In my previous post on "Bohemian Los Angeles" I told how I met in the 1970s the leading fine printers of Los Angeles: Grant Dahlstrom, Ward Ritche, and Lillian Marks whom I worked for a short while. All this was a introduction to my thoughts on "Bohemian Los Angeles," a new book by Daniel Hurewitz, who writes about Edendale (Silverlake and Echo Park) part of Los Angeles, showing three kinds of bohemian groups who lived there from 1920-1953: artists, political radicals, and gays.
What affected me the most was chapter 2 about the artists of Edendale. Of course, I was interested to see mention of people I knew--printer Grant Dahlstrom--and also lovely descriptions of printers clubs, but what affected me is that Hurewitz analyzes all the artists and their book arts friends as modernists, bringing a shift in art from that of external appearances to "externalizing a complete personal world .... Since his [sic] work is untraditional in its methods and imagery, his comprenhending audience is often limited to a few friends and 'intiates'" (98). Hurewitz also analyzes the modernists visual artists of 1920s and 1930s L.A.: the post-surrealist school of Grace Clements, Lorser Feitelson, and Helen Lundeberg--as well abstractionist Stanton Macdonald-Wright.
Further, young artists such as printmaker Paul Landacre and sculptor Gordon Newell as well as printer Ward Ritchie and librarian Lawrence Powell were all inspired by Robinson Jeffers' poetry which "demonstrated how the natural enviornment could offer an artistic vehicle for emotional expression" (102). In fact, Hurewitz shows that California modernists artists as well as poets were inspired by the natural landscape much more the East Cost modernists and poets who were enamored of the machine and the city: Jeffers' looks to the Big Sur nature while Hart Crane writes about the Brooklyn Bridge.
In that same chapter Hurewitz also discusses the political radicalism of Edendale artists of the 1930s, mentioning both Lester Horton, whose dance company I studied with as a young child, who made the most political, multi-cultural modern dance in the country from the 1930s-1950 (Alvin Ailey was one of his students) as well as Mexican muralist Siquieros who briefly worked in Los Angelesin 1932, making three murals working with young LA artists and inspring them. The Edendale artists also headed and worked in the mural departments of the WPA during the 1930s.
Hurewitz brilliantly shows how these young artists creating both modern art and as well as artistic and literary Los Angeles. Lawrence Powell, friend of the fine printers, was the head of the UCLA library, instrumental in creating it into a brilliant university collection. These artists and book people had to create the very arts institutions as LA lacked such intstitutions as well as being the radical innovators of their times. Hurewitz helped me see Lillian Marks, Dahlstrom, Ward Ritchie as modernists, helping me revision my 1970s past when I thought these great printers were traditionalists. Yes, these wonderful printers carried on Renaissance printing traditions of fine printing but they carried them into the era of machines and artistic modernism of mid-20th century California. Hurewitz helped me see the fine printers clearly for the first time.
But the artists are only one chapter in the book. Hurewitz also focuses on both the gay cultural scene and the culture of the Communist Party whose many activists lived in Edendale. His first chapter is on Julian Eltinge, a successful female impersanator in vaudville who sang in falsetto and who settled in Edendale in the 1910s. Hurewitz argues that Eltinge refused to identify with homoseuxals while his mainsteam mostly heterosexual vaudville audience say his work as refined.
The main argument of the book is first Edendale's modernist artists and then its Communist Party activists both insisted the interior life as important in arts and in politics--and both modernists and Communists affected gay history. The modernist artists broke with Victorian or vaudeville arts of surfaces such as Julian Eltinge to express intertior psychic states. Hurewitz tells how the Communist Party actvists fought for minoirtiy rights in Los Angeles, insisting that opressed minorities had cultures and that racial oppression negatively impacted psyches. They felt that blacks and Chicanos had cultures--songs, literature, painting, a common history of oppression. Choreographer Lester Horton from the 1930s-1950s had the first integrated dance troup in the natio; he choregraphed dances about Latino, Black and Jewish themes and developed a strong, left-wing audience who supported this minority culture.
The last chapter is how Harry Hay--Edendale resident, 30s Communist activist, and actor involved in 30s modernist arts--took all these elements in creating the Mattachine Society, the first homosexual rights organization in the United States. Hay argued in those early meetings of the Mattachine Society that just as blacks and Mexican-Americans had a common culture, so did homosexuals. Also, Hay inherited from modernists the idea that interior life for homosexuals including sexual life "was indeed a fundamental--if not the fundamental piece of who they were" (269). Further, the interior life led directly to a politics and political groups which demanded civil rights.
Thus Hurewtiz believes these three kinds of bohemians in Los Angeles created the identity politics of the 1970s, but they created it decades earlier up in the hills of Edendale. Lester Horton's pupil Alvin Ailey went to New York starting a dance company doing black dance that he would take around the world. Rather than a cultural wasteland from 1920-1950, the Los Angeles of "Bohemian Los Angeles" has vital arts and politics that would affect the larger culture of the United States throughout the 20th century. Hurewitz has written a thought-provoking and fascinating book.
One last note. Throughout their marriage Lillian Marks worked in the print shop along with her husband Saul, but during the 1930s Hurewitz says the printers' social clubs were men only. By the 1970s the printers' club had opened up to include women, so when Lillian took me to the printers' club fine dinner we sat and ate with both men and women.
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