Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Walls, ceilings and flaws: a book about murals published as a website


Robert Walter Weir, Embarkation of the Pilgrims, 1844. Oil on canvas, 12 x 18 feet, United States Capitol rotunda, Washington, DC
Robert Walter Weir, Embarkation of the Pilgrims, 1844. Oil on canvas, 12 x 18 feet, United States Capitol rotunda, Washington, DC

Francis Valentine O’Connor is probably best known as a distinguished scholar and connoisseur of the work of Jackson Pollock, but he has other areas of expertise as well. One is the many paintings, mosaics, and even tapestries designed for public spaces in America over the past millennium. Now – after thirty years of preparation— he has decided that the best way to share this knowledge with fellow scholars, curators and art-lovers is to put his book, The Mural in America, online. The resulting website has eight parts, divided into 36 chapters, in turn subdivided into 207 sections that range in length from one paragraph to many. The reader also gets more than 300 illustrations, eight bibliographies, one appendix, multiple links (with gratifyingly easy navigation), and a search box so far superior to any hard-copy index as to vindicate on its own online over traditional, print publishing.

The wealth of information in The Mural in America is staggering. Beginning with prehistoric Native American rock art, the narrative progresses through landscape decorations in the parlors of Colonial and Early American homes, patriotic murals  in the U.S. Capitol, allegorical academic murals of the Gilded Age, Art Nouveau and Art Deco murals, murals with concrete historical symbolism during the Progressive Era and early 1930s, mural painting under New Deal sponsorship in the later 1930s, the “private” murals of abstract expressionism in the 1940s and ‘50s, and the reversion to murals intended for public spaces since 1965, including the conceptual work by Sol LeWitt, the Community Mural Movement and, taking the story into the present century, thecool illusionism of  Richard Haas.  Truly, there is something for scholars of every historical period here.

Much of this makes absorbing reading, whether one is being introduced to unfamiliar subjects, like the delightful “Painted Forest” in a lumberjack’s lodge in Wisconsin by the itinerant German limner, Ernest Hüpeden, or reintroduced to familiar ones, like Maxfield Parrish’s impish “Old King Cole” Art Nouveau decorations in the bar of Manhattan’s St. Regis Hotel. O’Connor incorporates into each of his eight parts contextual discussions that are illuminating and sometimes provocative, ranging from one on Native American concepts of time and space to another on the rising importance of women in later 19th-century society as an explanation for the primacy of the “dynamic virgin” in academic murals.  Particularly solid and rewarding are those sections in the book dealing with the historical murals of Thomas Hart Benton, the politically radical Mexican muralists, and the aims and activities of the many governmental bodies who sponsored mural-painting during the New Deal (not just the WPA). Pollock, surprisingly, is deemed a failure as a muralist, because even his larger paintings weren’t designed for appropriate public spaces, and because the artist (in O’Connor’s opinion) was concerned solely with self-expression, as opposed to public concerns.

O’Connor says this book is the first comprehensive history of mural painting in America. He must know, but as his bibliographies show, many scholars have discussed individual artists and/or projects.  He not infrequently refers the reader to such discussions instead of incorporating what they say.  The book is extraordinarily rich in original research, but all these references to other authors, while generous, also make it seem as much a master plan or compendium as a single, unified work.  Nor is it finished.  Frequent sections on individual undertakings (not unlike Wikipedia) wind up with a comment to the effect that “more research is needed.” Graduate students looking for dissertation topics should find happy hunting ground.

That said, one is often reminded that this is a self-published work, which seems to have gone online without editing. O’Connor shifts back and forth between referring to himself in the first person singular, as “I,” and in the third person singular, as “the author.” Consistency here might have made the text less confusing. The book expresses many personal opinions.  Mostly, this is very refreshing, but occasional outbursts sound ill-considered and incompletely thought out (the kind of opinion that an editor might have questioned).   For example, O’Connor blames the “modernist” emphasis on personal expression for the fact that Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer and Albert Pinkham Ryder have gotten more scholarly attention than the academic muralists Kenyon Cox and Edwin Blashfield. But the capacity of an artist to achieve personal expression has been prized since the Renaissance (if not perhaps in the Middle Ages).  Did not Giotto,  Michelangelo, Leonardo, Rubens, Tiepolo, and Delacroix all have very personal ways of expressing themselves, even in their murals?

Later on, O’Connor relents and finds good words to say about Eakins and Homer.  Again, an editor might have caught the inconsistency. As for Blashfield and Cox, to judge from the rather small illustrations of their work available online, their styles were even duller and more insipid than their similarly classicizing British contemporaries, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Frederick Leighton.  Granted, the iconography of the most ambitious murals by Blashfield and Cox is elaborate enough to delight the heart of any art historian, but art historians (even the best of them) can sometimes allow themselves to become diverted from formal values by iconography.

Richard Haas, Fontainbleu Hotel, Miami Beach, Fl. 1986
Richard Haas, Fontainbleu Hotel, Miami Beach, Fl. 1986

One wishes that O’Connor had hired a proofreader, copy editor and/or fact checker, but he doesn’t even seem to have used his computer’s spell-checker. Thus we have  “emblemized” (for “emblematized”), “howevetr” (for “however”), “non-descript” (for “nondescript”), “expatriot” (for “expatriate”), “niceities” (for “niceties”), “shetle” (for “shtetl”), “clientel” (for “clientele”), “immediatley” (for “immediately”) “nobless oblige” (for “noblesse oblige”), “tromp l’oeil” (for “trompe l’oeil”), and “ilusionistic” (for “illusionistic”).  Some errors couldn’t have been detected by a spell-checker, as when a wrong but still correctly-spelled word appears. O’Connor has ”lightening” when he means “lightning,” “cantors” when he means “canters, “ ”capitols” when he means “capitals,” “fist” when he means “first,” and “boarders” when he means “borders.”  Then there are proper names: “Chagal” (for “Chagall”), “Kirshner” (for “Kirchner”), “Lowrey Sims” (for “Lowery Sims”), “Benglesdorf” (for “Bengelsdorf”), “Maurice Stern” (for “Sterne”), “Walter Kaufmann” (for “Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr.”), “Falling Water” (for “Fallingwater”), Georgio Cavallon” (for “Giorgio Cavallon”), “Rackstraw Downs” (for “Downes”), and “Kenneth Nolan” (for “Noland”).  As for factual errors, Thorstein Veblen didn’t publish an exposé of the meat-packing industry. Upton Sinclair did.  It’s doubtful that Ben Shahn depicted John L. Lewis organizing garment workers, as Lewis was head of the coal miners’ union.

To be fair, almost all these errata appear in passages peripheral to O’Connor’s interests.  When dealing with his own areas of expertise, he clearly knows what he’s talking about. Still, another problem is repetitions, passages where he may have hit the “copy” key on his computer without being aware of its effects.  In his discussion of the Bardstown Murals in Kentucky, the paragraph beginning “First, the broadside describes…” is repeated twice.  The first paragraph in Part Eight, “A General Overview,” is repeated verbatim as the first paragraph in the introduction to Chapter 36. These errata have been pointed out in hopes that, given the wonders of electronic publication, they can easily be located through the search box and corrected.  But O’Connor will have to deal by himself with all the little missing words throughout the text, and the idiosyncratic use of commas and apostrophes. It’s a tad distracting to find, every so often, a comma used to separate the subject of a sentence from its verb, even (or perhaps especially) in such a magisterial tome.

Francis V. O’Connor, The Mural in America.  Copyright © 2010 Francis V. Connor, Ph. D.