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Huntington organizes first museum exhibition on Depression-era artist with a political edge
Maurice Merlin, Cityscape.

SAN MARINO, CA.- The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens has organized the first museum exhibition to focus on versatile Depression-era artist Maurice Merlin (1909–47). “Maurice Merlin and the American Scene, 1930–1947,” on view in the Susan and Stephen Chandler Wing of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art from Jan. 19 through April 15, 2013, brings together approximately 30 paintings, watercolors, and prints by the little-known but highly accomplished artist, as well as nine works by others in his circle, to shed light on the vibrant Detroit art scene in which Merlin worked while employed by the federal government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The idea to produce an exhibition on Merlin began with a gift to The Huntington of Merlin’s Public Demonstration (1940, screen print) from collector Hannah Kully.

“Then we began to research and soon realized this was a great opportunity to shed some light on a little-known, politically engaged artist who looked beyond his immediate community for his subjects,” said Jessica Todd Smith, Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art at The Huntington. “He depicted the struggles of Detroit’s African Americans and others who suffered during the Depression.”

Born in Sioux City Iowa, Merlin studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1929 to 1931 and moved to Detroit in the late 1930s. During that time, he focused on topical subjects, including job strikes, unemployed workers, despoiled farmland, and the African American community there. Like other artists in his circle who are represented in the exhibition, such as Frank Cassara, Basil Hawkins, and Charles Pollock, Merlin addressed the social tensions that challenged the city and the nation during the Great Depression; and, like his friends, he found employment with the WPA.

Merlin’s art reflected his strong social conscience. Family members recall his participation in Detroit hunger marches. In a striking example, Black Legion Widow (1936, linocut) depicts the widow and child of Charles Poole, an unemployed autoworker who was murdered by members of the Black Legion, an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan centered in Michigan and Ohio. And, though not about a specific political event, Merlin’s Little Negro Boy (late 1930s, oil on canvas) is a sensitive portrayal of poverty’s effects on African Americans and a testament to the breadth of the artist’s social engagement.

In Detroit, Merlin married and had a son. Later, he entered the Army to serve in World War II and was stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., and then at Fort Meade, Md. While enlisted, he painted small watercolors of army life and Southern sharecropper shacks. After the war, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Merlin found employment as a commercial artist.

Though his career was cut short by an untimely death from cancer in 1947, Merlin produced a surprisingly wide-ranging body of work, some of which is housed in the National Gallery of Art and the Library of Congress, which has loaned a print for the exhibition.

“In the end,” said James Glisson, Bradford and Christine Mishler Assistant Curator of American Art, “we’re presenting a wide range of media—from posters to woodcuts, from paintings to sketches for commercial commissions—that begin to tell the story of this under-recognized artist whose work reflects such a tumultuous period of American history.”

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