Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Mural Unvanishes

"Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it."
--Galadriel, LOTR, The Fellowship of the Ring, New Line Cinema

At least 30% of William Ernst Hentschel’s lost canvas ‘mural’ commissioned by the chairman of the Western & Southern Insurance Company, Charles F. Williams, in 1951, entitled "Joys of Living", exists as smaller cut-outs from the original 99’ x 20’ panels in the collection of a Northern Kentucky family according to reporting by this blog.
This eyewitness account of the mural’s fate has never been published before.
My eyewitness source began working for Western & Southern in 1958 at a salary of $65 per week and was employed by the company for a decade.
The now 70+ year-old source remembers the mural hanging along the wall of the staircase linking the lobby with the 3rd floor employee cafeteria but admits, “I didn’t pay much attention to it.”
Within a short period of time my eyewitness source developed a “nodding acquaintance” with Robert Lippert, then director of custodial services or maintenance for Western & Southern and his ‘employee store’ through which Lippert’s department sold outdated office equipment, fixtures and furniture to Western & Southern employees.
Having a young family, limited income and a new home, my source visited this storeroom frequently and made several purchases including lighting fixtures, an adding machine and other unremembered items.
One day in the early 1960’s (most likely after Western & Southern installed lobby elevators in 1963), as my source was strolling through the ‘store’ with Lippert, a large, rolled mound of what appeared to be colored canvas or heavy cloth was observed piled upon the concrete storeroom floor.
The mounded rolls on the heavily traveled storeroom floor appeared as colored cloth to my source since the junked mural was improperly rolled and mounded with the painted surface facing out. Additionally, the canvas had jagged edges and other marks or wear indicating that it had been roughly torn from its wooden supports prior to being dumped on the storeroom floor.
The mural/mound’s weight would depend upon the thickness of the canvas and the weight of the applied pigments.
 However, if the mural’s canvas was ¼“ thick and without paint the torn 99’ x 20’ cloth could have weighed approximately 391 lbs.
My source asked Robert Lippert what the mound of colored material was and Lippert replied that it was “the mural from the old stairway to the cafeteria.”
Masking astonishment my source asked Lippert, “if it was for sale and what they wanted for it.” Lippert asked my source what they’d be willing to pay and my eyewitness jokingly replied, “$5.” Lippert said he would have to check with William ‘Dow’ Stafford, then president of Western & Southern (he became President in 1956 and Chairman in 1973).
As Lippert was checking the mural’s sale price with the company President, my source worried that the joking $5 offer might create personal employment problems at the starched, highly disciplined, then very Catholic institution.
Surprisingly, for my worried eyewitness, word quickly came back from Stafford that the canvas was free if they could transport it from the storeroom.
My source insisted on paying Lippert a token of $1.
So, with a friend and a truck, Hentschel’s mural traveled across the Ohio River and back to Kentucky where it had been painted and where Billy was now resting in the Earth.
Unrolling it at home the source, “was shocked at what Western & Southern had just tossed.”
Having no space for anything so gigantic, an irritated spouse and no knowledge of how to care for a massive painting on canvas, the mural was re-rolled painted side out, as it had been found, and placed on the basement concrete floor of the eyewitness’ home where the mound became the occasional playtime focus of the source’s young children.
In 1964 or 1965 my source made contact with Billy Hentschel’s widow and mural co-creator, Alza Stratton Hentschel (Billy died June 19, 1962) and invited her to travel from April Hill Farm, near Burlington in Boone County, one evening for a very emotional reunion with Billy’s “Joys of Living”.
As Alza sobbed in the source’s basement before the unrolled mural, she explained how she and Billy had used family members as models and how this and Billy’s recent passing had magnified her emotional reaction to seeing the torn, ill-kept remains of her husband’s largest and what he had hoped to be a long lasting public creation.
My source and Alza, standing before the unrolled mural and as the source’s children scampered about the basement, decided to cut-down the unwieldy and damaged canvas and divide the cut-out canvases between them.
After the cutting and as the children watched, Alza, using a brush and paints she had brought with her, signed Billy’s and her name to several of the cut-down paintings.
A now adult child of the source, several years ago, had the canvases stretched onto wooden supports but the surviving fragile canvases remain unframed and unrestored.
As a history blogger, my understanding of Hentschel’s mural initially came from several of the standard reference books dealing with the Rookwood Pottery and various articles from the newspaper archive of the Cincinnati Public Library wherein the mural is always described as “a treasure of Cincinnati", a treasure I was itching to see.
I did not find any published feature stories concerning Billy’s mural in the Cincinnati Public Library’s newspaper archive but in the Art Museum archive I did find, with the assistance of an archivist, an unpublished report about a Hentschel art exhibit in Miami, FL along with a proposal for a story about the mural submitted to Jerry Hurter, City Editor of The Cincinnati Times-Star by Christine Marting of the Cincinnati Art Museum dated February 28, 1952, a full 7 months before Charles F. Williams' death on September 11, 1952.
Ms. Marting writes:

