Russian immigrant Edward Biberman (1904 – 1986) was commissioned by the Section of Fine Arts to create four paintings as part of a mural cycle which was installed at the Los Angeles post office in 1941. Biberman’s paintings, collectively titled, Creative Man depict the “creative” contributions to humanity by American Indians, African Americans, Asians, and Caucasians. The monumental figures are depicted in a frontal position, their torsos are unclothed; they are distinguished only by their facial features, skin tone, and the implements they are holding. The imposing nature of the figures are made more prominent because the artist pushed them to the front of the picture plane, and they stand against a blank background.
The man representing Asian cultures holds a small statue and an unrolled scroll dangles from his right hand. The African American is represented with a pick ax and shovel resting against his left shoulder while he clutches the neck of a banjo in his right hand. The Caucasian man raises a beaker and holds a T-square under his left arm. The final painting represents Native Americans, and it is this depiction that is the focus of this essay.
In keeping with the generic representation of race, Biberman’s Indian figure is not a representation of the many Indigenous cultures that lived in California, but rather a representation of an “Indian.” The artist has depicted the figure wearing a single feather at the back of his head, and while some Indigenous cultures place great cultural value on feathers, in this painting it becomes a cultural identifier that would have been easily recognized by post office patrons as an object associated with Indianness.
In addition to the feather, the Native American holds a rattlesnake encircled by the symbol of a raincloud in his raised left hand. In many Native American cultures raincloud imagery symbolizes fruitful crops, fertility, and renewal, here Biberman has painted a raincloud design associated with the Pueblo Tribes of New Mexico. He was undoubtedly exposed to this type of imagery during the two summers he spent painting in New Mexico, and has appropriated the symbol for this painting. The inclusion of the rattlesnake is interesting, it could be read as being associated with a dry desert climate and the importance of rain.
In a 1964 oral history interview, Biberman recounted some of the influences that contributed to his decision to paint these ethnic groups which included the challenges of working within the architectural space. According to the artist, this was a challenge that he willingly embraced and one that drew him to painting murals. The need to fill four oddly shaped spaces necessitated the need to paint four images, and Biberman stated that he began to think in series of four and to embrace concepts of that number such as earth, air, fire, and water. Certainly this concept of the four elements is not in play in the final paintings, but his words provide a general sense of his reasoning in selecting these four figures as the subject of his mural cycle. Biberman also noted in the interview that he was inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman, particularly the poem “Salut au Monde,” which explores the diversity of human contributions.
The final result of Biberman’s work is one that depicts contributions of each of these groups to society without any specificity. Certainly when we look at these images through a 21st century lens, we view such generic representation of race is reductive. In the end, his generic representations are both recognizable and proof of the stereotypes associated with depictions of cultural groups including the American Indian.
In addition to the Creative Man murals, Biberman painted another mural at the Los Angeles post office titled Los Angeles – Prehistoric and Spanish Colonial. He was also commissioned to paint the mural for the post office in Venice, California. Unfortunately in 1965, the post office vacated the building where the Creative Man murals were displayed and they were placed in storage where they remain to this day.
By Lisa Ann Capozzi
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