And what a life story it is. Fasanella was born to Italian immigrants on Labor Day in 1914 (okay, this might be off by a day or too but it is too symbolic to ignore) and spent his youth working with his father delivering ice in Lower Manhattan and the Bronx. It was back breaking work, slinging huge blocks of ice over the shoulder with ice tongs and hauling them up tenement stairs. His mother, the real influence on his life, worked in the garment trades and was an active union member. She was also an early antifascist, hosting meetings in their apartment in the 1920s to protest Mussolini long before anyone had even heard of Hitler.
Ralph became a garment worker and truck driver, among other things, and in the late 1930s fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. These were the 3,000 or so Americans who volunteered to travel to Spain clandestinely to fight against the Fascist regime of Francisco Franco. After returning from Spain he became a Union organizer before finally turning to painting in the late 1940s. Over the course of the next 50 years, until his death in 1997, Fasanella created a body of work that celebrated working people, their neighborhoods and communities, protested the injustices done to them throughout American history, and questioned mainstream American values.
His basic message is that we too often forget; we forget where we come from, who sacrificed for us so that we wouldn’t have to, and who and what it is that truly sustains us. One of his great paintings is the one shown above, in the collection of the Fenimore Art Museum. It depicts a labor parade, but not on Labor Day. The occasion for this parade was a far bigger and more important labor holiday prior to World War II: May Day, the International Workers’ Day celebrated each May 1st for decades throughout America and Europe.
In “May Day” (1947, 50” x 80”) Fasanella pays tribute to the heroes of Labor, in the center, a group that includes Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Sacco and Vanzetti, and yes, Karl Marx. He also shows the power of collectivity in the masses of works marching across the canvas from the left. To the right he shows the world they are struggling to create; a working-class dream of decent, affordable housing, room for recreation and learning, and the time and capacity to see and appreciate beauty.
On this Labor Day, as the country enjoys a day off from work, Fasanella’s paintings are here to remind us that we should always remember that even in these difficult economic times we enjoy far more than previous generations could wish for. I have no doubt that he would remind us that we owe a debt to those who struggled and suffered to make all that we enjoy possible. A debt that can only be paid through remembrance. If you had the good fortune to visit Fasanella’s studio during his lifetime, you may have noticed that off in a corner, but within plain sight of every painting that he created, sat a pair of ice tongs.