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Rico Lebrun's Genesis

Rico Lebrun's Genesis

Rico Lebrun's Genesis
Although Lebrun did not offer a specific reason for selecting the theme of Genesis, the subject was consistent with the religious content of his previous work. Lebrun's first concept for the wall was to portray, "the evolution of form," and he spoke at the time of "half-borrowing and half-inventing organic fragments, skulls, sections of backbones, sections of ribcages, roots of plants, geological formations...to weld some kind of design which would put across the becoming of form." The story of Creation lent itself to this goal while also accommodating the artist's personal philosophy that understood reality as a complex interweaving of ideas, an inextricable blending of opposites, where good and evil existed side by side. With its epic events and universal themes, the story of Genesis provided the narrative framework for what was to be a highly personal aesthetic and political At the same time, Lebrun was quick to acknowledge his sources, whether in the work of other artists, in nature, or in contemporary events. The compositional structure of the mural, its individual pictorial units integrated into a monumental whole, mirrors a blending of artistic influences--Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Italian Baroque painting, Picasso's Guernica, among others--with the artist's keen observation of nature and impassioned response to a world that included Hitler's death camps and Hiroshima.

Throughout his life, and irrespective of prevailing taste, Lebrun believed in art that was "engaged," as having a responsibility to deal with the existential theme of the human predicament, to address, and even redress, the evils of the modern world. Reflecting the mid-century angst provoked by war and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, he remarked: "What I have to say, I say with Sartre, Kafka, Camus...in the midst of disaster, act as if you could mend that disaster every day." A profoundly humanist painter, Lebrun was devoted to the figure, believing it to be the vehicle through which subjects of universal significance could best be addressed. In 1960, however, Lebrun's adherence to figurative tradition was at odds with the "advanced" art of the day and particularly Abstract Expressionism, the style that dominated postwar painting in this country. Although Lebrun shared with the Abstract Expressionists a predilection for grand scale and the "heroic," painterly gesture, he resolutely stopped short of non-objectivity and rejected the introspection and intensely personal, self-expressive nature of their work. In the words of art historian Peter Selz, "by and large, he stands as a controversial and solitary figure, and the Genesis mural, a religious painting created during a non-religious age, remains a unique act."


Rico Lebrun was born on December 10th, 1900 in Naples, Italy. His formal art education consisted of attending technical school and art classes at night, studying the Old Masters in museums, and assisting fresco painters. He was profoundly influenced by both Italian and Spanish art, Naples having been ruled by Spain almost continuously from the mid-16th to the late 18th century. His admiration for fresco tradition, his preference for ambitious subjects addressed on a grand scale, and the baroque sweep of his style all reflect the heritage of Italian art; his high seriousness of purpose, as well as a certain preoccupation with tragedy and death, can be attributed to the influence of Spain. Alongside the always-powerful influence of Michelangelo, he maintained a lifelong affinity for Goya and Picasso.

Lebrun immigrated to the United States in 1924 to design stained glass in Springfield, Illinois. The next year the artist settled in New York, where he built a successful commercial art practice as a fashion illustrator and advertising artist. By 1930, Lebrun was prosperous, but dissatisfied. He abandoned his business and entered the field of fine arts. After a move to Southern California in 1938, Lebrun taught at the Chouinard Art Institute and then at the Disney Studios, working with animators on the figure of Bambi for the forthcoming feature film. In 1935 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his first mural project; in 1942, he exhibited in "Americans 1942" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His work appeared in group exhibitions at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum. In 1947, Lebrun became master instructor at the new Jepson Art Institute in Los Angeles. He was a charismatic and popular teacher, frequently lecturing to standing room only crowds. From 1947 to 1950, his style becoming increasingly abstract and gestural, Lebrun also worked on his ambitious Crucifixion cycle, now in the Syracuse University collection. By the end of the decade Lebrun had garnered a considerable reputation on the West Coast, both as an artist and as a teacher.

