In praise of ornament

Editorial Staff Art

For thousands of years, from the time of the Parthenon and the cathedrals of France down to the onset of World War II, the marriage of art and public architecture was hallowed and inviolable. Not to adorn a floor with parquetry, a wall with reliefs, or an apse or ceiling with frescoes and mosaics would have seemed a mark of disrespect for the very institution of architecture: few public structures that aspired to excellence failed to deploy a complex and fully developed program of representational art. But with the victory of the International style in the late 1940s, all of that came to a swift and inglorious end.

Above: Hildreth Meière in a photograph taken in 1957.

And so it is that, today, we lack the means even to focus our attention on all those surviving murals and pedimental sculptures that once defined our cities. Reflecting this shift in the status of architectural ornamentation, the painting that hangs in our lobby insists upon its autonomous status as a work of art, as though in open revolt against the servile contingency of earlier architectural adornment.

A conspicuous victim of this transvaluation was Hildreth Meière, who was famous one hundred years ago and anonymous fifty years later, and who now, thanks to the publication of several important monographs, stands on the verge of rediscovery. If you have spent time in NewYork, you have almost certainly seen her work. A mosaicist, muralist, and sculp­tor, she was responsible for much of the arch­itectural ornament of Saint Bartholo­mew’s Church, Radio City Music Hall, and One Wall Street, to say nothing of the Ne­braska State Capitol and the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C. For Meière–as for any number of our contemporary artists–art was a collaborative process, rather than the act of individual will that modernism demanded: first, she served at the pleasure of such once famous architects as Bertram Goodhue and Voorhees, Gmelin and Walker; more importantly, perhaps, few of her works betray her actual touch: most were executed according to her plans by a phalanx of artisans and assistants.

But such is our strange and collective inattention to architectural adornment that, unless prompted by a guidebook, we no longer even see or care to see this art. We may be able to muster some interest for the architectural ornament of antiquity or the Renaissance, but such as abounds in America’s public buildings of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is of interest to specialists alone.

Of those artists who consecrated their careers to such adornments, however, Meière was paramount in her day, with more commissions and awards than she could handle. Born into a well-to-do New York family, she studied at the Art Students League, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the San Francisco Art Institute (as it would later be called) in addition to stints in Florence, Paris, and Berlin. She was not a great artist, if the truth be told, but she was a good and compelling one and she eloquently speaks for an entire class of creative beings whose names have been lost to art history. Indeed, in many respects, the interest that she holds for the present generation consists as much in her embodying this specific artistic type and career as in her transcending them. Her limitations were those imposed upon her by the artistic context in which she chose to work, a context of Beaux-Arts historicism and art deco dynamism that surely has period appeal today, even if its artistic worth has yet to be vindicated.

Over a career spanning more than forty years, from the 1910s to 1960, Meière worked in a largely contemporary idiom. But because that idiom was not modernist, there was no place for her or it, or for other artists of her kind, in the grand narrative of twentieth-century art. The specific historicist idiom that Meière practiced is usually called art deco, an admittedly vague term that will do as well as any other, though moderne might serve just as well if not better.

Her version of art deco, however, differs from the commoner sort in that it does not unite a residually Gothic vocabulary with intimations of speed or streamlining. Rather, it is relentlessly eclectic. It can assume the triumphant simplicity of Byzantium in the mosaics that Meière created for the narthex of Saint Bartholomew’s in NewYork (see Figs. 7-9). Here are fields of uninterrupted gold ground, whose centers are marked by the simplest of roundels, depicting a tree or the sun and moon encircled by English text. This Byzantine influence is even more explicit in the twelve apostles depicted in the mosaic that adorns the dome of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis in Missouri (Fig. 10). This was inspired by the Arian Baptistery in Ravenna, a connection ably made by Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik in their new book, The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, the best text on the artist to date and one greatly enhanced with photographs by Hildreth Meière Dunn, the artist’s granddaughter.

Above: Commissioned in 1929 to design glass mosaics for the domes of the narthex at St.  Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan, Meière interpreted the Christian creation cycle, drawing on the fifth-century Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy, for her designs. On a gold ground, biblical verses relating each day of creation encircle complementary symbols; clockwise from top are Days Five and Six, Day Four, and Day Three.

At the same time, and in some of her less inspired moments, Meière could create fairly insipid murals like her Progress of Women through Organization series, executed in 1933 for the National Council of Women (see Fig. 14). The pallid tones and didactic clarity of these images, in a stylized and yet contemporary idiom, bespeak the ethos of the WPA, and are little better than propaganda.

Far more rewarding, surely, are those three delightful roundels, representing Dance, Song, and Drama, that adorn the facade of Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan (Figs. 4,5,15). In their ever so stylized reenactments of Hellenistic culture, with hypermuscular heroes and semi-naked Maenads traipsing down Fiftieth Street in an outburst of corporeal liberation, Meière has created a series of low reliefs that are definitively perfect in their way.

But as good as those are, for me the unequivocal masterpiece of her career is the Banking Room at One Wall Street (see Figs. 1-3). I have yet to see a photograph that does this dazzling interior full justice, and I suspect that photography may not be able to capture its elusive grace. Housed in an architectural masterpiece by Voorhees, Gmelin and Walker from 1931, every inch of its surface is covered in a vertiginous rush of ruddy gold mosaics that, taken together, create a thoroughly hypnotic effect on the receptive viewer, a unified, totalizing experience that thoroughly overwhelms the senses. This may just be the finest monument to the art deco style anywhere, even as it soars above the all too manifest limitations of that style.

Above: The entrance to One Wall Street, originally the Irving Trust Company Building, New York City, designed by Voorhees, Gmelin and Walker, completed 1931. The luminous mosaics are visible through the windows.  The jagged pattern of the glass mosaics inside the banking room at One Wall Street was designed by Voorhees, Gmelin and Walker; Hildreth Meière (1892-1961) determined the scale and colors.