Murals endure with messages to remember
It's hard to miss mural paintings, yet many of us ignore them. Part architecture, part art, they fade into the background of the built environment. But at its best, mural painting is art's equivalent of public speaking. Loud, forceful, and vibrant, murals often tackle grand subjects and universal ideas.
The opening of the Sol LeWitt wall drawings retrospective at MASS MoCA in North Adams in November was a good reminder to take a fresh look at walls. In some ways, LeWitt's abstractions are anti-murals in their utter rejection of narrative. But a funny thing happens when his drawings move from conceptual art to installation. Their audacity and monumentality transform their spaces.
New England murals, however, far predate conceptual art. We've been painting on walls in these parts for nearly 300 years. The Warner House in Portsmouth, N.H., claims to have the oldest Colonial wall paintings "still in place" in the country. Shortly after the house was constructed in 1716-18, an anonymous artist covered the walls with subjects ranging from a woman spinning, to biblical scenes, to a depiction of two Native American sachems visiting the queen of England.
But New England's acknowledged early master of the house mural was Rufus Porter (1792-1884), an itinerant painter and inventor who also founded Scientific American. Between 1825 and 1845, he and his assistants painted the walls of several hundred buildings in New England and New York.
"He traveled all along the Eastern Seaboard painting miniatures. Then he abruptly switched to landscape easel paintings," says Nancy Smoak, project manager of the Rufus Porter Museum in Bridgton, Maine. "They didn't sell very well, so he started doing them on walls."
The Porter Museum, which opened in 2005, preserves a house decorated with Porter murals and also displays Porter's masterpiece cycle, the Westwood Murals (from the Dr. Francis Howe home in Westwood) in another building. Porter was quite sophisticated for a painter without formal training. His Hawaiian-influenced flora and use of vanishing-point perspective and shadows set his work apart from other untutored landscape painters of the era. (If you would like to sleep surrounded by a Porter mural, check into the Hancock Inn in Hancock, N.H.)
Porter, who also tried to interest investors in his design for an airship in the 1830s, was clearly ahead of his time. The golden age of mural painting in the United States wouldn't arrive until a century later. Perhaps the most famous American muralist in the 1930s was Thomas Hart Benton, a Midwesterner who settled in New York and summered on Martha's Vineyard.
Benton's colorful and sometimes satirical "Arts of Life in America" murals were originally commissioned in 1932 for the Whitney Museum in New York, but they have been at the New Britain Museum of Art since 1953, and got their own specially designed room when the museum opened its dramatic new wing in 2006. The series, which depicts Arts of the South, Arts of the City, and Arts of the West, features Benton's sinewy, elongated figures with chiseled features. The attention to folk themes and heroic rendering of dignified workers in the midst of the Great Depression also characterized Benton's work at the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which operated from 1935 to 1943.
Some of New England's greatest murals were painted for public buildings under the aegis of the Federal Art Project or allied federal programs. Two of the most ambitious mural series are displayed in the city halls of Norwalk, Conn., and Gloucester. Except for a history scene in the lobby, all the Norwalk paintings are by Alexander J. Rummler, a prolific painter and illustrator best known for his billboard painting depicting the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. The sequence of 16 murals and eight smaller panels gives a sense of the nearby Connecticut countryside, the maritime scene in Long Island Sound, and the local fishing industry. Perhaps his best works depict South Norwalk oystermen.
Murals by Gloucester artists once covered the walls of several schools and public buildings in town, but the majority of the survivors can be found on the first floor of City Hall and in the second-floor auditorium. Charles Allan Winter undertook his allegorical "The Founding of Gloucester," a monumental painting over the stage in the second-floor auditorium, in 1934. (He was paid by another WPA program.) The background depicts the landing of the Dorchester Co. in 1623 to establish the fishing camp that grew into Gloucester, while the city's shipbuilders, fishermen, and textile workers fill the foreground.
Winter's final mural, "Protection of Fishing," on the first floor, was completed shortly before his death in 1942. It shows saints in the clouds watching over men hauling fish into a schooner. But Winter's City Hall masterpiece is his 1939 "City Government" and "Civic Virtues" series that winds around windows, doors, and arches in the building's front entry. As he did with his other murals, Winter modeled the figures in this extended civics lesson on Gloucester citizens of his time.
At the same time that Federal Art Project artists were deployed to schools and libraries, one of the central figures of Mexico's famous muralismo movement was artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Painting on wet plaster, José Clemente Orozco covered 2,200 square feet in the Baker Library Reading Room with his most complex mural cycle outside Mexico. The powerfully expressionist images detail Orozco's vision of repeated human suffering redeemed by a vision of spiritual promise. The grand composition shows the Americas before and after European contact, with a coda of Orozco's vision of a utopian fu
ture where machines serve humankind. Thoroughly cleaned and conserved in 1989, the images are as powerful as the day Orozco signed the mural: Feb. 13, 1934.
"We knew we'd get a good painting," the late professor emeritus Churchill P. Lathrop recalled at the time of conservation. "We had no idea we'd get a masterpiece."
No doubt Smith College was hoping for its own masterpiece when it commissioned another Mexican modernist painter, Rufino Tamayo, to paint a fresco in Hillyer Library in 1943. The 43-foot-long "Nature and the Artist: The Work of Art and the Observer" addresses both the hot spirit of artistic creation and the cool appraisal of the observer. It juxtaposes classical symbolism (Nature depicted as a reclining woman surrounded by earth, air, fire, and water) with the artist's vibrant colors and complex arrangement of space.
When the college demolished the library in 1969, conservators transferred the mural from the wall plaster to a cotton muslin backing that was then mounted on hollow Masonite panels. The suddenly portable mural was exhibited around the world before it was reinstalled in 2005 in the atrium of the new Brown Fine Arts Center .
In fact, colleges have contributed heavily to New England's catalog of murals. A favorite of children and adults alike is "The Age of Reptiles" by Rudolph Zallinger at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. The 110-foot-long and 16-foot-high painting chronicles the evolutionary history of the planet from 362 million years ago (the Devonian Period) to 65 million years ago (the Cretaceous). First engaged when he was a Yale Fine Arts student, Zallinger took more than 4 1/2 years to complete the project. The mural represents the best available scientific knowledge of the 1940s, and won Zallinger the 1949 Pulitzer Award for Painting.
Don't leave the Yale campus without stopping at the Yale University Art Gallery to see the faint pencil lines of "Wall Drawing #11" and the thick black-lined "Wall Drawing #614" in the lobby. They're by Sol LeWitt.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at email@example.com.