University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
The State of Wisconsin Collection

Page View

Batt, James R. (ed.) / Wisconsin Academy review
Volume 20, Number 4 (Fall 1974)

DeLoughery, Frank
New deal art in Wisconsin,   pp. 13-14

Page 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
    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
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.

Go up to Top of Page