In 1952, the artist left Southern California for Mexico, where he taught at the Institute of San Miguel de Allende. After briefly experimenting with formal abstraction there, Lebrun returned to Los Angeles in 1954 and resumed his prior interest in the human figure, beginning a series of drawings and paintings to memorialize the victims of the Holocaust. In 1958, Lebrun taught at Yale and the next year served as an artist in residence in Rome. When he returned to Southern California in 1960, he began working on the Genesis mural at Pomona College. Lebrun then worked on a smaller scale after the mural's dedication in 1961, making drawings and prints for Dante's Inferno. Becoming ill with cancer in 1963, Rico Lebrun died on May 9th the following year at his home in Malibu.

Revisiting Genesis
by Marjorie L. Harth

Approaching Frary Hall, the first-time visitor would never expect that behind those spare, unadorned, perfectly proportioned walls are two extraordinary mural paintings: José Clemente Orozco's Prometheus, which dominates the dining hall from its position on the north wall, and Rico Lebrun's Genesis, painted above the entrance loggia on the building's west side. Prometheus, 1930, was Orozco's first mural in North America and can be said to mark the beginning of the Mexican mural movement in this country. Genesis, 1960, is one of the last works, and the only surviving mural, by Lebrun.

That Pomona College should own major paintings by these two artists, and that it should have commissioned them when it did, reflects the courage and farsightedness that mark enlightened patronage. Both Orozco and Lebrun were controversial artists in their time, and in 1960, as in 1930, mural paintings in Southern California were expected to be more agreeably decorative than fervently moralizing. Although 30 years apart in origin, the two murals are interrelated: it was Lebrun's longstanding admiration for Orozco that led him to express interest in working at Frary Hall and, ultimately, to do so almost literally in the shadow of Prometheus.

Although much has been written about Orozco and Prometheus, Lebrun and Genesis are less well known and understood. In an effort to bring long overdue attention to one of the College's artistic treasures, Montgomery Gallery is exhibiting a number of Lebrun's preparatory drawings for the mural, along with related works on paper and bronze sculptures, from January 25 to March 29, 1998. The exhibition provides the first opportunity for the Gallery's public to view the three important preparatory works received last year from David Lebrun, the artist's son, and to celebrate his promise to donate over time the remaining drawings in his collection.

The story of Rico Lebrun and Pomona College began in November 1956, when the artist visited the campus in connection with a one-man exhibition organized by art historian Peter Selz in Rembrandt Hall. Selz, who subsequently served as curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and founding director of the University Art Museum at UC Berkeley, was chair of Pomona's Art Department and director of its departmental gallery. It was during this visit that Lebrun indicated his interest in working in Frary Hall. Excited at the prospect, Selz wrote to President E. Wilson Lyon, "I am especially aware that the continuity of two great works by leading artists of two generations will be in keeping with the great tradition of Western art." Supported in his effort by painters James Grant and Frederick Hammersley, both on the Pomona faculty and former students of Lebrun's, Selz was also responsible for persuading art patrons Donald and Elizabeth Winston to sponsor the mural as a gift to the College. Lyon forwarded the request to the Board, whose members initially requested preparatory sketches for approval. They were dissuaded by Lebrun, Donald Winston, and Selz; "...[we] took it as a matter of artistic--indeed academic--freedom that an artist of established stature should be evaluated on the record of his previous achievements or, like a candidate for a professorship, be judged by his own peers." Shortly thereafter, Lebrun informed the College that he intended to derive his subject from the Book of Genesis, and that the work would "tend more toward the serious and tragic than toward the decorative and superficial." He was to remain true to his word. In October 1958, Lyon informed Lebrun that the Board had agreed unanimously to commission the mural. Lebrun replied, "I can only say that having to be in the same area with Clemente Orozco makes me wish to honor him with my highest possible tribute."

