Saturday, November 11, 2017

Man at Work by Klaus Turk

The Eckhart G. Grohmann Museum of Industrial Art is an impressive building of art on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a native of Milwaukee and as someone with several professional connections to MSOE, I have been inside the building many times and have always enjoyed the minutes I have spent perusing and contemplating its art collection.

Man at Work is a coffee-table sized book that showcases and describes the museum’s collection in some detail. Its subtitle, 400 Years in Paintings and Bronzes: Labor and the Evolution of Industry Art, gives you some sense of the scope of what is ready to confront the casual viewer who visits the museum. As I have described to many a friend and colleague, it’s generally not until you move onto the museum’s third floor that you begin to appreciate how deep this tradition is in the history or art -- this depiction of man at work -- and how illuminating this collection is on that penetrating subject.

The book, however, is a bit of a disappointment. Not in its colorful reproductions of this wonderful collection, but in what it has to say about it.

Here’s an example -- the reproduction, with the author commentary that accompanies it.

Unknown: Large Hydraulic Forge Press With Workers, oil on canvas, 39x31 in., signed

A hydraulic six-post forging press is shown. It is capable of producing force of up to 30 tons on workpieces. In the operation illustrated in this painting, large blocks formed in the steel mill casting house are initially heated to a glowing state and forged at the ends to form two end supports, or plugs. Each end plug is hung from a chain loop as seen in the painting. Then the rough workpiece between the end plugs is lengthened to a six-sided shaft with continual pressing in the forge, guided by transverse movements of two overhead cranes and the turning of the piece. The turning of the forge piece is accomplished by the chain loop at each end. The worker in the foreground supervises the lengthening process with a measuring stick.

There are literally hundreds of pages like this. Colorful and abstract renderings of heavy industry processes and the men who skillfully carry them out -- accompanied by commentary that penetrates no deeper than a surface level description of the work being depicted. Exploration of such artistic concepts as composition and color are almost entirely absent, as is any illumination regarding artistic intent or sociological significance.

Typically, the only places where these concepts get any play is in the short introductions that head each thematic section of artwork. But even here, the intense artistic motivations that drove the creation of these wonderful pieces seem to be recognized as subservient to the much more useful role of these paintings and sculptures as accurate records of historical significance.

Metal Processing

After melting, forging and rolling, the finished metal becomes raw material for the metalworking industry. This is a widely diversified industry which produces a variety of both capital equipment and consumer products. Artists have not found the metal processing industry to be as appealing a theme as mining and ore processing. The spectacles of fire and smoke are diminished in metal processing, providing less drama. The symbolic confrontation between work and the power of nature is also less of a factor.

In spite of this, art history comprises a considerable number of visual pieces featuring the metalworking sector, including examples in the Eckhart G. Grohmann Collection. These examples range across the spectrum from allegorical works … to portrayals of grinding and polishing, wire drawing, construction projects, the building of industrial installations, machining and shipbuilding. All these pieces afford a view of the intermediate production and work processes. They combine machines and tools with human effort, mostly performed in large manufacturing plants. The technologies they portray are not always historically accurate, but they generally reflect the working atmosphere of industrial production.

As such, they are not primarily historical technical documents, but rather reflect an artistic impression of the complex system of industrial production, including a sociological view of the work environment in which the workers spend a great deal of their lives.

It was a pity for this reader, who is much more interested in the “artistic impression of the complex system of industrial production,” than in “historical technical documents.”

In service of that former interest, here are the few examples that really stood out for me.

Gärtner, Fritz [German, 1882-1958]: Bread and Iron, oil on canvas, 29x43 in., signed

Both allegorical paintings by Fritz Gärtner reflect a cultural view common in the period between 1900 and 1945. Agriculture and iron production are combined in the same scene to emphasize both sources of national wealth. Implicit in the scene is mining, which makes the production possible. Gärtner’s style yields an idealized and romanticized picture. A grain field in the foreground has been harvested and the sheaves set up to form stock. The industrial complex looms in the background along the banks of a river. A bridge, heavy with traffic, spans the river symbolizing triumph over nature. From the right bank of the river a new expressway bridge is under construction, its cantilever projecting over the water. Two blast furnaces at the center release a fiery glow and a pair of recuperators occupies the right side. A forest of smoke stacks dominates the entire scene, the resulting fumes nearly eclipsing the sun.

Gärtner, Fritz [German, 1882-1958]: Fire and Grain Sheaves, oil on cardboard, 27.5x39 in., 1914, signed

The [second] painting stresses a romantic view through its nocturnal version with a combination of royal blue and gold colors. It also emphasizes the unceasing power of production, in contrast to the interrupted farming in the foreground.

Looking at these paintings with my modern eye, the last thing I thought the artist intended was a positive message about national strength. To me, the juxtaposition of the by-products of heavy industrial production with the output of human agrarian effort more easily lends itself to a mournful interpretation. One age passing to the next. And the visual similarity of Gärtner’s Fire and Grain Sheaves and Van Gogh’s Starry Night is too obvious not to receive a comment.

The sociological meaning of this next one is too important to keep even the author of this work from providing its context.

The construction of the Autobahn, or German national highway system, was driven by the Third Reich and based partly on earlier plans from the 1920s. It not only created employment for a large number of the unemployed and demonstrated the increasing power of the Third Reich, but also created a major military transportation asset. As with other major projects of the Hitler regime, the workers were subjected to enormous propaganda. Many artists were commissioned to document the construction activities. … Bridges are the favorite subject of those who paint Autobahn construction scenes. In a special way, bridges embody the art of engineering, the productivity of construction, and the resulting accomplishment.

Mercker, Erich [German, 1891-1973]: Teufelstal Autobahn Bridge Between Jena and Gera, Germany, oil on cardboard, 16x20 in., signed

Here Mercker intentionally presents a more impressionistic rather than a technical documentary view of a large Autobahn bridge construction. The power of the construction is emphasized by the view from below. The goldlike color of the bridge, together with the brilliant blue sky, results in an edification of the project normally seen only in religious structures. The “Bridges of the Führer” became the symbols of the new Nazi rulers.

In these few examples, we see that these paintings contain a richer tradition than simply that of documenting industrial processes and construction projects. A more enjoyable book would have been one that explored both with equal rigor.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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