From the St. Louis Modern catalogue- St. Louis’s Modern Murals
October 1, 2015
St. Louis Modern is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue featuring a comprehensive essays on architecture and design in St. Louis that expand on themes explored in the exhibition, including in-depth examinations of the city’s embrace of modern aesthetics in sculpture, silver, stained glass, murals, and textiles.
In the excerpt below, exhibition co-curator Genevieve Cortinovis explores the history of modern mural painting in St. Louis.
In a 1932 exhibition featuring the work of forty-nine American muralists exploring “post-war subjects,” The Museum of Modern Art asked an essential question: “Who is to do the murals of the nation’s great buildings?”(1) In the years that followed, modern artists answered the call, actively utilizing a medium that had been previously dominated by academic painters. Whether in cafés and corporate lobbies or post offices and medical clinics, murals imbued modern, often austere architectural settings with color, dynamism, and a sense of historic and aesthetic continuity, while exposing the larger public to a variety of contemporary styles and ideas. Spurred by the fervent support of the medium by the Depression-era Federal Arts Project as well as at the World’s Fairs in Chicago, San Francisco, and New York in the 1930s, the vogue for mural painting reached its peak in St. Louis in the decades surrounding World War II. The founding myths, idyllic local landscapes, and heroic figures that dominated murals at the turn of the century—such as Frederick Lincoln Stoddard’s panels celebrating the Louisiana Purchase for the mayor’s office (1898), Frederick Oakes Sylvester’s idealized vista of the Mississippi River and bluffs for the Noonday Club (1911), and Edmund Wuerpel’s summer landscape for the Missouri Athletic Club (1916)—were largely supplanted by themes of industry, modernity, play, and progress.
In a 1977 oral history, Charles Eames lauded the design of the coffee shop and restaurant at the Park Plaza Hotel (1929), calling one of its designers, St. Louis–born Victor Proetz, “a bona fide genius.”(2) Proetz’s distinctive modern classicism was particularly evident in a series of murals depicting the “glorious history of beer as it was made in Nuremberg” that he and his partner, Ralph Cole Hall, executed for the space.(3) The murals reference specific iconographic sources, including woodcuts from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel, as well as nineteenth-century classicism, particularly the line-drawn figure of the angel Gabriel breathing life into the hop vine.(4) Among the medieval German architecture with geometrically patterned roofs, Proetz inserted contemporary St. Louis monuments: the Budweiser Brewery, Shell Building, and the Park Plaza itself appear alongside bird’s-eye views of walled and moated cities in an image characteristic of Proetz’s hybrid aesthetic.
In 1939, under the Works Progress Administration, Chicagoans Edward Millman and Mitchell Siporin won a commission to execute a series of frescoes for St. Louis’s main post office downtown.(5) The project called for work that would depict the history of the region from its colonial origins to Civil War reconstruction, and it boasted the largest prize of any of the mural commissions overseen by the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture. The nine panels Millman and Siporin produced are dominated by large, robustly modeled figures in abstracted landscapes, the river winding through each scene’s background acting “like a ribbon binding them together.”(6) Both artists had spent time in Mexico studying the work of muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco in the 1930s, and were unique for their unusual approach to historic narrative, which often investigated controversial subject matter such as social conflict and the treatment of minorities.(7) In the St. Louis Post Office murals, for example, they included scenes depicting the Missouri Compromise and the infamous Dred Scott case.
Around the same time, St. Louis–based medical supplies purveyor A. S. Aloe, under the leadership of Howard Baer, sheathed its company’s nineteenth-century headquarters on Olive Street in downtown St. Louis with a streamlined modern facade, adding ten thousand square feet of space and creating a new entrance and identity for the evolving company.(8) Visitors entering the large oval lobby were greeted by a dramatic curved staircase lined with murals depicting the early history of medicine. The unknown artist presents Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing, surrounded by signs of the zodiac. As the murals wound further up the wall, the evolution of surgery from the medieval period to present day was contrasted in two very different surgical theaters surmounted by monochromatic portraits of historic leaders in the medical field. With their rigidly modeled figures and references to Greek mythology, the murals call to mind the classicizing preference of many designers and architects active in St. Louis in the late 1930, such as Proetz and Frederick Dunn.(9)
Not long after they were unveiled, the murals were photographed by Morton D. May, celebrated patron of the arts and president of the Famous-Barr department stores. May was an active amateur photographer throughout his life whose ample resources allowed him to elevate his work to a professional level, as these remarkable photographs attest.(10) May employed carbro printing, a time-consuming and expensive color-printing technique that required the use of a specialized studio, to produce many of his color photographs of the period, including his prints of the A. S. Aloe murals. The technique, which results in a permanent color image, was favored by magazines and elite photographers, and May’s choice of it proved prescient, providing an enduring record of these murals that were themselves demolished in 1996.(11)