Born and raised in Naples, Lebrun had grown up under the influence of both Italian and Spanish art, Naples having been ruled by Spain almost continuously from the mid-16th to the late-18th centuries. His admiration for fresco tradition, his preference for ambitious subjects addressed on a grand scale, and the baroque sweep of his style all reflect the heritage of Italian art; his high seriousness of purpose, as well as a certain preoccupation with tragedy and death, can be attributed to the influence of Spain. Alongside the always-powerful influence of Michelangelo, he maintained a lifelong affinity for Goya and Picasso. Lebrun emigrated to the United States in 1924, and in 1930 moved to California, where he lived in Santa Barbara, taught at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, and at one time worked with Disney animators on the figure of Bambi for their forthcoming feature film. Having made the transition from commercial to fine art, his work began to attract national attention in the early 1940s, and he showed his figure paintings in prominent museums and galleries in New York and Los Angeles. He began teaching at Jepson Art Institute in L.A. in 1947; by the end of that decade, his style had become increasingly abstract and gestural, and he had garnered a considerable reputation on this coast, both as an artist and as a teacher.

At the time of the Pomona commission, Lebrun was a visiting professor at Yale and had been awarded a residency at the American Academy in Rome. The preparatory work for Genesis was undertaken there, in the city of Michelangelo's famed Sistine Chapel, the alter wall of which, Lebrun noted, was only slightly larger than that at Frary Hall. Working at such a distance from the site had its hazards. After seeing a photograph of a workman in front of the wall, for example, Lebrun was obliged to rethink the scale of his work. As William Ptaszynski, who, along with James Pinto, assisted Lebrun, wrote to Selz, "He had no wish to overpower and diminish the spectator, rather the reverse was desirable, to evoke sensations of increased stature." Lebrun also had to contend with the fact that the location of the wall meant that his mural would be viewed from three different levels: from the ground upon entering the loggia, from top of the steps leading to the dining hall, and from the small balcony in the facing wall. The artist wrote, "All the figures have this multi-viewpoint. A single viewpoint on any figure wouldn't do. The figures all have a barrel-like shape to repeat the tremendously curved shape of the arches. If they didn't do this, they would look too small, like a pebble in a great box or like whistling a great song instead of orchestrating it." By August 1960, Lebrun had completed preparatory work in Rome, and a photograph of the preliminary design was presented to President Lyon.

Lebrun began work in Claremont in July 1960. Rather than enlarging, tracing, and then transferring the completed cartoons to the wall as is customary, Lebrun and his assistants created a collage of the drawings, taping them to the wall in sections and then, for a period of six weeks, rearranging and redrawing, enlarging and reducing the many figures. In November, Lebrun wrote to a friend, "The wall looks all right to me; I have revised, ripped apart, reassembled it a dozen times and fortunately every time for a telling step ahead." Later, charcoal tracings were made and the figures painted, although the collage technique continued to be used to test new ideas. Many of the preparatory works in the exhibition are, in fact, collages. As Ptaszynski later wrote to Selz, "Therefore, completion of sketches, working on the wall, and the process of working were interrelated and simultaneous, perhaps to an unprecedented degree for a work so large..."

Lebrun's letters from this period indicate both the challenges of the project and the pleasure he took in it. "This is a far more magnificently proportioned hunk of masonry than I had remembered, now looking immense and now just tame, nice, and manageable," he wrote. "The main trap to watch for was scale, neither too minute...nor too mammoth. Of course, the scale of each unit is such that when I paint up there I could as well be painting the map of Siberia for all I really see in relation to the rest. Three weeks ago I painted a magnificently cross-eyed head, two and a half feet square, one eye practically overlapping the other when I believed them to be well apart and minding their own business. But, in fact, apart from some comical flops of this kind, I have had and am having a marvelous time."

Lebrun's mural was painted on an independent "curtain" wall, constructed in front of the structural wall of Frary Hall in order to allow air to circulate and to prevent cracking in the event of an earthquake. The false wall consisted of a screen of wire mesh supported on metal channels and coated with gypsum plaster and Keene's cement, the latter providing an absorbent surface for the painting. The medium employed was vinyl acetate resin, a durable plastic used widely in industry. By diluting this to the consistency of an ink wash, the artist was able to make later changes by removing the medium with acetone and revealing the white of the wall.

