The Geneva History Museum will celebrate the 103rd birthday of artist Manuel Bromberg at 1 p.m. on Friday, March 6 by videotaping everyone singing “Happy Birthday to Manny” in front of his mural at the Geneva Post Office. Immediately following there will be a birthday card signing at the museum, 113 South Third Street, Geneva.
Bromberg is known locally for his 1940 mural Fish Fry in the Park, inside the Geneva Post Office, commissioned by the Section of Fine Arts and Bromberg’s third Post Office mural. The Section of Fine Arts’ main function was to select high quality art to decorate public buildings in the form of murals; it was not a relief program, but awarded commissions competitively, based on artistic talent.
The Geneva History Museum reached out to Bromberg for his personal story. Bromberg writes, “When I received the Geneva mural contract, I was 23 years old and had just completed studies at Broadmoor Academy (now Colorado Springs Fine Arts) where I had been both art student and teaching assistant for the famous artist, Boardman Robinson. From there I headed out to Ottumwa, Iowa to visit my sister. I ended up renting a small empty dress shop; the store served as my studio with living space upstairs.
I traveled from Ottumwa to Geneva to see the actual post office site. And while I was there I really tried to find something of historical interest or a great event in Geneva to use as a subject for the mural. But as far as I could find, there was no such event to use. And then I happened to be walking through a park (don’t know which one or its name) and found the infinite variety of life and the subject of people picnicking together to be both appealing and interesting. That’s how I decide to use it as the subject of the mural and soon spent my time sketching people and fun activities in a Geneva park.
When I returned to Ottumwa, I started to assemble the Geneva sketches made up of a panorama of figures and activity and began to pull together ideas for the composition of the mural. Adding to the Geneva studies, I started sketching friends, strangers, babies being held, ad even a “mutt” that were all Ottumwans. They too ended up in the mural.
Once I decided the mural was going to be a picnic scene, it became like a stage set and proved somewhat challenging since there was so much content to the mural: different body types to represent the people, children, different activities, the passing out of food, child and dog, boy blowing up balloon, adult preparing food for the picnic, people playing together, waiting, etc.
I painted the mural using an old formula for egg tempera as taught tome by Boardman Robinson. Made my own body of liquid, like Old Master stuff. Egg whites were mixed with colors for permanence. It took me eight months and 200 eggs to complete the mural.
When the mural was complete, I drove out with my sister and nephew from Ottawa to Geneva with the large rolled up canvas. There was no ceremony. Nobody greeted us. My nephew and I came in, stood on tall ladders, hung the mural and left town. It was a really hard job with just the two of us. Had to first put a gook on the wall, which was made up of white lead and a varnish. Canvas was then rolled from both ends, inward, until it met in the middle. Then, each person with his half rolled outward from the middle and patted the canvas against the wall making it forever permanent. It was a difficult job.
Each mural project that I received was a juried competition, like a contractor placing a bid for a job, estimating how much it would cost, what you proposed, etc. I won the contract for the Geneva mural based on the strength of my previous murals. Basically, with the Section of Fine Arts, it was a business contract between you and the United States. I have great fondness for the piece and am most appreciative to hear it is still on the wall and being seen.”
Manuel Bromberg’s other post office murals include a Federal Arts Project WPA commission for Tahlequah, Oklahoma (1938-1939), and a 48-State Juried Mural Competition for Greybull, Wyoming (1939). Bromberg was invited to exhibit at “Art in America,” part of the 1939 World’s Fair. Other selected exhibits of Bromberg’s work that year included San Francisco, New York, Denver, Cleveland, Chicago, and Ottawa, as well as a traveling show, “Artists West of the Mississippi.”
On March 6, 2019, in honor of Manny’s 102nd birthday, the Geneva History Museum held a formal dedication of the Geneva Post Office mural, Fish Fry In The Park. A plaque that tells the mural’s story was added to the mural wall and attendees wrote notes to Bromberg wishing him happy birthday and about their favorite scene in the mural. The notes were sent to Bromberg after the party and they will be filed with Bromberg’s art in the Smithsonian Museum.