Though the soaring wings of the dramatic Santiago Calatrava building sometimes steal the show, the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Quadracci Pavilion is just one of two internationally significant architectural gems here on the Museum campus.
The other is the bold Saarinen masterpiece 1957 Milwaukee County War Memorial Center.
Modernist architect Eero Saarinen (American, b. Finland 1910–1961) is known for dramatic design accomplishments like the St. Louis Gateway Arch (1965), JFK Airport’s TWA Flight Center terminal (1962), and the iconic “Tulip chair” (1955). He took over the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center commission at the death of his father, Eliel Saarinen (Finnish, 1873–1950). The designs called for an arts complex that would “Honor the Dead by Serving the Living,” including a museum, performing arts center, and veterans’ memorial.
On the western facade of Saarinen’s Modernist concrete, steel, and glass floating cruciform is a purple and blue tile mosaic. You probably see this mural best when driving toward the building on Mason Street.
I had been working in this stunning building for several years before I finally paused to ask: What is that mosaic? What do the letters mean? Who is the artist?
Eero Saarinen recommended Wisconsin artist Edmund D. Lewandowski (American, 1914–1998) to provide the ornamental mosaic mural for the city-facing side of the War Memorial Center. In 1957, the finished building was still awaiting the final artwork, its five panels blank, as you can see in the image below from the Saarinen architectural office archives at Yale University. (On the 1957 Veteran’s Day opening celebration of the Saarinen building, these panels were hung with patriotic bunting.)
Lewandowski, a Milwaukee native, is recognized as an important second generation Precisionist artist. “Precisionism” is not so much a formal art movement, but rather a word used to describe the common look and theme of a group of American artists that emerged between World War I and World War II. (Lewandowski is “second generation” because he worked in the style about twenty years later.) From the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Precisionists “began experimenting with a highly controlled approach to technique and form. They consistently reduced their compositions to simple shapes and underlying geometrical structures, with clear outlines, minimal detail, and smooth handling of surfaces.” Charles Sheeler and Joseph Stella are well known artists of the Precisionist style.
The Milwaukee Art Museum Collection includes ten Lewandowski artworks, including Wisconsin Ore Freighter painting of 1948 shown below. Wisconsin Ore Freighter is beautifully flat, has sharp detailed outlines, and celebrates the geometric and colorful beauty of the working cargo vessels that ship millions of tons of ore across the Great Lakes.
From 1931 to 1934, Lewandowski attended Milwaukee’s Layton School of Art (the predecessor of MIAD, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design). In the late 1930s, he was a public school teacher and an artist with the Federal Art Project, and then served from 1942 to 1946 in the US Air Force, where he made maps and camouflage during World War II. Lewandowski returned to Layton as a teacher from 1947 to 1949, and was its director from 1954 to 1972.
During the artist’s long career, Lewandowski experimented with a variety of media, including glass and tile in his mosaic murals, like the one on the War Memorial Center. He produced eight major mosaics between 1953 and 1979—including ones at Marquette University, the Allen-Bradley Company Building in Milwaukee, and the Flint Institute of Arts in Michigan.
You can see images of all three mosaics on a website created by the Flint Institute of Arts for their 2010 exhibition Edmund Lewandowski: Precisionism and Beyond.
Lewandowski’s mural here at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center was unveiled to the public on Veteran’s Day in 1959, two years after the building’s 1957 completion.
The War Memorial Center mosaic uses more than one million pieces of glass and marble. The slightly-abstracted Roman numerals, in shades of purple, blue, and rich black, are the beginning and ending dates of the U.S. involvement in the Second World War and the Korean War. MCMXLI (1941) through MCMXLV (1945) refers to World War II, and MCML (1950) through MCMLIII (1953) refers to the Korean War.
The way to read the mural’s depiction of the dates is this, from left:
Panel 1, 2, and 3) M, C, and M, for the first three roman numerals for all four dates. MCM is 1900.
Panel 4) XLI for 41, and the L for 50. These represent the two starting dates, 1941 and 1950 of the United States involvement in WWII and the Korean War.
Panel 5) V for 5 and III for 3 (referring back to panel 4 for the XL to make XLV and using previous L for LIII). This gives you the two ending dates, 1945 and 1953 for the end of the two wars.
When constructed, this artwork was not only the largest public art commission in Wisconsin’s history, but it was also the largest outdoor mosaic sculpture in America.
In addition to this high-profile 1,800 square foot piece, Lewandowski was later commissioned for the 20th anniversary of the building in 1977. These two mosaic tiles, installed above the reflecting pool in the inner courtyard of the War Memorial on the second floor, symbolize the signs for the five branches of the armed forces–Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard all blended together.
By the way, an additional bit of Lewandowski information can be found here at Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel arts critic Mary Louise Schumacher’s “Art City” blog. She wrote about the artist when Lewandowski’s well-known Three Kings painting was selected to run on the cover of the newspaper on Christmas Day in 2010.
Mel Buchanan was the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility includes interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.