In Genesis, Lebrun restricted himself to a monochromatic palette, producing a work of dramatic starkness that departs significantly from mural tradition. In November 1960, he commented, "It looks very black and white, burnt black, soil black. I have kept up a broom-sweep way of handling that gives it a look of drawing, not 'painted in,' which I shall leave as is." Both Lebrun's palette and the graphic quality of his painting bear importantly on the impact of Genesis. Although the artist never recorded his reasons for using only black pigments on the white wall, several possibilities suggest themselves, including a desire to set his work apart from the intensely colorful Prometheus just inside the building. Somber monochrome suited the tragic themes he intended for Pomona's wall, and he had used it before. Ten years earlier, he had completed a Crucifixion Cycle of more than 200 paintings and drawings in black and white because he had intended to film the central triptych and wanted the greatest possible value contrasts; he had also agreed to the filming of Genesis by Pomona student John Fuegi '61. Lebrun also acknowledged the influence of Picasso's Guernica, 1937, the extraordinary, widely known black-and-white canvas depicting the bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Like Genesis a passionate protest against the atrocities of war, Picasso's work clearly demonstrated the visual impact of a monochromatic palette at monumental scale.

For Lebrun to have worked in black and white is also consistent with the strongly graphic tendencies of his art. "Lebrun is always a draftsman," one scholar has written. "His drawing is line, but it is also wash. Because he reaches for a third dimension with tone, his drawing is continuous with his painting... a line comes closer to reality than paint, for forms and colors are relative, but a line does not resemble the form of hand or limb, it is, or can be, the form or shape."

Despite the importance Lebrun attached to drawing, however, the resulting works never appear labored but, rather, show us the artist's process at its most immediate, spontaneous, and, at times, chaotic. The intimate relationship in Lebrun's work between drawing and painting, so apparent when one compares the Genesis drawings to the mural, makes clear how crucial this "preparatory" work is to understanding the finished painting.

Lebrun completed Genesis on December 4, 1960, and a dedication ceremony was held the following February. The acclaim was immediate. President Lyon wrote, "I shall never forget the sense of fulfillment you showed and the reverence we all felt the afternoon you completed the mural. The mural has been a spiritual experience for those of us close to it, and over the years its depth will be communicated to those who have the privilege of seeing it. Because of your Genesis, Pomona has something more to say to its students and to the generations ahead." One New York Times critic wrote that, except for the works of Orozco in Guadalajara, there were no frescoes of comparable quality in this hemisphere; another placed the work within the grand tradition of Renaissance mural painting. Artist Leonard Baskin, then on the faculty of Smith College, likened Lebrun to Goya and wrote, "José Clemente can rest in peace. Hallowed ground has not been despoiled...Job, Noah, Eve have been torn from the Bible and have been made to stand witness for the unholy coupling of tenderness and horror which is our age. Only you, Rico, were man and artist enough for the task." Lebrun gave his own assessment in a letter to Donald Winston. Genesis, he wrote, was "the best and most conclusive work I have painted to date...I think both Orozco and I gave Pomona two formal statements in the grand tradition, perfectly suited to the place and carrying a message necessary to the audience which frequents that place."

This leaves us to examine Genesis itself, what Lebrun intended it to say to "the audience which frequents" Frary Hall, and to consider whether its "unholy coupling of tenderness and horror" speaks to the current generation of Pomona students as eloquently as the artist wished and as Wilson Lyon believed it would.

Although Lebrun did not offer a specific reason for selecting the theme of Genesis, the subject, at once tragic and redemptive, was consistent with the religious content of his previous work. Lebrun's first concept for the wall was to portray, in his words, "the evolution of form, of becoming," and he spoke at the time of "half-borrowing and half-inventing organic fragments, skulls, sections of backbones, sections of ribcages, roots of plants, geological formations...to weld some kind of design which would put across the becoming of form." The story of Creation-the original "becoming" of Christian doctrine-lent itself to this goal while also accommodating the artist's personal philosophy that regarded reality as a complex interweaving of ideas, an inextricable blending of opposites, where good and evil coexisted side by side. With its epic events and universal themes, the story of Genesis thus provided the narrative framework for what was to be a highly personal aesthetic and political statement. At the same time, Lebrun was quick to acknowledge his sources, whether in the work of other artists, in nature, or in contemporary events. The compositional structure of the mural, its individual pictorial units integrated into a monumental whole, mirrors a blending of artistic influences-Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Italian Baroque painting, Picasso's Guernica, among others with the artist's keen observation of nature and impassioned response to a world that included Hitler's death camps and Hiroshima. An enormously ambitious undertaking, Genesis is, in concept and realization, not only wholly characteristic of the artist but also a brilliant summary of a lifetime's work.

