James Michael Newell provided this description of his mural, the Evolution of Civilization, painted for the library of Evander Childs High School:
the murals . . . show primitive man building his society, youth migrating from it to new lands, the meeting and mingling of tribes, the clashing of eastern culture and scientific knowledge with western force, building knowledge and ideas of law and democracy.
The dark ages of plague are shown next, with the church alone perpetuating knowledge. Then come the beginnings of scientific experiment and the awakening of the people to nature, the force of which destroys their bondage and leads to the great flowering of the Renaissance. The exploration which follows founded a new country to which all nations and all time have contributed, and which has developed into a varied, dynamic, and powerful civilization.
Throughout the cycle, which occupies all available space, Newell repeated the motifs of migrating figures, the act of writing or disseminating knowledge, and agricultural activities. The progression follows the natural architectural divisions of the walls and the composition of individual panels grows in complexity, particularly in the panel depicting modern America.
In an unconventional fashion, the cycle reads from right to left. It begins with a reinvention of Prometheus, seen in the seminal figure on the right, who seizes a bolt of lightening in one hand while cradling fire in the other. Stone Age tools above the doors frame the central panel, featuring a primitive, agricultural society that could be Babylonian, Egyptian, or Peruvian. Figures are harvesting wheat and corn, historically an impossible combination, which suggests the synthesis of the new and old worlds. Newell also painted the building of protective shelters and the codification of laws, represented by the figure chiseling a tablet next to another figure pointing skyward, perhaps an allusion to the Babylonian Code of Hammaurabi. The repetition of figures in similar poses, their facial characteristics and generalized anatomy, and the very subject of an agrarian society, recall Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s depictions of Mexico’s Aztec past in such murals as the History of Mexico (1929) in the National Palace in Mexico City. Out of this basic social order, civilization evolves, moving to the next phase through the migration of its youth.
The next panel combines elements from several different periods and locales. Directing the viewer’s eye toward the center is the figure of Galileo pointing toward the rings of Saturn and an astronomical sphere. Also in this panel is a group of hooded warriors with spears, perhaps representing the western movement of nomadic tribes from the east; an artist chiseling a sculpture; a figure bent over a map showing outlines of the silk trade, juxtaposed with two sheaves of wheat, a link to the first panel and a reference to the exchange of goods. A scribe refines written language, moving from the pictographs of the previous panel to a more recognizable, although generalized alphabet. The panel conveys the message that science, trade, and art pushed civilization forward.
The following panel recalls the proto-Renaissance master Giotto’s Lamentation. A sick man replaces the body of the dead Christ and prostrate figures praying for his health shield him from the aggressive specter of death.
Although Newell described the next panel as the “awakening of the people to nature,” suggesting a strong secular orientation, the image of the head with flowing hair against a brilliant sun evokes Christ; however the Riveraesque torch and fist give it a militant nuance. In the following panel, reason destroys superstition, portrayed as a devilish monster filled with a spring, and the printing press disseminates knowledge. This image, together with the preceding panel, suggests that exploration of the natural world, the basis of scientific inquiry, supports the destruction of superstition. Newell painted this panel last, inscribing it with: “In the years 1937 and 1938 these murals were designed and executed by James Michael Newell…under the Federal Art Project sponsored by the United States government.”
Jumping several centuries and across the Atlantic, the next panel shows European explorers--Norsemen, Spaniards, the Dutch and the English--arriving in the New World, leading to the pioneer migration westward and the vanquishing of the Native American, represented as a defeated Indian brave modeled on the classical sculpture of the Dying Gaul (Pergamum, c. 240 B.C. Hellenistic period) to the lower left. One explorer holds the Masonic tablets encoded with numbers 1- 10. His fingers point to 3 and 8, suggesting the mural’s completion date and/or the 8th commandment “Though Shall Not Steal,” Newell’s veiled commentary on the white man’s arrival in the New World.
Following the discovery of the New World, The Evolution of Western Civilization culminates in a panorama of 1930s America showing three primary geographic areas: the west--represented by cattle ranchers and the railroad; the south--represented by miners and black workers picking cotton; and the northeast--represented by an electrical generator, steel workers, surgeons, and a chemist. Also depicted is American justice in the form of a contemporary jury and the new one hundred-inch Mount Palonar telescope, another symbol of cutting edge technology. Here Newell celebrates humankind’s mastery of nature, industrial growth, and scientific progress.
In Newell’s discussion of the mural he emphasized his desire to avoid obscure allegories and to invent a pictorial language based on real life activities. Many of the motifs he used were part of a standard vocabulary of New Deal murals. These became the new symbols of the 1930s: construction workers with pneumatic drills, steel workers riveting, surgeons gathered around a patient on the operating table, the chemist, pioneers, Indians bundling sheaves of wheat and corn, and the superstition of the Middle Ages vanquished by modern science.
Newell crowned his narrative with the last two lines from Walt Whitman’s “With Antecedents” from Leaves of Grass (1891-92):
“And that where I am or you are this present day, there is the center of all days, all races. And there is the meaning to us of all that has ever come of races and days, or ever will come.”
The quote implies that history is fluid and that peoples across the globe are interrelated. It is also Newell’s way of dating the mural, of recognizing that his mural is an interpretation of history in the year 1938. The quote, pictured against an open book resting in dark-skinned hands broken free of shackles, suggests freedom and knowledge for all. This element, coupled with the imagery of the mural, conveys an optimistic view of civilization’s progress and America’s role in its evolution.
When it was completed, Newell’s progressive mural was well received. It won top honors in the Architectural League’s fiftieth annual exhibition in 1936 and it was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s “New Horizons of American Art” show featuring art commissioned under the Federal Art Project. By the late 1960s, however, in the crucible of the civil rights movement, the mural became a target of student unrest, and parts of it were severely defaced. In 1998 Public Art for Public Schools initiated the conservation of the mural and created an educational program to reexamine it s meaning and give students an opportunity to respond to it by creating a mural of their own.
See Conservation in Context, http://newdeal.feri.org/echs/index.htm.