Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Grohmann Museum: "Man at Work" collection

Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) is widely known as a fine engineering college with an international reputation. Until recently, like most engineering schools, it was not known for its art collection.

However, after extensive renovations of a former Federal Reserve check-processing facility, MSOE this year opened the building as the Grohmann Museum of art. The "Eckhardt G. Grohmann Collection," named in honor of Dr. Eckhardt G. Grohmann, former regent of MSOE, businessman and art collector, is believed to be the world's most comprehensive collection of European and American painting and sculpture depicting various forms of work.

The remodeled building is interesting. The once nearly featureless brick block has had a four-story glass entrance atrium added, and the pediment is now crowned with a collection of heroic bronze statues that form the border of a rooftop sculpture garden. The subjects include miners, smiths, fishermen, and other laborers.

Inside, the atrium is floored with an attractive mosaic depicting rustic workers in poses derived from classical paintings in the collection. The ceiling of the atrium has a painting similarly depicting depicting industrial greats like Madame Curie, Johannes Gutenberg, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein. The painting includes the Latin motto, "Science without Art is Nothing." A spiral staircase winds around the atrium giving access to the three display floors and the fourth level. I was surprised to find that this level includes an office/conference room in the base of the building's cupola, as well as access to the roof (not yet open, but the statuary can be seen through the doors and windows). There is also an elevator for those not inclined to climb stairs.

The actual display spaces are warm, inviting, and well-lit, if a bit stuffy the day we were there. The staff recommends starting on the third floor and working down as the collection is in roughly "chronological" order. I was somewhat bemused by this because, passing the second floor, I noticed paintings depicting the construction of the Tower of Babel and of Noah's Ark, so I wondered what would be before that?

It turns out that the exhibits are more in what might be called technological order, with the third floor starting with basic industries such as farming, spinning, and metalsmithing. Accounting and law were also housed on this floor as was the current special exhibit on "Physicians, Quacks and Alchemists."

The second floor commemorates the beginnings of heavy industry, including mining, quarrying, glassblowing, and construction (hence the "Tower of Babel" being on this floor).

The third floor holds art of the early modern age, covering foundries, steel mills, dams and highway construction.

This area holds some the most controversial art. The 700+ piece collection includes sixteen pieces by German artists of the Third Reich period depicting such subjects as the Autobahn under construction and the quarrying of stone for the reconstruction of the Reichstag building. When the museum opened, there was some discussion about the propriety of displaying these pieces on grounds that they might possibly portray the products of Nazi slave labor. Having carefully examined these paintings myself, and given what is known about their dating, I do not think this is the case. Nor is there any content that could be construed as glorification of Nazism. However, in response to concerns, the museum has provided an informative brochure "Bridges in the Art of the Third Reich," which does much to put the paintings in context. (There is also a very affecting post-war painting showing women scavenging bricks from bombed-out buildings to use in Germany's rebuilding.)

Overall, the collection is quite interesting. It is largely the collection of one individual and shows some of his biases, such as preference for European artists and a general tendency to glorify work. There are, however, a few notable exceptions: the "Mining" section has a large painting of gravediggers opening a mass grave. The title is "After the Mine Disaster." Another shows rescuers lifting a limp miner's body out of rubble in poses that mimic a classical "Deposition from the Cross." Others show the hard-driven oxen and horses staggering at the weight of massive quarry blocks.

The art is uniformly representational, although with a variety of styles and techniques, and mostly friendly to the eye. Even from across the room one got the impression that you could feel the heat from the glassworkers' hellish kilns, the fires of which glowed with a brilliance that would show Thomas Kincaid a thing or two. The detailed depictions of the workplaces and tools are fascinating to study, and there is occasional humor as well, especially in the wince-inducing portraits of crude dentistry or podiatry. (Evidently, ingrown toenails were a major problem in the 1700's--.) It is interesting to see the difference between a blacksmith's shop and a wheelwright's shop, or a coppersmith's and a goldsmith's.

The collection is well worth seeing as it uniquely preserves the industrial past that our modern world is built upon, and much of it, even the great steel mills of the mid-Twentieth Century, has faded into the past. General admission is a very reasonable five dollars, and hours are: Monday-Friday 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Saturday Noon - 6 p.m., and Sunday 1 - 4 p.m.
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