Harth is Director of Montgomery Gallery and Professor of Art and Art History at Pomona College


In the center of Genesis stands the towering figure of Noah, the compositional anchor around which all else revolves. Lebrun referred to Noah as a "rock under cascades of surf...a fortress, a shelter, a protective paternal figure." The Flood now over, he embraces a child in his ragged, yet monumental, cloak. His massive head, derived from studies of seaweed and dried yucca plants, is bent and his body offered as shelter for mankind. The ribs of the battered Ark surround Noah just as Noah himself encloses the child, and the lines of the child's wrappings in turn echo the forms of the exposed ribs.

Although Noah catches the eye first, it is the joined figures of Adam and Eve, their backs to us as they depart Paradise, that lead us into the mural. The two face each other, their heads together--Lebrun imagined an Adam and Eve intertwined by God, wanting to "make the figure itself change into itself."

Directly above Adam and Eve, as if emerging from their heads, are their children, Cain and Abel, their bodies molded into a single, heavy figure. The decision to meld the two brothers into one form reflects Lebrun's belief that Cain and Abel represent two different aspects of a single character and his rejection of facile contrasts of good and evil. "The notion of creating the victim and the murderer and of separating moral values is detestable to me," he said, "Too easily one can connect the guilt with Cain and the virtue with Abel...I found I wanted to unite the two."

Above Cain and Abel, the rounded lunette (the crescent shaped area at the juncture of wall and ceiling) depicts Sodom and Gomorrah; this is the only part of Lebrun's composition not visually confined by the boundary between the lunette and main wall. Three bodies, arranged like the spokes of a wheel, appear to burst from the space as they plummet downward, their fall symbolic of judgment and retribution. Lebrun's source for these mutilated figures was recently published photographs of a burial pit at Buchenwald, the German concentration camp. The lunette's shape reminded Lebrun of this horrific "funnel-like pit," and he captures here the terrible piling up of bodies, limbs overlapping, individual figures no longer distinguishable.

The figure of Job in the opposite lunette, the only character not drawn from the book of Genesis, has similarly somber origins. Lebrun called him the "Hiroshima Job" and added, "With the Job...I wanted to have something more pertinent to what we have gone through recently...I want him rebellious, I want him looking up and dumbly asking 'why is this happening to me?'" Traditionally shown in a bent and passive posture suggesting resignation, this Job is an anguished crippled figure that reaches upward in despair. In stark contrast to Noah, who symbolizes the renewal of life and hope, Job represents the horrors to which humanity is subjected.

Finally, there are the figures of the Flood, rejected by God, struggling in vain against the rising waters, climbing over one another in a desperate attempt to cling to the Ark. Lebrun explained that these forms were based on memories of the Santa Ynez river in Mexico in flood: "We kept finding in ravines leftovers of this flood, and I remember a huge assembly of broken trees that were twisted and weathered...the water had a terrific power...strong tree trunks had been bent by the force...They had resisted a great deal of angular breaking...[and were] almost like a backbone. Scooped out roots...look[ed] like pelvis shapes." At the bottom of the pillar of bodies, behind a great floating figure, a woman's body assumes a hard shape like that of rock ledges. The topmost figure grasps the Ark, his sinews and muscles defining the taut curve of a backbone derived from a fragment of a whale's backbone. Lebrun's interest in the blending and transfiguration of forms finds full expression in these three monumental figures that seem to evolve from one another. Together, they represent the onset of the cataclysm of which Noah is the triumphant conclusion, thus bringing us full circle.

