The current exhibition tucked away in the Chicago Rooms on the second floor of the Chicago Cultural Center features the eleven oldest murals, painted between 1909 and 1913, found at Lane Tech High School, the Chicago Public School with the largest number of such murals in the city. Although the northwest side high school has a whopping sixty-seven Works Progress Administration (WPA)-era murals, as well as murals from the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, the handful on display were painted on stretched canvas, as opposed to either being frescoed or permanently attached to the school walls like the rest of them. This rare opportunity to see the work without making a trip out to Lane Tech was precipitated by their relatively recent restoration, which took place between 1995 through 2004, thanks in large part due to generous funding from the Terra Foundation for American art.
The murals themselves were created by four School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) students-- including one African-American and two women artists-- and, coming full circle, part of their restoration was done by SAIC students too, as a looping television playing in the last room of the exhibition reports via a WTTW broadcast.
One of the main advantages of the current exhibition is being able to view the works in the same tightly sequenced groups in which they were conceived. Typically, in their original installation throughout Lane Tech, they are spread out and the narrative sequencing of each set is disrupted. In the Chicago Rooms of the Cultural Center, the deep burgundy of the walls lends itself to the muted umbers, ochre’s, and sienna’s of the chiefly earth toned palette of these artists works, and was a handsome exhibition design choice. Each panel is extremely long, roughly fifteen feet on average, and they stand between two and a half to five feet tall, requiring long views and wide gallery walls. As a result, displaying all of the pieces in the three interlocking rooms required they be stacked one on top of the other at times. This is done most successfully in the middle room, where the panels on display are at a comfortable eye level, unlike in the first and last rooms where panels are hung so high overhead it’s hard to get a sense of anything but their imageries dwarfing Progressive era bravado.
The show is peppered with knick-knacks and ephemera from Lane Tech, including everything from report cards and yearbooks, to class pins, prom pictures, key chains and combs. While interesting as artifacts, the memorabilia of teenagers at the turn of the century is jarring when juxtaposed with the democratic gusto of shipping docks and foundries depicted in a brushy, Impressionistic mode in the first room in the works of William E. Scott and Gordon Stevenson. Intended to inspire students to hit the books by depicting scenes of the pulsing industry and technology that well-educated Americans commanded, several of the murals in the show instead air unfashionable and outdated romantic myths. Like the myth of the “noble savage,” executed in an Art Nouveau style by Henry George Brandt, were found in the second room depicting Native American scenes, or the allegorical muses foregrounded in a large overhead piece in the third room by Dorothy Loeb.
Overall, both the artists’ and in fact, the entire generation's idealism that portrayed hardworking, deep-thinking citizen as capable of great things, is good medicine in the midst of all the doom-and-gloom regarding the current state of economic and political affairs in the nation-- and perhaps world-wide.
--Thea Liberty Nichols
(top image: Dorothy Loeb, Primitive Forge (The Lost Mural), 1909, Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Lane Tech Prep High School.)