Saturday, October 29, 2011

Blum’s Mendelssohn Music Hall Murals

Cincinnati-born Robert Frederick Blum (1857-1903) is perhaps best known for his paintings of Venice and Japan, but in his day he was also renowned as a muralist.

His most ambitious mural undertaking was the decoration of the Mendelssohn Music Hall, home of the Mendelssohn Glee Club, which was once located at 113-119 West 40th Street in New York.

The first was called “Moods of Music,” started in 1893, and followed soon after by “Feast of Bacchus,” from 1895. The Bacchus subject is shown in two repros above: Note Blum in the top black and white image, photographed working on the mural at center.

Each frieze was 50 feet long and 12 feet high. The twin panels flanked the proscenium arch of the concert hall.

Blum executed the murals on canvas in a studio that was too small to unroll the composition to its full extent. He opened it one third at a time, but wasn’t able to see it all together until it was installed.

He developed the composition for “Feast of Bacchus” over a period of three months by sculpting groups of small figures in clay and setting them on a ledge, rearranging them as a tableau until he was satisfied with the relationships of the figures. According to an observer at the time, by using this method, “he could study each figure in the round instead of in the flat, could block out the perspective, could tell which knot of figures to make prominent and which subordinate, and, in brief, handle a plastic theme in a plastic manner.”

After sculpting the maquettes, he sketched the design in color, posed models for each of the figures, and made individual studies of the costumes and decorative details.

Within four years of its completion, the Mendelssohn Glee Club fell into financial difficulty. The founders lost control and the building was sold in 1911. The new owners hoped to convert it to a movie theater, but the enterprise failed and it was torn down in 1912 to make room for a modern building.

Since the murals were painted on canvas and attached with paste, it was possible to successfully remove them before the building was torn down. The canvases went to the Brooklyn Museum, which displayed them in 1965. They’re preserved in the BMA collection, but not currently on view.

Blum also painted murals for the New Amsterdam Theater, which were later destroyed.
Sources: “The Making of a Mural Decoration: Mr. Robert Blum’s Paintings for the Mendelssohn Glee Club,” by Royal Cortissoz, The Century Magazine, November 1899, Pages 58-63

Wikipedia on Blum
History of the Hall
History of the Glee Club
Brooklyn Museum Website: “Feast of Bacchus” (mistitled “Vintage Festival” in the BMA collection)
Robert Blum by Martin Birnbaum (Free Google book)


MrCachet said...

Another jaw-dropper. Great post!

Julia Kelly said...

I am dually impressed on his technique of sculpting and rearranging the figures and very thankful for photoshop that lets me do the same thing, almost, virtually. Wow-

Anonymous said...

He was a highly competent realist, but I just don't like the precursory classical realism bland design that is common in murals from this period. With the exception of Fall of Gog and Magog, even the mighty Sargent largely struck out in my opinion.

James Gurney said...

Etc, that's a very perceptive criticism, and I kind of agree with it. Blashfield's book on mural painting may have engendered a lot of that tried-and-true classical spirit.

Contemporary reviewers also said that Blum's jewel-like smaller pastels and oils don't really translate to the gigantic scale. In any event, I'd love to see the final mural in person.

Anonymous said...

The mural really looks incredible!

Richard J. Luschek II said...

Not sure I agree with the idea of bland design. I think Sargent's murals are underrated.
I have not seen many, if any, great murals done after this period by anyone. Artist now do murals with little, to no consideration of the architecture. I think murals are to support the building, play second fiddle the architecture- generally flat and low keyed.
Thanks for blogging about one of Cincinnati's greats. Blum did some wonderful work. The stuff about the use of sculptures is fascinating. While I was never fond of the studies we have in our museum, the final murals look pretty interesting.

My Pen Name said...

The brooklyn musuem has a lot of great stuff it doesn't display, too busy displaying a lot of 'abstract'junk.

Steven K said...

Another great find, Jim. Blum is another overlooked and underrated American artist and illustrator who did some great work. His work can be found at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Cincinnati was an interesting place when it was producing the likes of Frank Duveneck, Robert Blum, and Edward Potthast.

My Pen Name said...

Off topic but of interest:
Daily Routines
How writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days.

enb said...

I visit this "The Ameya" painting by Mr Robert Blum every time I pass through the NY Met. It's absolutely exquisit in real life. One of my favorites.

Definitely check it out if you, or any of your readers happen to be near. For a while its been down in the Overflow room in the American wing... ...Cant wait till they re-open the painting section of that wing. Hopefully soon?

Anonymous said...

thanx for this fascinating post.
I think that the work of art should be regarded and evaluated bearing in mind its historical context (and the constraints placed upon the artists, if there were any).
Btw, don't wish to hijack this thread, but I think that people might find this photo worth checking: a master painter working at approx. the same time as Blum, on a large curtain for the Croatian National Theater:
(upper left photo)

T. Arispe said...

It's really great to learn about the arduous processes these artists went through to get their work looking the best it could be. It's also very sad that so much workmanship, both artistically and architecturally, should just be thrown away (or very nearly had that happen) in the name of modernization.

James Gurney said...

Tino, I'm glad you mentioned Vlaho Bukovac. I mentioned him on an earlier post, but I'm always glad to learn more about eastern European artists, who are unjustly neglected in books in English.

C said...

I can't say I agree with the assessment of "precursory classical realism bland design" with regard to this mural. It's a decorative painting, intended to blend harmoniously with the architecture, as well as with the music performed in the hall. I'd say it works a lot better, along these lines, than anything you'd find at, say, Lincoln Center. Thanks, James, for another fascinating tidbit on an unduly neglected painter.