Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Day the Murals Died

"The value of the Old Masters is enormous if we look upon their works as a superb expression of their age; more valuable still if they inspire modern painters to try and express their own age with the same power; but they are disastrous if we only try to mimic them." Frank Brangwyn [from the preface of The History of Painting by Haldane MacFall].

Wait, you mean I actually have to make up my own stuff? That sounds a lot like work. I prefer to just rip off the old-timers while they're out coffin-shopping and having their prostates examined, it's much more fun. On that note, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes is hardly in a position to do anything about it and his work is really good, so let's start with him. I posted some more images of his work here.

I find it strange that the chapter in art history of fresco painting and large decorative murals, which for many centuries were considered among the highest possible achievements of an artist's career, became practically a blank page in the Nineteenth Century framed only by the works of two giants, Eugene Délacroix and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (Lyon, 1824 - Paris, 1898). They pretty much carried the torch for mural painting through the Nineteenth Century.

From that time on, whether by choice or necessity, those artists we associate with artistic progress worked on a small scale. Even Monet's Nymphéas at the famous Orangerie Museum in Paris fails to fall, strictly speaking, into the category of mural painting. The art of the large decorative fresco had more or less ended.

All the more strange when you consider how much construction was going on during the latter part of the nineteenth Century on both sides of the Atlantic. Great attention was given to public architecture. I'm thinking of train stations and libraries in particular, which logically should have provided space for fresh and ambitious large-scale paintings. Yet when those works exist, their subjects and execution are trite at best, having been entrusted to the most anemic of the rear-guard academic painters, or the more timid of the avant-garde who could be trusted to dilute their vision into socially acceptable norms.

I know; that sounds mean. There are exceptions of course, and one was the German painter Hans von Marées, who decorated the Stazione Zoologica in Naples in 1873. His work rarely receives any attention, but I believe he deserve better, if only for his unusual depiction of Northern Europeans in an Italian fresco.

Constantino Brumidi's frescoes in the State Capitol are a notable exception this side of the pond. Not incidentally, he died practically a pauper and his work might have gone completely unrecognized by history had it not been for the efforts of Myrtle Cheney Murdock. She became resident Brumidi expert in the Capitol building, and was responsible for a certain resurrection of interest in the artist, if not in the art of fresco itself.

And of course, there are still others who have orbited the outer reaches of the art of fresco and brought it all the way through to the twentieth century, such as - one of my favorite draughtsmen - Pietro Annigoni, who died at age 70 in 1988 three years after completing his largest fresco in the huge dome of the Monte Cassino monastery (having spent five years working on it).

Who's out there in the twenty-first century? Look for an upcoming post on some modern masters. Perhaps the age of fresco isn't quite dead and buried just yet.


  1. Oooohh...a teaser! Can't wait for part two.

  2. Laying it down! Yeah baby! The gauntlet is on the ground; who will pick it up?
    Definitely interested in finding who else has continued this grand tradition. I wish there were more plaster artists who understood this process, and I wonder if there are modern materials that would give us a similar result: not just the look but the embedded pigment in the plaster surface.

  3. nice post!
    i do think this stuff goes in and out of fashion as it is. then sprinkle a few wars about, take the major patrons (ie kings and popes) out of the picture, and add the new wallpaper technology, and there you go.

    the next big wave of murals i can think of is in the US - William de Leftwich Dodge in the late 19th century comes to mind, and of course in the early 20th century the WPA became the great patron of the arts and created a whole new style of mural.

    steve--- two words for you: mineral silicate!

  4. hmmm- how about we go further east then---- Klimt was essentially a 19th century artist who painted a lot of fabulous murals, and what all about all those neo-gothic and romantic murals both interior and exterior, painted in Austria, Russia, and Germany between 1860 up until WWI started? how about Josef Manes in Bohemia?

  5. Thanks Lynn!

    I never let the truth get in the way of hyperbole ;) But you're right; there are of course lots of frescoes and murals from that time period.

    I was actually thinking of the Nazarenes when I said that some frescoes that were done were anemic, but that may be a personal taste issue. The pre-Raphaelites and the whole Romantic movement seems to me to be a kind of timid nostalgia for the most part. I see them as being easy enough on the eyes, but falling prey to the 'classical mimicry' mentioned in the quote at the start of the piece.

    I was not familiar with Josef Manes until you mentioned him (I love his astronomical clock painting) so thank you for that, and am ashamed to say that I forgot about poor old Klimt. He really did some great work!

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  7. ok, i love the article, Al, so don't get me wrong here. you have quite a strong opinion and knowledge in dead white dudes (we know), but in the 20th and and 21st C. you're going to have to broaden your perspective away from the canvas, and even away from the traditional sense of a mural - why would we all want to be stuck in a time where most people couldn't even flush their own doo, anyway (side knowledge: first flush toilet in 1858)?

    one word: graffiti. accept it or not, but the late 70s (Basquiat and the like street artists) began a new movement in the idea of mural art. and now you can see where it's evolved: check out DAIM (German artist, stretching the boundaries of paint, even to through the threshold working in 3D, computer sensory space.

    just Google this guy, and click on the images, and scroll through the many pages. now, he's just one.

    one of my favorite in NYC, and perhaps little less known in the world of graffiti art are The Wallnutz. i was able to find the mural under the Queens Boro Bridge, but their work is crazy extensive, and there's even better murals around my neighborhood by the pjs in Long Island City.

    ...whether you like it or not, the idea of the traditional mural is dead because that style is dead. i don't know about you, but i like to flush my doo (we have toilets now that flush themselves!), so i'll stick with 21st C. and its progression. i mean, you just did an article with a post of advert painters in NYC for Stella Artois, and even that style is beginning its death rattle.

    too many white people in those old boring paintings...NEXT!

  8. Thanks Jeff for your insightful comments. Please check out my latest post and let me know what you think. I love that you took the time to post your feedback.

  9. thanks, Bot! but i'm not who you say i am in your latest post...

  10. "From that time on, whether by choice or necessity, those artists we associate with artistic progress worked on a small scale. Even Monet's Nymphéas at the famous Orangerie Museum in Paris fails to fall, strictly speaking, into the category of mural painting. The art of the large decorative fresco had more or less ended."

    So Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera aren't associated with progress?