Batt, James R. (ed.) / Wisconsin Academy review
Volume 20, Number 4 (Fall 1974)
New deal art in Wisconsin, pp. 13-14
in an industrial setting. Looking down from above, representing opulence, leisure, and gaiety, were a well-dressed man and woman in possession of a cornucopia. Boldly exhibited at the entrance to the auditorium in Milwaukee's State Teachers' College in 1935, the murals stirred indignant critics to accuse the college of encouraging radicalism in art. Earlier the school had been called a hotbed of radicalism in economics. Concerning the controversy, a Milwaukee news- paper reporter wrote that faculty members who were not considered liberal had learned to keep quiet. But privately, the reporter continued, they expressed hor- ror that hundreds of children in the campus practice school had to see the murals every day. "What's that, Mama?" the reporter quoted the words of a child whose mother hurried him past the painting. The swirling controversy evoked many letters to the editor, among them a letter from Alfred G. Pelikan, director of art education in the Milwaukee schools. It was his responsibility to protect children from seeing the kind of art detrimental to them, he said. However, he maintained, the nude could be beautiful and appro- priate in a painting. Children and adults should be ed- ucated to respect the human body as the Greeks had. Pelikan's letter mentioned that the great masters had used nude figures in the protrayal of religious subjects. When we see Adam and Eve, Saint Sebastian, and other saints, shown in the nude, Pelikan suggest- ed, we should temper our criticism. The picture in a Milwaukee paper of two girls peeping at the murals behind a screen brought a biting response from the College's president, Frank D. Baker, who long had been a defender of freedom in the visual arts. The screens were placed to protect the uncompleted work, Baker wrote, accusing the paper of a willingness to degrade two girls to further what he called the paper's yellow propaganda. Joseph A. Padway, the nation's leading labor lawyer, defended Schellin's murals as superior to those in the courthouse, which "depict nothing." Pad- way, who also was a regent of the College, insisted that the nude figures were only a minor part of the design and no different from nude studies at the Lay- ton Gallery-or the world over. It was strange, Pad- way observed, that Schellin's work should be con- demned for its criticism of capitalist society. The same criticism was seen everywhere-in literature, politics, screen, and trends of modern art. Teaching methods had changed and children were being given a more realistic knowledge of the facts of life, was the comment of Howard Thomas, director of the College art department. The same children who saw the murals every day were being taught sex in the classroom by using chickens which hatched out real eggs. At least a brassiere, one woman student suggested, could be painted on the female nude. Thomas coun- tered that nudity is vulgar only when insincere, but Schellin's nudes were sincere. Unmoved by the controversy at the time, Schellin still feels that his murals were criticized adversely as an excuse to attack the College. In retrospect he be- lieves that he offended, perhaps by painting nude figures, but certainly by painting social inequity. Now a member of the fine arts faculty at the Uni- versity of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Schellin tells with 14 C). 6.) 5C) nf 3: 0) .0 0 0 Q) 0 0 0~ Artist Robert W. Schellin posed before his Public Works of Art Project mural in 1935 before it became the focus of bitter controversy. The present state and location of the mural are unknown. detached amusement of the very early days at the Teachers' College, when art students were required to sign a statement that they intended to teach art in schools. Once, at a commencement exercise, a woman graduate was reprimanded by the dean of women because she had walked across the campus arm-in- arm with a man. For women to bend over in public was unladylike; therefore, at the Teachers' College female students were forbidden to drink from the fountains in the halls. The schools have changed since then, and attitudes have changed. During the intervening years public awareness of New Deal art became dimmed. In 1967, however, Francis V. O'Connor was asked by the National Endowment for the Arts to investigate the effectiveness of the New Deal art projects. After a pilot survey in the Rocky Mountain states, a full-scale national survey of New Deal art was begun in 1972 under the direction of Karel Yasko, special assistant to the commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, and former State Architect of Wisconsin. For a long generation, these New Deal art treasures have been neglected by their owner-the federal gov- ernment. The current survey has discovered many of them. The last Schellin saw of his murals, they had been taken down and rolled up on racks in a Mitchell Hall studio. Later, he thinks, they were taken to the attic of the building. He doesn't know what happened when they cleaned the attic.
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