Art and the Romanticization of Work Past

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Nostalgic paintings of people in fields and factories put a shine on history's hard times.

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On the roof of the Grohmann Museum, larger than life bronzes -- a miner, a dyer, a glassblower -- frame the skyline of Milwaukee's commercial buildings. These statues match the outsized, and perhaps outdated, vision of a museum dedicated to the dignity of work as seen through Western art.

When I visited the museum last week I saw tax collectors and dentists, amber gatherers and blast furnace workers, potato farmers and taxidermists, all represented in the museum's collection of paintings and sculpture on the theme of "Man at Work." (Women at work are also evident, spinning and gathering seaweed.) Although the artistic merits of the paintings vary enormously, the heterogeneous work-related subject matter, and long chronological scope (from 1580 to the present) keeps them interesting.

The renovated bank building, which opened just five years ago, is full of light. When industrialist Eckhart Grohmann donated his art collection to the Milwaukee School of Engineering, the German industrial artist H.D. Tylle was commissioned to add artistic details to the new museum: a mosaic floor, wall and ceiling murals, and stained glass, all with scenes from paintings in the collection. The stained glass is puzzling: it decorates the dome of a penthouse office, and visitors can catch only glimpses through a few small windows on the side. I could see a horse, straining to move quarried blocks of stone.

Nostalgia for the simplicity and dignity of the work of the past is not something we just invented. This is a museum devoted to it. The key to understanding the museum is in two genres of technological nostalgia: the industrial nostalgia for the preindustrial, cottage industry past; and our postindustrial nostalgia for the industrial past.

Some of the museum's 19th-century paintings show early modern techniques, a romantic look back. The museum's occasional long labels clue you in. For instance, they hold a study for The Flax Barn at Laren (the finished work is in Berlin), and the wall text tells you that artist Max Liebermann was capturing an almost-extinct preindustrial way of spinning flax. He painted it in 1887, by which time textile industries had been industrialized for a century. You see the women's intent looks, the children operating the wheels. Despite all that effort, the painting is still and careful. It is about the beauty of the vanishing work, not about rationalized textile production.

As you go forward in time through the Grohmann collection, people start disappearing. The early modern paintings put the people doing things front and center, but in the 19th-century paintings that show contemporary scenes, factories start to dwarf people until you can only just spot them. The iron- and steelworking paintings have fascinating genre conventions--they are dark, with a few points of fire by which the workers are illuminated There are no paintings of labor unions, a few of end-of-shift, and just one of a mining accident. There are several statues in the genre of "boss and worker, pals," with their hands on each others' shoulders. This is a particular vision of work for work's sake.

QR codes are everywhere, linking mostly to information about techniques and industries, and, in the case of the Tylle paintings, to the corporations whose facilities he painted. One museum tech enhancement was a kiosk loaded with clunky animations of the paintings, a student project from a few years back. A statement from one of the students asserted that the artists had captured a moment in time, and these animations would release the moment. (I admit that I found this hilarious, and I asked my friend to "release the moment in time" of a blacksmithing painting. She pantomimed bringing a hammer down and said "clang.")

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Why painting, though? H.D. Tylle's paintings of, for instance, labs in the Merck factory, ask the question: Why paint a factory instead of photographing it? Why collect only oil paintings and bronze and porcelain sculpture of work and workers -- not even watercolors? Not even prints and engravings? The museum's collection, I think, is designed to elevate "man at work" through art, and representative, realistic painting taps into an old-school notion of art and its high purpose. Once painted, workers are frozen in the act of work, they're worthy of celebration. In our age of precarious labor, the majesty of 19th-century factories seems as romantic and impossible as the cheerful cobbler's shop did to our industrial ancestors.  

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Suzanne Fischer is a historian of science and technology. She serves as curator of technology at The Henry Ford.

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