Prominent footwear maker Brown Shoe Company hired local artist Fred Conway to paint a floor-to-ceiling mural for the lobby of its new suburban headquarters in 1952. The seventy-five- foot-long mural on canvas depicts the history of shoemaking and the use of leather from Ancient Egypt to the industrial period.(14) As the mural extends up the wall, the figures, heavily modeled at the base, become progressively softer and more abstract, and the colors more muted and pastel. The unusual palette—ranging from bright red and cornflower yellow to turquoise, periwinkle, and subtle shades of white—and inventive use of pattern to link subjects give the figurative mural a distinctly fresh and modern character. Conway was a faculty member at Washington University’s school of art from 1929 to 1970, and a close friend and early supporter of German Expressionist painter Max Beckmann. Throughout his long career, he experimented with a range of styles, from realism to pure abstraction. A nationally recognized muralist, Conway is responsible for the murals in the former headquarters of Peabody Energy in St. Louis, which depict the history of the coal industry in the region, as well as those of the Federal Building in Kansas City, the First National Bank of Tulsa, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and the U.S Post Office in Purcell, Oklahoma.(15)In the years after World War II, several St. Louis companies would follow the lead of Baer and A. S. Aloe by expanding or rebuilding their offices and storefronts, and many would choose murals to illustrate the history of their particular industry in order to enliven the spaces and establish their unique position at the forefront of innovation in their respective fields. When May commissioned Samuel Marx to design the Clayton branch of Famous-Barr in 1948, the architect engaged fellow Chicagoan Edgar Miller to paint a series of whimsical murals in the interior. Improvising on the theme of each department, the artist illustrated the various historical influences on men’s fashion from early European to frontier culture in the men’s department, for example, and he irreverently sprinkled the walls of the maternity department with birds and bees. One reviewer called the murals “captivating,” praising the “noted” artist’s creativity and sense of humor.(12) Miller was a prominent Chicago designer, painter, and sculptor known for his quirky, handcrafted interiors.(13) He frequently collaborated with Marx, creating murals for many of his public commissions (Miller probably painted similarly themed murals in Famous-Barr’s Northland store) and contributing artwork for a series of plaster lamps that Marx used in many of his private commissions.
- “American Mural Exhibition to Open New Home of Museum of Modern Art,” MoMA press release, April 23, 1932, https://www.moma.org/learn/resources/press_ archives/1930s/1932.
- Charles Eames, interview with Virginia Stith, October 13, 1977, Charles Eames Oral History Project, pp. 27–28, Eames Office LLC archive, Venice, California.
- “The Story on the Wall,” promotional pamphlet (St. Louis: Park Plaza Hotel, c. 1930).
- Active throughout the 1930s, Millman and Siporin had previously been awarded several prestigious mural commissions, including a series for Chicago’s “Century of Progress” World’s Fair in 1933 and the post offices in the Illinois towns of Moline and Decatur in 1935.
- Paintings, cartoons, photographs of the St. Louis Post Office murals by Mitchell Siporin and Edward Millman. (New York: Downtown Gallery, 1942), n.p.
- Marlene Park and Gerald E. Markowitz, Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 39-40. Other WPA murals exploring local historic themes in St. Louis include Louisiana Purchase Exposition by Trew Hocker in the post office in University City and the Old Levee and Market at St. Louis by Lumen Martin Winter at the Wellston Station Post Office.
- An active art patron, Baer was keenly aware of the potential of modernism in design and marketing. To commemorate the somewhat precariously timed construction, Baer buried a time capsule under the cornerstone of his company’s new modern headquarters, in which he enclosed a letter where he confessed that despite the period of uncertainty, “the mere fact that we build here and now a new building when aerial bombs are laying waste London and Berlin . . . indicates that the human spirit is incurably optimistic.” Baer, “Letter for a Cornerstone,” September 1940, A. S. Aloe Time Capsule, Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.
- One year prior, the history of medicine was depicted in a series of both abstract and figurative murals for the Hall of Medicine and Public Health at the New York World’s Fair, which Baer very well could have seen.
- May became interested in photography during the mid- 1930s as he traveled across Europe and Asia with noted photographer Julian Bryan while still a student at Dartmouth. In the 1940s, he began experimenting with color photography and shifted his focus from travel to still life, portraiture, and architecture. “Man of the Year,” Globe-Democrat Sunday Magazine, December 27, 1959: 12.
- For more information on the history and process of carbro printing, see John Rohrbach, Color: American Photography Transformed (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013).
- “Noted Muralist’s Store Decorating Is Captivating,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, November 14, 1949.
- For more on Edgar Miller, see Richard Cahan, Edgar Miller and the Handmade Home: Chicago’s Forgotten Renaissance Man (Chicago: City Files Press, 2009).
- “The Romance of Shoemaking,” promotional pamphlet (St. Louis: Brown Shoe Company, c. 1955).
- The former Peabody headquarters was acquired by engineering firm ICC in 2013. As the Post-Dispatch noted, “ICC also will preserve a colorful mural by St. Louis artist Fred Conway. The large mural inside the first-floor lobby depicts coal mining, shipping and conversion to electricity.” Tim Bryant, “Former Peabody Building Gets New Owner, Life,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 1, 2013.