"Proposal for a feature story on a mural at the Western and Southern Company completed during the last year…Mr. Hentschel will begin his 31st year of teaching at the Art Academy this fall on September 22....The mural is 99 feet long, about 20 feet high and goes up 3 flights of stairs. It was painted in their studio at home and then put on the walls of the insurance company. This is one of the most important artistic commissions awarded to any artist in this area in some time. The Times-Star may be particularly interested in running it soon because of Mr. Charles Williams’ grave illness. Mr. Hentschel will be glad to show you the mural and to furnish descriptive cut lines."

In 2009 I engaged in a brief, unproductive email correspondence with an Executive Assistant to a member of the Williams family who claimed no knowledge of the mural, staircase or even the 3rd floor cafeteria. I was not allowed access to any business records or even Western & Southern annual reports from the necessary time periods.
Up until the family of my source made contact, my best information concerning Billy’s lost mural was obtained following my Ebay purchase in 2002 of a 15 page booklet written and published for a Hentschel retrospective by a now defunct Michigan art gallery, the Duke Gallery, in 1987. A pristine copy of this booklet, containing Hentschel‘s biography and oeuvre, exists within the Hentschel files of the Cincinnati Art Museum archive as do 4 B&W photographs exactly matching the Duke Gallery descriptions and labeled on the photos’ reverse in Billy’s penciled handwriting, “Section of mural by William E. Hentschel for Western and Southern Insurance Co.”
Until the discovery of the surviving 30%, these 4 B&W photographs were the only known images of the mural, buried unseen in the archive.
However, further study of the 4 images indicates an absent 5th photograph of a still unknown section of mural, what looks to have been a Venetian harbor scene, as judged by the tantalizing remains on the edges of the surviving adjacent panel photograph (the 1st image in this post).
That 5th photograph does not exist within the Cincinnati Art Museum's Hentschel file.  It could exist having been misplaced into a different Rookwood artist's file but I've not checked.
In 2005 I received this email from a blog reader:

“Back in the seventies I helped Alza Stratton Hentschel move to Lexington KY from Burlington KY…and heard a few stories. There were boxes and boxes of Rookwood/ Kenton Hills Pottery and glazing information that I packed. I knew this info was extremely valuable but any time I inquired about to Mrs.Hentschel she became guarded to the point of hostility about my interest in her husband’s work. I gave up out of respect for her but have remained haunted by the memory. I moved her to the "Belle Court" section of Lexington. I would like to know how the galleries in Louisville and Lexington ended up with that estate. Did Alza Stratton Hentschel leave the estate to anyone particular or was the estate sold at auction intestate? Her only relative I saw was her mother whom Alza called "bright eyes". She never spoke a word but had these very intense blue eyes. My three days with her proved ...different? She remained guarded…We talked of art mostly. She was indeed a wonderful painter as well as she showed me some of her work. I was working in ceramics at the time so we established rapport right away. Any discussion of Billy’s' work brought an immediate change in her personality. I thought she may have had mental problems because of her swift changes in mood. Now I think she may have just been a lonely old woman with her memories and a genuine mistrust of everyone.”

