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'Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget' opens at Smithsonian American Art Museum

As early as 1947, Fasanella was exhibited alongside the top social realist painters of the day
As early as 1947, Fasanella was exhibited alongside the top social realist painters of the day
Ralph Fasanella, Modern Times, 1966, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Maurice and Margo Cohen, Birmingham, MI © 1966, Estate of Ralph Fasanella

"Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget" brings together 19 of the artist's most significant large paintings and eight sketches in celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth. It is on view beginning today, May 2 through Aug. 3 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum before traveling to New York City and is organized by Leslie Umberger, curator for folk and self-taught art.

Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997) was a self-taught painter who celebrated the common man and fought for the working class through artworks that tackled complex issues of postwar America. "Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget" positions Fasanella within a lineage of American painters who believed that art can come from everyday life and that it can generate important social change.

The son of Italian immigrants, Fasanella was born in the Bronx and grew up in the working- class neighborhoods of New York City. He labored with his father on his ice-delivery route, later working in the garment industry, as a truck driver, gas station owner and union organizer. His parents ingrained in him empathy and respect for the common man and taught him the value of hard work and of fighting for one's rights, lessons that would later resonate in his works. Fasanella took up painting in 1945 and was able to devote himself to it full-time in the 1970s, a period when his art became more widely recognized.

A tireless advocate for workers' rights, Fasanella viewed painting as an extension of his union activity and created artworks as memorial documents, teaching tools and rallying cries for his community. These paintings, often large in scale and laden with symbolic imagery, deal with themes of struggle, endurance, social justice, family and community. He felt strongly about the need to remember the sacrifices of previous generations, inscribing the phrase "Lest We Forget" on several of his paintings.

As early as 1947, Fasanella was exhibited alongside the top social realist painters of the day, including Philip Evergood and Ben Shahn. His works hung in both galleries and union halls and effectively bridged a divide between socially aware, self-taught artists and their trained counterparts.

Among the 27 artworks on display are two major paintings from the museum's permanent collection. "Iceman Crucified #4" (1958) is a tribute to Fasanella's father and a recent gift to the museum from the artist's estate. In "Modern Times" (1966), the artist champions humanistic values in an increasingly technological modern world.The display marks the first time both paintings will be on public view at the museum.

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