Research at the Ransom Center:
England's Rivera: The Lost Murals of John Hastings
By Alison McClean
Little was known about the artistic career of John Hastings—best remembered for his work as an assistant to the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in San Francisco and Detroit in the 1930s—until a study of the small collection of his papers at the Harry Ransom Center by Alison McClean yielded some tantalizing clues.
Shortly after the death of John Hastings in 1991, the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell Green, London, celebrated the restoration of his most famous mural, The Worker of the Future Upsetting the Economic Chaos of the Present. Painted in 1935, this fresco was believed to be one of only two surviving murals by Hastings, who had been apprentice to Diego Rivera in San Francisco in 1931 and who later worked as a paid assistant on Rivera's Detroit Industry cycle at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.
As well as confirming details of Hastings's work with Rivera, the Ransom Center's collection also revealed a number of hitherto unknown murals and other works executed by Hastings in both the United States and the U.K. during the 1930s, several of which have been found to have survived. The first of these, a fresco for the home of the Hollywood screenwriter Gouverneur Morris, painted in 1931, is now in the custodianship of the Monterey Museum of Art. Along with being Hastings's first solo mural commission, this fresco was instrumental in securing Hastings a position as Rivera's paid assistant on Detroit Industry. Hastings sent photos of the Morris mural to Rivera, whose response is detailed in a letter from fellow assistant Clifford Wight to Hastings's wife Cristina:
"Rivera is far more enthusiastic about Jack's fresco than you can possibly imagine ... He simply raved about it to me."
Another mural in the U.K., dating from 1936, has been located in a private house in Berkshire. Welcome to Pearl Binder (the composition bears a striking resemblance to Frida Kahlo's Self-Portrait on the Borderline), was painted to commemorate the return of writer and printmaker Pearl Binder to the U.K. from the USSR. Featuring a small portrait of Stalin, this mural, along with The Worker of the Future, demonstrates the extent of Rivera's political, as well as artistic, influence on Hastings's work.
Like his great mentor Rivera, Hastings also supplemented his mural work by painting portraits, his most notable subject being the notorious socialite, the Marchesa Luisa Casati. The Marchesa was Hastings's mother-in-law by his first marriage to Cristina Casati. Painted in London in 1934, Hastings's portrait of the Marchesa is probably the last of a woman who had posed for some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, including Augustus John, Jacob Epstein, and Man Ray. Bought first by the Marchesa's friend, the eccentric Evan Morgan, Lord Tredegar, the portrait has now been traced to the Fischer Kunsthandel Gallery in Berlin, much to the delight of Hastings's three daughters, who had believed the portrait lost.
Sadly, a number of Hastings's other works remain lost or are believed destroyed. These include a series of three aluminum panels, The Dental Profession Carries Its Health Lesson to the Far Corners, executed for the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago in 1933; a fresco, The History of Bootlegging for a private house in Glencoe, Illinois; and a portrait of the adventurer and Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, William Montgomery McGovern.
Alison McClean is a U.K.-based art historian and writer, specializing in early twentieth-century political prints and murals. She was awarded an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship at the Ransom Center for her research on John Hastings in 2010–2011. She is currently working on a book Painting the Town Red: The Visual Arts and the Left in Britain in the 1930s.