Alza Stratton Hentschel died in 1982 and her collection, through Lexington galleries or personal connections, seems to have made its undocumented way to what would become the Duke Gallery biography and show in 1987.
One of the adult children of my eyewitness has tried over many years to learn more about their family’s unintentional legacy.
Without success this person spoke with Cincinnati gallery owners and museum people who quickly and surprisingly to the eyewitness’ family brushed off the cut-outs and Hentschel.  "He hasn't come into his time," one gallery owner said coyly and curiously now in retrospect.
Not until one of the family members stumbled across my blog in February of 2013 and thought to themselves, “Hey, that’s one of the paintings,” did the family fully understand what they possessed. But, many questions remain about Billy’s mural.
Why was a mural displayed in the Western & Southern building from 1952 thru 1962 treated so brutally?
Surely Charles F. Williams paid Billy something for his labors?
Billy was nothing if not a capitalist and would have wanted payment.
Why wasn’t the mural sold or given to the Cincinnati Art Museum for a tax write-off?
Why was the mural ripped and torn from its wooden supports?
Why was it unceremoniously dumped on a storeroom floor and why was it intentionally rolled into a pile with its painted surface exposed?
Why was it sold for $1?
Did the mural’s destruction have anything to do with its biracial dancers or the political storms of the 1940s and 50s that saw the destruction of many political and non political murals across the American landscape of that time?
In December of 1990, Congress passed the Visual Artist’s Rights Act (VARA) following 10 years of debate, a significant change in American copywrite law.
This law gives American artists “moral rights” including the “right of attribution,” granting artists the right to be identified with their works, and second, the “right of integrity,” granting artists the right to protect their works from modification or destruction. The passage of VARA imposes a legal liability for those who destroy, alter, or mutilate a mural and requires conservators to preserve the artistic intent of the artist. Further, under VARA, if a mural can be moved and the owner wishes it moved, that owner must make a diligent, good faith effort to notify the artist or the artist’s estate. A copywrite is a proprietary interest that vests in a creator from the moment an idea is fixed in a tangible medium of expression and invests artists as authors under the Copywrite Act of 1976 and their estates for 70 years after the artist’s death (June 19, 2032 in Billy’s case) the exclusive rights to reproduce, prepare adaptions (called “derivative works”), distribute, perform, and display their original works.
VARA would not protect a commissioned mural unless when faced with destruction or removal the artist was not notified in writing and extended the right to oversee their own personal removal of the mural.
Without this warning all rights with the mural’s removal and destruction devolved to Billy and liability might exist and remain until 2032 upon the Western & Southern Company and the Williams family.
As I publish this post the city of Cincinnati finds itself mural crazy both with charitable efforts to paint the city and efforts to salvage mosaic murals now unwanted at Cincinnati’s airport, once from Cincinnati’s art deco triumph, the Union Terminal train station.
Despite this tragic story and the beauty of the surviving “treasure” it remains to be seen whether William & Alza Hentschel’s “Joys of Living” will ever be recognized by Cincinnati’s art elite and general public for the treasure it remains or if the crime of its destruction, intentional or not, will ever be elaborated for the historical record.
The romantic in your humble blogger knows that if the Art Museum’s B&W photos were ever enlarged to the dimensions of the original and displayed with the surviving cut-outs positioned in their proper places as shown above in small the city of Cincinnati would have itself one beautiful and highly emotional tribute to a great artist who loved this petulant city with all his heart and whose mural didn't deserve this grotesque fate.

NOTE—I’m very interested in any photographs of the W&S lobby from the 1952 thru 1962 time period.  I am particularly interested in any photos that show the mural in situ. Images can be emailed to the address at the bottom of this non mobile web page after my name.

Sources: The Cincinnati Public Library Newspaper Archive, The Cincinnati Art Museum, ‘Parade of Discovery: The Works of William E. Hentschel 1892-1962’ by Don Wellman, ‘The Legal and Ethical Consideration of Mural Conservation: Issues and Debates’ by Ann Garfinkle, 2003, The Getty Conservation Institute
Images: Cincinnati Art Museum, Private Collections

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