A Bold Brush beyond Battles: As Part of the World War II Art Unit in Latin America, Frank Mechau Captured Unusual Aspects of the Conflict, Yet His True Passion Was Rooted in the Spirit of the West

By Bach, Caleb | Americas (English Edition), July-August 2004 | Go to article overview

A Bold Brush beyond Battles: As Part of the World War II Art Unit in Latin America, Frank Mechau Captured Unusual Aspects of the Conflict, Yet His True Passion Was Rooted in the Spirit of the West


Bach, Caleb, Americas (English Edition)


The frenzied splendor of wild horses in full gallop, weary ranch hands coming to town on a Saturday night, the Rockies' peaceful majesty. This was the world Frank Mechau knew best. But for a few years during World War II, this Colorado artist so rooted in the western landscape joined others of his generation across the U.S. to witness firsthand and illustrate Allied war efforts for readers at home.

The War Art Unit stands as a rather neglected episode in the annals of twentieth-century art in the United States, even though artists under its aegis were some of the era's most prominent. The original unit came into being during World War I, when the U.S. Army decided to dispatch a modest number of painters and draftsmen to the field to document that conflict. Reactivated during World War II, the program sent more than forty artists to cover events in Europe, the Pacific Basin, North Africa, and throughout the Americas. In 1943, just eight months into the program, the U.S. Congress withdrew funding, but the artists continued their work. Those on active duty were absorbed into military milts. Life Magazine agreed to support the efforts of the remaining civilian artists by raking them on as salaried correspondents.

Along with Mechau, such well-known painters as Peter Hurd, Millard Sheets, Reginald Marsh, Aaron Bohrod, and George Biddle participated in the program. Assigned to cover Latin America, Mechau contributed more than twenty paintings and drawings, depicting aspects of military life in a region far removed from the main theaters of battle but not without importance or danger.

Mechau was ideally equipped for the assignment: He had an inquiring mind and strong sense of adventure, spoke some Spanish, and had spent time in Mexico. Born in 1904 in rural Kansas, he descended from pioneer stock on both sides. When he was three his family moved to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. A fine athlete, he excelled at baseball, track, and football, but especially boxing, which later would help finance some of his ventures. He loved the western landscape, but also books and drawing. At eighteen he headed east on a scholarship to Denver University, dropped out after a year, and coached sports at a local military school. He briefly attended night classes at the Denver Art Academy where, as he later wrote, "my dream of art creation was chewed into bits before plaster casts and models to be 'photographed.'" On his own he wrote poems that he illustrated in the manner of William Blake and Aubrey Beardsley.

After a hot summer on a work gang for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, he rode the rails east to Chicago and enrolled at the Art Institute. Again, though, he felt stifled by a traditional academy approach to instruction. Continuing to draw and paint, he received some Commissions as a book illustrator, but was not always paid.

After yet another summer back home in Colorado, where he won the local "Tough Boy" prize-fighting purse ($50) at the cost of a broken nose and hand, he took another stock train to New York City, where he tried a couple more art schools. Still unsatisfied, he then pondered the idea of boxing his way to Europe aboard ship; instead, he found employment in the book department of Lord and Taylor's, where he met Paula Ralska, who would become his wife.

In 1929, after selling a painting, some drawings, and other possessions, the couple booked a one way passage on the S.S. Leviathan and headed for Paris to join the ranks of the Lost Generation. They rented a small studio near the Pasteur Institute, and haunted museums, bookstalls, galleries, and cafes. They came to know Leo Stein, the art-collecting brother of Gertrude Stein; author Henry Miller; and the painter Andre Derain.

"At that point, our funds were running out," recalls Mechau's widow, Paula, ninety-seven, from her home in Colorado. "What the devil would we do? But just then by some miracle, I landed a job as advertising manager to write copy and prepare layouts for the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune, and we were able to remain in Europe for three years. …

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