ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 26 Julius Moessel
The painted mural is a vital factor in architectural design, in the opinion of Julius Moessel. Nor need the architect fear and hesitate to pay deference to the muralist to the extent even of altering his design. It’s a game of give and take between equals when architects and muralists clash.
Moessel, who came to Chicago about ten years ago direct from his native Germany, misses most over here that spirit of cooperation between builder and painter. He was both in Munich — a trained architect, but a specialist in mural painting.
Over here, the architect completes his plans and even delivers the finished building before the muralists is called in to adorn certain spaces. The work of the painter, then, is merely decorative — in no sense vital to the design. He must do the best he can with what is already accomplished.
In Germany and elsewhere in Europe, Mr. Moessel points out, the design of the building grows out of the combined talents of builder and decorator — the work of the painter is organic. It was under such conditions that Moessel adorned the great room in the present City Hall at Leipzig; a gallery in the public museum of Munich (this under personal supervision of Kaiser Wilhelm); and halls in public building at Stuttgart and at the fashionable watering place, Kissingen.
Since coming to America, Moessel has executed several commercial commissions, among them being the painting of the ceiling of the grand foyer of the new Hotel Jefferson, St. Louis, and the ornamenting of both the storeroom and the restaurant of Stop & Shop, Chicago.
Until he landed on these shores beside Lake Michigan, he had painted no more than perhaps a dozen “easel pictures” all his life. But America is not yet particularly mural-minded, so Moessel has now a studio bulging with canvases from his brush — canvases superbly expert in their execution and challenging in their psychology. In the last two or three years, through exhibitions at the Chicago Galleries Association and elsewhere around town, Moessel has taken his place among our leading easel painters.
“A 100 percent mural painter,” he jotted down in some notes for me setting forth his ideas, “I disliked to paint pictures in oil and frames. But when I came in touch with American life, I encountered such big obstacles, ready-made opinions, and low-grade but successful competition, that I quit almost entirely any decorative business. That was about six years ago. Since then I have worked in my studio.
“At first I started to paint decorative things on huge canvases. When I had about 250 linear feet of such paintings, I stopped and began hesitatingly to paint pictures in frames. Soon I began to get a real kick out of it, and now I am a convinced painter of pictures.
“Naturally, my pictures have a mural-experienced background, like those of the old masters, who did as apprentices the same things I did. But they had the advantage of learning, besides the decorative art, the art of painting under the guidance of their masters.
“I had to learn to paint myself, and I did. I have had no academic training in painting a picture. But almost nobody has academic training today. Nobody wants to have real training” — (There’s more than a touch of bitterness here, for Moessel detests with all the heartiness of a quick, strong, restless nature the “four-flushers” in “modernism.”) — “Nobody wants to have real training. It might spoil his genius!”
Moessel believes technique (of which he is a past master) is secondary in making pictures. It is a part of the “craft” any workman must have in any line of endeavor — “a question of the schools, of education” — no more to be talked about than a carpenter’s handiness with a saw, and as much to be taken for granted.
He is frank to say that in the making of a “picture” he aims “to tell a story” (rank heresy in the circles of the “moderns”)(, to convey the psychology of the person and the scene. In doing a “Salome,” for example, while he may use a nude model, he doesn’t “paint a nude.” As a lascivious dancer of her time (and ours), Salome might well be naked. It is the purpose of her dance that interests him — her relationship with Herod, with her mother, and with the Baptist. He isn’t interested in an “abstract figure” that might be named “Salome” or “Cleopatra” or “Sally Rand” or “Composition Number One” at the whim of her creator. “Salome” (for him) is the definite Salome of the definite story, though he reserves the right, like another Oscar Wilde, to retell the story in his own way.
This right, too, he assumed in the days when he was doing his murals. He studied all styles — Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Byzantine, Persian, Babylonian, Hindu, Chinese, Abyssinian, Baroque, Japanese, Gothic — and he absorbed them all and worked in all of them. But he tempered them in the fires of his own lively imagination. The resulting “Baroque” from his brushes as a “Moessel Baroque.”
In his “pictures” as in his “decorations,” Moessel displays invention. He doesn’t hesitate an instant to employ old material — “Salome,” “Judith,” “David and Goliath,” “The Garden of Eden.” But they always come through transformed, strongly individualistic.
It is difficult to get Moessel to speak of his early life and of his career in Germany. Not that there is anything to conceal, but he is a modest man and witty, too adroit at parrying questions. The Great War hit him hard, as it did most all Europeans on either side of the argument, and it was to recoup his waning fortunes that he came to America. In Chicago, he lives in comparative obscurity — few know or recognize his ability … or care to recognize it — and that always makes a sensitive man (or woman) more sensitive.
But by dint of much questioning and of a patience I match against Job’s, I am able to report:
In the days just before the war, Moessel had his own lavish country place outside of Munich, and from this center he directed big art firms in Munich and five other cities. This country place of his was the result of 20 years of planning and of pleasant labor. Every once in a while, he would have a whim to alter his house, to redecorate it in parts, or overhaul it in toto. He would raise the ceiling of this room, or lower the ceiling of that, applying practically his theory that architecture must needs give way at times to the demands of a mural painting.
But he didn’t have an aviary, he told me with a twinkle. I had once written in these columns, on authority of a friend of his, that he had a huge menagerie on his country estate for the housing of beasts and birds that he used for “motifs” in his decorative paintings. That was all “a press-agent yarn,” he says, invented by a well-meaning friend for American consumption.
“As a matter of fact, all I had was a hen house,” he tells me plaintively.
He was born in the neighborhood of Nurnberg and went to Munich as a young man to study and to make his home for the next 40 years before emigrating to America. The year of his birth is a secret — “Don’t ask me, but it’s quite a number of hears back. Gray-haired, I am still young.” He expects to outlive the depression and still be a millionaire.
He was sent to “the best institutions of education” but, he reports, “was a big failure in any respect of learning.”
Nevertheless, he was making money at 15 with his architectural and his mural arts. At 18, he was rated a “master.” His last teacher in the academy at Munich was a great man as a personality. “His art and kind are forgotten” (some more bitterness). This beloved personality was named Rudolph von Seitz. He was the first man of his day in decorative things in middle Europe.
Moessel was a rebel, as apparently was Von Seitz. “I was against the too old artists and was absolutely against the unproved new ones.”
He calls these latter “front pigs” and, alas, I fear Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, and their “expressionistic” German followers are so pigeonholed in his archives.
“I am sorry if I must die before this misled time is over, when again the final demand in art shall be earnestness, real power of a sound personality, and the right discrimination between Kindergarten art and the art of grownup people — the art of wise old men. I dislike, ex fundamento, bearded men playing Kindergarten dreams!”
He holds that art is the concern of “healthy people,” not “neurasthenics” and “genial idiots.” He holds that even the little “modern art” that is worthwhile is “caviar, not bread.” And “modernism” flourishes because of “the nonsense of admiration by talented dilettantes!”
Veteran members of the Arts Club of Chicago will have nostalgic yearnings for the “good old days” of about 1920, hearing Moessel talk thus.
But Moessel has full license to talk. He is a real artist, of sound accomplishment and tremendous power, regardless of any consideration of “school.”
Moreover he can stand off and look and listen to himself.
“Don’t talk, artist — work!” Moessel chided Moessel at the end of our interview.