Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Louis Grell

Sun God Apollo in his Chariot, 1921, Chicago Theater, Louis Grell,
(over the proscenium arch).

The Chicago Theater, the first of
the 1920s movie palaces.
When we think of murals today...well, actually, we don't often think of murals today. But if we did, we'd probably tend to only think of them in terms of art history, probably painted mostly in the Baroque era up through the eighteenth century when canvas paintings began to take on wall-sized proportions. However, murals have never actually gone out of style, though their popularity may have waxed and waned somewhat during the last couple hundred years. In recent years it has waxed eloquently in various small town, outdoor civic murals, from images commemorating history or historic personages to those in big cities more akin to graffiti. Strangely, the latter are often far more interesting, creative, and more relevant with regard to the social milieu of today. Another period during which such large-scale works of art were highly popular dates from the post-WW I era, most often seen in the form of WPA post office walls or soaring above the Beaux-Arts opulence of early movie palaces and Art Deco hotels. One of the artists who proved very adept both at painting such works and cashing in on their popularity, was Louis Grell.

Man and the Planets, 1935, Louis Grell
Louis Grell was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1887. That was the perfect year to be born if you wanted to grow up to become a muralist. He worked in his father's meat market until the age of twelve when his family decided to send him to Hamburg (no pun intended) Germany, to study art. Though that may seem to be a rather tender age to shuttle off a young boy to a foreign country, it was just as well. It took him two years to brush up on his German sufficient to enroll in Hamburg's prestigious School of Applied Arts. There he teamed up with one of his professors to paint murals in various public venues, bolstering both his skills and his reputation. Winning top honors at what was, in effect, the German version of an art prep school, Grell was awarded a place at the Royal Academy in Munich.

Grell (third from left) and some of his Chicago artist friends from around 1917,
living and working together at the Tree Studio.
The Tree Studio Building today.
Once he'd graduated from the University, Grell took the obligatory "grand tour" of Europe soaking up all the classical culture and art history that was to serve him so well in providing content for the culturally starved American movie palaces and their awestruck patrons during the coming decades. In returning to the U.S. in 1907, Grell had some success in completing a botched mural in Salt Lake City, but neither he nor the times were yet right for more than a mere taste of things to come. So instead, Grell returned to Munich to continue his studies. With the advent of war fever in Europe, Grell made something of a hair-raising escape from Germany to Norway in 1914 then, a year later back to the U.S. to work in New York as a Broadway theater set designer. A year later he was back in the Midwest teaching at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts (now the Art Institute of Chicago).

Grell's most famous student,
before a mouse made him rich.
Needing studio space and a place to live, Grell, along with about a dozen other local artists and students (above) founded (or perhaps, refounded) what they called the Tree Studio Art Colony (above, left) in 1917 where Grell and his wife, Friedl, were to live and work until his death in 1960. They had no children. While teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts, one of Grell's students was a sixteen-year-old night-school prodigy named Walter Elias Disney (left). At the time, Grell, apparently took little notice of the boy, but during the ensuing years, as the fame of a certain little mouse grew, Grell seems to have recalled him to family and friends in somewhat greater detail.

Interior of the Chicago Theater featuring three of Grell's murals.
Bacchus, 1921, Chicago
Theater, Louis Grell.
During the 1920s and 30s, Grell began to gain a certain degree of fame himself, landing mural commissions for the growing chain of Paramount theaters starting with the landmark Chicago Theater on State Street (top), but also including Paramount theaters in New York's Times Square, Toledo, Ohio, the Gateway Theater in Chicago, and the Manos Palace in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. If you've never seen one of these so-called "movie palaces," from this era, they're well-worth the effort to find one (they're becoming scarce) and take a tour. The Chicago Theater was the first and arguably the most lavish, (opening in 1921) at a time when the theater itself was far more impressive than the grainy, silent, black and white, main attractions. Grell's Sun God Apollo in his Chariot (top) is but one of a dozen or more by Grell and other muralists of that era whose paintings decorated the architectural grandeur intended to match that of the granddaddy of them all, the famous Paris Opera House. Some would say the Chicago and one or two others managed to surpassed the French model.

The Netherland Hilton's Palm Court with it's numerous monochromatic Grell murals.
One of the Grell panels from the Netherland.
In later years, mostly during the 1930s, Grell was called upon to lend his talents in the more modern (and tasteful) style of various Art Deco hotels such as the Netherland (Hilton) which occupies the greater part of Cincinnati's Carew Tower (now the second tallest building in the city). I can recall as a business college student in the Queen City during the early 1960s gazing up in awe and wonder at the work of Louis Grell (thought the name of the artist was unknown to me at the time) and his magnificent tromp l'oel murals which appeared to be carved in low relief just below the ornate ceiling of the hotel's Palm Court (above).

Keep Looking Up, 1956,
People's Church of Chicago,
Louis Grell, his last mural.
The Resurrection, 1949
St. John's Lutheran church
Council Bluffs, Iowa, Louis Grell
Bum Alley, 1951, Louis Grell
In later years, mostly the 1950s, Grell was commissioned to do religious works in numerous churches throughout the Midwest including two striking examples, his Resurrection (above, left), painted in 1949 for a church in his hometown of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and his final mural before his death, Keep Looking Up (above, right), dating from 1956. Also one of later works, painted for the Detroit Water Board Building, is the eye-catching Neptune on Horses (below) from 1956. His Bum Alley (right), a canvas painting from 1951, is somewhat less pretentious, and probably not suitable for behind the altar.

Neptune on Horses, 1956, Detroit Water Board, Louis Grell
(one of two for the building).


No comments:

Post a Comment