Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it” –Bertolt Brecht
A crowd gathered when Alton Tobey set up his easel on the Old State House lawn. Insurance company workers on their lunch break watched the painter and his three colleagues as they worked on large posters depicting the fight against fascism in Spain.
It was October 11, 1938, and Tobey’s talents were focused on the state of the world, dominated by the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco in Spain. Tobey had been recruited for the mural painting by Jerome Stavola, an art instructor at the Hartford Federal College. Along with Bob Beebe and Joseph Scarozzo, they were preparing for a major event at Bushnell Memorial Hall to raise funds for the relief ship which would soon leave New York harbor for the beleaguered population of Spain.
After a decade of dictatorship, Spanish workers and peasants had, in 1931, elected a progressive Republican government that instituted land reform and the eight-hour day. In response, the country’s right-wing gathered allies within the Army and the Catholic Church and gained critical backing from the fascist leaders of Germany and Italy. Then in 1936, army units revolted against the Republic. Workers were forced to defend their government, often with ill-equipped militias raised within factories. Support for the Republic came from progressives and humanitarians around the world, but the United States refused to defend the democratically elected government of Spain.
Until he was called on to publicize the Bushnell fund raiser, Alton Tobey had been busy completing a mural at the Hartford Public Library’s Campfield Branch in the city’s south end. For his subjects, the young artist used the literature of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Characters from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court mingled with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Simon Legree and Eliza all inhabited the library’s facade. These novels, written by two authors who called Hartford home, provided sharp commentary on the social injustices of their time.
Now Tobey used his talent to protest injustice in Spain, using art to help shape the debate over the question of defending the Spanish Republic. He had likely been influenced by Guernica, the painting that depicts the 1937 destruction of a Basque town by German warplanes. Guernica was firebombed by Hitler’s Condor Legion and 1000 civilians died, many of them by machine gun fire from the air as they fled. That same year Pablo Picasso turned this war crime into his masterpiece of outrage and pain.
As the crowd at the Old State House grew, so did the dissatisfaction by some of the onlookers over the political content of the murals. Some thought it was communistic; others thought it might be pro-Nazi. Tobey was putting the finishing touches on the scene of a child in a German military uniform when Officer Dooley, who had been directing traffic on Main Street, walked over to the painter to see what the commotion was all about. Instead of allowing the artists to finish, or at least explain what they were doing, Dooley ordered them to stop.
The painting was interrupted that day, but the artists’ work continued. Tobey’s colleague Jerome Stavola was soon named to a statewide committee of Italian-Americans who organized protests against Mussolini’s treatment of Jews in Italy. At Bushnell Hall, hundreds of local supporters dug into their pockets to help buy food and medicine for the relief efforts, while they listened to the Spanish ambassador plead for the fate of his people. The commotion caused by Alton Tobey on the State House lawn helped bring the reality of the Spanish fight for freedom into focus for the people of Hartford.