One of my favorite film gems in the Museum’s audio-visual archive is rare film footage of the institution’s changing location and architecture. This film–soundless, in black and white, circa 1957–features the Layton Art Gallery, the Milwaukee Art Institute, and the Eero Saarinen-designed War Memorial and Milwaukee Art Center building, into which the museum moved officially in 1957.
While the 15-minute film is rather grainy and hazy, the images are nevertheless a stunning peek into the last days of the Layton Art Gallery and the Milwaukee Art Institute in the early 1950s before their demolition, and the subsequent rise of the War Memorial building and the (then) Milwaukee Art Center. Excerpts from this film will be featured in our upcoming 125th Anniversary Exhibition, but if you’d like a sneak peek, read on.
As the film opens, we encounter the Museum’s Director, Edward Dwight, who quietly beckons us to take a tour of the Layton Art Gallery space. This first-hand exploration begins in the sky-lit vestibule where much of the Collection’s sculpture was housed, bathed in soft daylight. In these scenes, you’ll probably recognize Gaetano Trentanove’s The Last of the Spartans, a popular work in the museum’s collection today.
The camera then moves through the various gallery spaces, where a keen eye will spy other well-known works in the Layton Collection, such as Eastman Johnson’s Portrait of Frederick Layton and The Old Stagecoach, Willam-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Homer and His Guide, Hovsep Pushman’s The Incense Burner and the much-beloved Le Père Jacques (The Woodgather) by Jules Bastien-LePage.
Moving down the street from the Layton Art Gallery, we find ourselves at the ornate front entrance of the Milwaukee Art Institute, peering into its halls and its grand lecture hall. As we leave the Art Institute, we visit with Mr. Dwight once more, as he smilingly displays a rendering of the soon-to-be-completed Eero Saarinen-designed War Memorial and Milwaukee Art Center building.
The camera jumps to images of the Saarinen building during construction. Grizzled men in overalls and caps drill and fasten large sections of concrete that make up the upper part of the building’s pylons, triangular supports whic, when balanced on their tips, seem to give the impression the building is about to set aloft. We take a tour of the interiors of the art museum areas, showing everything from the classroom and gallery spaces to offices, much of which looks the same now as it did then.
And then it’s the opening exhibition for the art museum in its new gallery space! An Inaugural Exhibition, which opened on September 12th, 1957, contained works from the Museum’s Collection, including Picasso’s The Cock of the Liberation, as well as pieces by Goya, El Greco, Cezanne and Van Gogh. The camera hops into the back seat of a vehicle that traverses the old Mason Street Bridge; it passes the new building and its façade, which will soon bear the memorial mosaic by renowned Wisconsin artist Edmund Lewandowski.
Coming full circle, we return to the Layton Art Gallery location to find the building almost completely demolished. In a rather somber moment, we see that someone has roughly scrawled text on a length of wood barring the threshold: “The End – Ars Longus,” or rather, “The End – Art is Long.” It’s as if to say that while the temple which once housed such great art may pass into the dust of history, the art itself is eternal, living on in another location in the city.
This footage is a visual narrative of a seminal moment in the Museum’s history. It affords us not only a peek at Milwaukee’s architecture, but also gives us the feel of a casual tour in all its full vintage glory, allowing us to be a voyeur of the city’s daily life–from the occasional sedan sliding along the foreground of these beautiful buildings, to the ladies’ sleek mid-century fashions during the inaugural opening.
If you would like to view excerpts of this film and other images and media from the Milwaukee Art Museum’s history, be sure to visit the 125th Anniversary Celebration exhibitions, opening on April 6, 2013. Come and celebrate with us!