If All the World Were Paper…

Imagining the unthinkable, the art of a Cold War atomic scientist

Jess (Burgess Franklin Collins), If All the World Were Paper and All the Water Sink, 1962, oil on canvas, 96.5 x 142.2 cm (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) © estate of the artist. Speakers: Emma Acker at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Dr. Beth Harris

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Jess, If all the world were paper

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Key points

  • The August 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the American military announced the beginning of the Atomic Age, a period of anxiety that escalated into the decades-long Cold War with the USSR.
  • Beginning in 1942, the American government sponsored the top-secret Manhattan Project to develop atomic energy and weapons. After World War II, many scientists (including Jess, the artist) continued to work at centers across the country, such as the Hanford Atomic Energy project in Washington State.
  • Jess worked for the Manhattan Project and Hanford Atomic Energy before coming to believe that these technologies would destroy the world. Turning to a career in art, Jess used symbols to create multiple levels of meaning in his paintings. Works like If All the World Were Paper and All the Water Sink suggest the possibility of apocalypse, but also leave much to the viewer’s own interpretation.

Go deeper

See this painting at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Read more about Jess (Burgess Franklin Collins) from FAMSF

Read about the circle of poets, writers, and artists surrounding Jess

Learn about the Cold War and 1950s anxieties about the Atomic age

Learn more about the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb and explore primary sources about it

Read more about the life of Robert Oppenheimer and nuclear technology after WWII

Listen to oral histories by people involved with the Manhattan Project

Explore the construction of the Hanford and the people who were displaced in the process

Read about the Hanford Site today

Explore the 17th-century book that inspired the title of this painting

More to think about

Our society celebrates advances in technology (the newest phone camera, or the latest social media channel) but it’s clear that technology also causes us great anxiety. Movies depict robots that threaten our existence, recent developments in genetic engineering raise the specter of artificially-created human beings, and enough atomic weapons exist to end all life. Can science and the development of technology lead us too far from our humanity?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.