Despite his seemingly pessimistic outlook, Norman 's art is dedicated to a hope for change.
My World and Yours
State Content Standards
11.6.3 – Discuss the human toll of the Depression, natural disasters, and unwise agricultural practices and their effects on the depopulation of rural regions and on political movements of the left and right.
11.8.1 – Trace the growth of service sector, white collar, and professional sector jobs in business and government.
Irving Norman (1906 – 1989)
Irving Norman was born in Vilna , Poland , then under Russian control, in 1906. At the age of 17 Norman immigrated to the United States , living first in New York and then in Los Angeles . He opened a barbershop in Laguna Beach in order to earn a living. The transforming experience in Norman 's life came in 1938 when he volunteered for service in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was part of the fifteenth International Brigade, one of many brigades organized by the Communist International to defend the Spanish Republic against the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco. Volunteers like Norman and his American compatriots came from all over the world—Great Britain, France, Yugoslavia, Poland, Belgium, Austria and 45 other countries to form a combined force of 40,000.
Norman 's combat experience in a machine gun company was very intense and left an indelible impression of death and destruction. One-third of all American volunteers were left behind, buried in Spanish soil. In a 1983 interview, Norman talked about his motivation in volunteering and his subsequent decision to pursue the expression of this experience through art:
I was active in the left-wing movement, and being dedicated to it, they were organizing. I had to be an example, and when the Communist International called up for volunteers, I volunteered. . . .
It's just that I feel that the experience was so powerful and my realization that this society, the foundation of this society is based on war. So I had to find a way to express that thing, and that's what turned me on to find expression, especially of the violence of war, and I was looking into the history of artists who do it. And I found very few.
After his return from Spain , Norman began to study art. At first he drew only in black and white, progressing from plain pencil to colored pencils. When he had mastered this medium, he turned to watercolor and finally on to oil painting. With a cash award of $750 for a painting, Norman spent most of 1946 in New York , studying at the Art Students League. Later that year he traveled to Mexico to study the murals of Rivera, Siqueiros and especially Orozco (the three great Mexican muralists).
That Norman admired Orozco and his art is understandable, when one looks closely at Orozco's experiences and his ideas as expressed in his well-known murals. Orozco had lived through the Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920), just as Norman had the Spanish Civil War. Orozco wrote about his feelings. “In the world of politics it was the same, war without quarter, struggle for power and wealth, factions and subfactions were past counting, the thirst for vengeance insatiable … Farce, drama, barbarity.” His murals pronounced clearly his idea that the struggles and events of history were part of a continuum in which progress continually is pitted against the forces of greed, power and corruption. Both artists shared similar ideas about war and its effects throughout history, and Norman undoubtedly recognized his own ideas in the work of Orozco.
About My World and Yours, 1954
My World and Yours (And the Gods Created the World in Their Own Image) is a painting over 13 feet tall and almost 5 feet wide. Three main images focus the work: a church at the top, a chopping block in the middle and a room on a raised foundation at the bottom. The church, dominating almost the entire upper panel, is defined by two tall stained glass windows and a large abstracted crucifix. Three pinnacles crown the church, with the middle pinnacle rising through the center of a large cogwheel. A large gold coin on each side of the cogwheel appears to turn the wheel. To the sides of the church are abstracted images of factories belching smoke and inhabited by figures severely compressed within the factory spaces.
The image of a large chopping block overlaps in the center of two of the three panels. Embedded in the chopping block are a meat cleaver and an axe, both of which are suspended from appendages of the church. Two human figures are literally stretched across the top of the chopping block, one from each side of the painting.
The lowest part of the painting presents a room on a raised foundation. Below the foundation is a “river,” which contains dead, bloated bodies. In the raised room is a table with seated men, smoke issuing upwards from ashtrays. At the front of the room are two, brightly colored columns, reminiscent of Native American totem poles. Human-like figures are bound and constricted within open spaces of the pole. Beneath the chopping block and to the sides of the “boardroom” Norman depicts the diversions of the masses: listening to music, probably jazz (notice the trumpets), watching a fight in a crowded theater, watching a movie (again in a very crowded theater), and looking at a large, abstract painting on an easel.
Uniting all three main images is the curving shape of a double helix, the structure of DNA, discovered in 1953. The double helix connects the boardroom with the chopping block with the church. Figures fill the double helix, compressed and distorted by the shape in which they are confined. The figures appear to be sucked up within the helix, like in a vacuum tube. Most have closed eyes as if in a trance, although a few have open eyes that show anxiety.
The painting is composed of three stacked panels, the lowest being a long, thin panel, which shows a canon in the middle. The canon appears to have just exploded, perhaps blasting out the images depicted above. Although stacked vertically, the fact that the painting is composed of three panels brings to mind medieval triptychs, which were painted altarpieces.
Looking closely and repeatedly at My World and Yours , the viewer can discern echoes of Norman 's major concerns: big business (the industrial complex), its greed for money and its disregard of human life, the mindlessness of the masses, which provide the fuel for big business, and the dehumanization of modern city life.
Responses to the Depression and Postwar Prosperity
During the Depression, some people were interested in exposing the problems of unemployment and homelessness and exploring possible solutions. By 1933 one of every four people was out of work. In some cities, it was even worse: 30% unemployment in Buffalo , 50% in Chicago and Cleveland, and a whopping 80% in Toledo . At the same time the wealthy were often able to ride out the bad times with limited losses. Some industrialists even benefited from the Depression. J. Paul Getty, for example, became one of the richest men in the world by buying up oil companies at bargain prices during the 1930s.
Angry about these injustices, some people spoke out. Many of these were artists and writers whose works brought about social awareness and empathy. The play Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets emphasized the struggle of labor against exploitative factory owners and glorified the Depression era workers. John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos wrote about the struggles of the individual in society and tried to inspire their readers to bring about social change.
After World War II, there was rapid corporate growth. Big business became even bigger. IBM , for example, increased its sales from $119.4 million in 1946 to $1.7 billion in 1961. General Motors increased its assets from $1.5 billion in 1951 to $2.8 billion in 1960. Critics charged big business in this postwar prosperity with destroying the individuality of its workers in favor of conformity to the company. While corporations flourished, many who lived in the cities were very poor. Again, the writers exposed the discrepancy. Author Michael Harrington, for example, shocked Americans in 1962 with his book The Other America , in which he stated that 50 million Americans lived in poverty.
Artist Irving Norman's attitudes about big business and its disregard for human life were forged during the 1930s and strengthened during the 1950s. His My World and Yours (And the Gods Created the World in Their Own Image) was painted in 1954.
Peter N. Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – Americans in the Spanish Civil War. Stanford , CA : Stanford University Press, 1995.
Patricia Junker, The Measure of All things: Paintings by Irving Norman . San Francisco, CA : Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco , 1996.
Scott Shields. “My World and Yours : A New Acquisition by Irving Norman,” Crocker Art Museum Art Letter. September/October 2001.