Viewing the preparatory and related works for Rico Lebrun's Genesis mural at Pomona College offers an opportunity to witness an artist's creative process. They include rough sketches that reflect Lebrun's first ideas for the wall, drawings and collages that relate to the finished composition, and others that indicate alternative forms, designs, and iconography the artist contemplated. Taken together, the works demonstrate the development of an artist's vision and the creation of the highly complex philosophical and aesthetic statement that is Genesis.

Rico Lebrun's first visited Pomona College in November, 1956. Captivated by José Clemente Orozco's great Prometheus fresco in Frary Hall, he expressed interest in working on campus and, through the efforts of Pomona art historian Peter Selz, was ultimately commissioned to paint a mural at the entrance to Frary Hall. Selz later persuaded Los Angeles art patrons Donald and Elizabeth Winston to sponsor the work as a gift to the College.

The preparatory work for Genesis was undertaken in Rome, where Lebrun was a resident at the American Academy; work in Claremont began in July, 1960. Lebrun and his assistants first created a collage of the preparatory drawings, taping them to the wall, then rearranging and redrawing, enlarging and reducing the many figures; later, charcoal tracings were made and the figures painted.

In 1956, Rico Lebrun visited the campus for a one-man exhibition of his work organized by Peter Selz, departmental gallery director and chair of Pomona's art department. It was during this visit that Lebrun mentioned that he would like to paint a mural in Frary Hall close to Orozco's masterpiece. Eventually, after Selz persuaded art patrons Donald and Elizabeth Winston to sponsor the work as a gift to the college, Lebrun received a commission for the mural. He began preliminary work during his residency at the American Academy in Rome in 1959. Then, in July of 1960, Lebrun arrived at Pomona and began to paint.

As he thought about and worked on the mural, the issues of scale and color occupied Lebrun most. "This is a far more magnificently proportioned hunk of masonry than I had remembered," he wrote to a friend, describing his progress, "now looking immense and now just tame, nice and manageable. The main trap to watch out for was scale, neither too minute, else the forms would rattle, nor too mammoth, else it would choke." Lebrun wanted to evoke feelings of increased stature with his Genesis, not overpower and diminish the spectator. The artist also had to contend with the fact that the mural would be viewed from three different levels: from the ground upon entering the loggia (an open-air, covered gallery), from the top of the steps leading to the dining hall, and from the small balcony in the facing wall. He wrote: "All the figures have this multi-viewpoint. A single viewpoint on any figure wouldn't go. The figures all have a barrel-like shape to repeat the tremendously curved shape of the arches. If I didn't do this, they would look too small, like a pebble in a great box or like whistling a song instead of orchestrating it."

Color, or the lack of color, was also important. "The wall...has been done in black and white," he wrote, "There is nothing else around but grey travertine and whitewashed huge supporting walls. The range from velvet, dense black thru a sort of grey the rockbass have in their scales; silver, sinister sort of; and some cream white and chill white really crash around like the first boomy crack of a storm. Feels good to be doing it grand and melancholy and visceral, vociferous as I am." This monochromatic range produced a work of dramatic starkness that departs significantly from mural tradition. Although Lebrun never recorded his reasons for using only black pigments on the white wall, several possibilities suggest themselves, including a desire to set his work apart from the intensely colorful Prometheus just inside the building and the fact that somber monochrome suited the mural's tragic themes. Lebrun also acknowledged the influence of Picasso's Guernica, 1937, the extraordinary black and white canvas depicting the bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. In Guernica, like Genesis a passionate protest against the atrocities of war, Picasso clearly demonstrated the visual impact of a monochromatic palette at monumental scale.

The artist finished and signed Genesis on December 4, 1960, and a dedication was held the following February. The acclaim was immediate. One New York Times critic wrote that, except for the works of Orozco in Guadalajara, there were no frescoes of comparable quality in this hemisphere; another placed the work within the grand tradition of Renaissance mural painting. Lebrun gave his own assessment in a letter to Donald Winston. Genesis, he wrote, was "the best and most conclusive work I have painted to date...I think that Orozco and I gave Pomona two formal statements in the grand tradition, perfectly suited to the place and carrying a message necessary to the audience which frequents that place."