark houses of laborers over which towers a factory, the typical cross-section of any mill town in America. Opposite this is an irrigation dam rising above the growing corn. One of the dramatic recreations of the engineer, it is depicted not simply as structure, but as a useful machine contributing to the fulfillment of human needs: the broad, moral objectives of engineering and science

June 1938 

J.  D.  E.