Nostalgic paintings of people in fields and factories put a shine on history's hard times.
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These statues match the outsized, and perhaps outdated, vision of a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
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
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
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
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.")
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.