Edward Biberman and the Painting of the Post Office Mural

By Suzanne W. Zada

This is a re-print from the December 2007 edition of the Beachhead

After working and studying in Paris during the late twenties, Edward Biberman returned to the United States. The European critics had discovered him and it did not take long for the New York art writers to detect his skill and talent. Then he moved to California.
Although he is in major museums, like the Smithsonian and LACMA with several paintings, Biberman was a very, very private artist, strange when you consider his political activism.
Even though Biberman was one of the most important expert in murals, he had painted few of them. This one was completed in 1941 for the post office, installed during the night just before the beginning of the war.
He used a wax and oil mixture to paint this mural. “The wax gives the mural a kind of egg shell gloss, but doesn’t give it a big shine that you get if you work with oil directly,” he said. And then he further remarked that “the technique comes from ancient Egypt,” and “it does give you a beautiful surface.”
He was paid the going price of $20/square foot for his work. Doesn’t it give you a thrill to get the price per square foot?
What does it matter if the work of art is priceless?
Biberman was fascinated by the story of Abbot Kinney, a member of a wealthy tobacco family, and his dream to build another Venice on the West Coast. Kinney studied in Europe and fell in love with Venice, Italy. Since Venice, Italy, is an example of great dreams, a place that attracts me back every year – you have to dream a big dream to build a church of the Santa Maria della Salute on a thousand stakes, for heaven’s sakes.
Speaking about Kinney, Biberman said “The story of a man’s dream and what the dream turned into was so fascinating that I decided that this would be a very interesting sociological study.”
Biberman decided to give back the atmosphere, and of the people, at the time of the creation of Venice on this mural, what Venice really looked like at that stage.
Kinney did pursue that dream. He brought in Italian architects and built canals and Venetian buildings, and then brought in gondoliers from Italy, and then invited Sarah Bernhardt and the finest symphony orchestra of his day for the opening. He was on his way to create a new cultural metropolis.
Then the slimy oil stuff showed up. Yes, Venice, California became an oil town.
The gondoliers went home. They got homesick. Everybody knows that gondoliers and oil don’t mix.
The dream is not completely interrupted, though. Venice shows the beginning of that dreamed artistic metropolis, with more and more writers, architects, artists and art galleries around, a true artistic Renaissance.
Suzanne W. Zada is the representative of the Edward Biberman Estate.

Mural in library           Above: Edward Biberman’s Story of Venice mural in the Venice library, where it belongs; Photoshopped image by: Jim Smith