Hugo Ballin: The Jewish muralist of Los Angeles

If you’ve ever attended services in the historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple, chances are you’ve been awestruck by the elaborate mural that wraps around the Magnin Sanctuary.
October 1, 2014

If you’ve ever attended services in the historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple, chances are you’ve been awestruck by the elaborate mural that wraps around the Magnin Sanctuary. Beginning with Genesis and ending in 1929, when the mural was commissioned, it tells the epic story of the Jewish people over the course of thousands of years.

The artist was painter, filmmaker and muralist Hugo Ballin, a silent-film producer who created some of Los Angeles’ most striking civic murals. The UCLA Center for Jewish Studies’ Mapping Jewish L.A. project has added to its website a new exhibition, “Hugo Ballin’s Los Angeles,” which celebrates his life and artistic career and includes essays drawn from archival materials from the Hugo Ballin papers and immersive photographs to offer a 360-degree panoramic view of his greatest works.

Born in New York City in 1879 to German- Jewish immigrants, Ballin studied at the Art Students League of New York. His first notable accomplishment was the creation of 26 murals for the interior of the newly built Wisconsin State Capitol. He went on to become an art director and production designer for Samuel Goldwyn, founded his own silent-film production company, and married film actress Mabel Croft Ballin. 

“The story of his life echoes some tropes that occurred particularly with the Hollywood Jewish community,” said Caroline Luce, chief curator for Mapping Jewish L.A. “He was one of a cohort of young men eager to make their way in the American scene, who came to Los Angeles thinking that it provided virgin territory upon which to realize their grandiose visions of themselves,” Luce said. “While Jews in New York and New England had to face entrenched social and artistic hierarchies, L.A. seemed to promise a chance to achieve fame, fortune and positions within the elite circles of power.”

As talking pictures began to emerge, Ballin’s production company folded in 1925. He quit the film industry to focus on his first career — painting — and soon became recognized among the foremost muralists in Southern California. His large-scale works include “The March of Science Through the Ages” at Griffith Observatory, “The Apotheosis of Power” at Southern California Edison and “The Four Freedoms” at Burbank City Hall. 

Ballin trained in the Beaux-Arts movement of European-educated artists reinterpreting classical styles and motifs. As the United States rapidly expanded and developed, the naked landscape offered a canvas for these artists to demonstrate their abilities. His painting style matched the neoclassical architecture of the Wisconsin State Capitol: “giant murals with beautiful virginal women, representing virtues of the state,” Luce said. Just 20 at the turn of the century, Ballin was seen as a young prodigy.

But changing tastes would leave Ballin behind. “He was coming up against a rising cadre of artists for whom that neoclassical style was just an insufficiently interesting, provocative, innovative form,” Luce said. “These guys were experimenting with much more avant-garde, modernist styles in much more public spaces.”

Beginning in the 1920s, “the big three” Mexican muralists — Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros — conveyed social and political messages on public buildings that would serve as inspiration for the Chicano art movement. These muralists sought to elevate the masses, and their work made the Beaux-Arts style seem old-fashioned.

The irony is that because Ballin’s work was more conservative, his murals weren’t whitewashed, and therefore they endure today. Siqueiros’ 1932 masterpiece “Tropical America” on Olvera Street, an allegorical depiction of the struggle against imperialism, angered the downtown business and political establishment, and within a year of its unveiling it was painted over.

The use of new technologies allows viewers to see Ballin’s murals assembled as a comprehensive body of work. It also reveals the subtle changes in the evolution of his painting style, from his earliest work in New York in the 1910s to his final commissions in Los Angeles in the 1950s. Ballin never discussed it, but the realism of the Mexican muralists may have influenced his later work. For example, an early mural represents justice as a woman in flowing robes. Later, he depicts justice as a courtroom scene.

“While Ballin never lost his affinity for painting beautiful women — many of whom looked a lot like his wife — you can see him adopting some of these more realistic scenes and representing real characters from Los Angeles’ history and from the history of science, as in the case of the Griffith Observatory, in his murals,” Luce said.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple has long been associated with the Jewish filmmakers in Hollywood. Like a movie theater, the sanctuary lacks a center aisle — since those are the best seats in the house. It was therefore fitting that Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin would choose a film producer to paint the murals for the sanctuary in 1929, and that the Warner brothers commissioned the work. 

As USC art historian MacKenzie Stevens points out in her description of the Jewish scholars Rashi and Maimonides in the mural, the lighting on Rashi’s face provides a clear example of the influence of film. An unseen light source casts a large shadow that magnifies his greatness. The central figures draw the viewer’s attention to the foreground, while thematic elements dominate the background — all lessons Ballin learned from his career as a filmmaker.

“The murals themselves almost mimic a film strip,” Luce said. “It’s one long montage of Jewish history that wraps around the sanctuary and has a celluloid quality to it.”

The Mapping Jewish L.A. project kicked off in 2011 with a layered map of the Jewish cultural, social, economic and architectural history of Boyle Heights. Upcoming projects include an exhibition on anti-Nazi activism and a digital anthology of locally published Yiddish books, poetry and journalism.

“We really wanted to enhance the documentation of the history of Jews living in and contributing to the growth of L.A. as a global metropolis,” said Todd Presner, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

The website’s panoramic photos were taken by David Wu, who also designed all the graphical interfaces for the website. “Viewing the physical murals in person was a great experience,” Wu said. “Looking at pictures in a book or on a computer really pales in comparison. I really hope that the exhibit encourages people to visit these spaces, as it is an experience that cannot be replicated through the website, even with the 360-degree panoramas.”

You can see “Hugo Ballin’s Los Angeles” by going to www.mappingjewishla.org.

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