Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

From Peer to Obscurity: Julius Moessel and the Fall of an Artistic Reputation

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

From Peer to Obscurity: Julius Moessel and the Fall of an Artistic Reputation

Article excerpt

IN DECEMBER OF 2005, an Indiana reporter broke the story of four i940S-era paintings by a Chicago artist named Julius Moessel that had gone missing from the Michigan City, Indiana Library art collection over the years. The library's director, in the process of selling off the institutions art holdings, was less than heartbroken. "I didn't care for Moessel," he told a reporter. "I didn't think he was that great and his paintings weren't worth much." Three to five hundred dollars each, he guessed, perhaps $1500 total. "Compared to what our overall collection grossed . . . that's nothing."1 The library did not file a police report or make an insurance claim; no one knows exactly when the paintings disappeared, and the director doubted their value would reach the insurance policy deductible.

Although the disappearance of the paintings may say little for the Michigan City Library's stewardship of its collections, the director's attitude is a fair indication of Julius Moessel's reputation-if you can call it that-today. He is all but unknown outside of his long-time hometown of Chicago, and even there he is a largely forgotten figure. But this was not always the case. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Moessel's work was regularly displayed in local galleries, at the Art Institute of Chicago, in exhibitions sponsored by the anti-modernist Society for Sanity in Art as well as the rebellious No-Jury Society, and at extravaganzas like the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition and the 1936 International Horticulture Exposition. From the late twenties through the mid-fifties, he exhibited in more than 60 one-man shows or group exhibits, mostly in Chicago, but also at New York's Studio Guild, the Corcoran Gallery in D.C., the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Detroit Institute of Art, and other cities. And for most of those years, Chicago's two leading art critics- bitter opponents on most aesthetic matters-celebrated Moessel as one of Chicago's most important artists, and without question its standout muralist.

Such acclaim was nothing new. Julius Moessel arrived from Germany in the late 1920s with an established reputation as a successful muralist and painter of architectural decoration. The Chicago years constituted a second career and a different artistic direction, a turn from large building commissions to gallery-bound easel paintings. Still, despite a robust exhibition record and staunch critical champions during more than a quarter-century of activity, today Moessel is barely known even among historians of Chicago art, and to those vaguely aware of the name, he is dismissed as a minor figure. How does such a critical reputation fade, and how did the history of Chicago art leave Moessel behind? Not surprisingly, the reasons are multiple and intertwined, but they are all ultimately rooted in the politics and commerce of the art world in the 1930s and 1940s, in Chicago and beyond. Teasing out these threads will not only explain why Moessel's once bright reputation dimmed, but also provide broader insights into the mechanics and ideologies of inclusion in and exclusion from the roster of who counts and who doesn't in postwar Chicago art. Before pursuing that analysis, however, it will be useful to sketch the artist's career, and document just how substantial his reputation really was.

From Walls to Easels

"A 100% mural painter" is how Julius Moessel described himself in a 1935 autobiographical sketch, and that's how he spent the first three decades of his career.2 Born in 1871 in Fürth, Bavaria, the artist studied at the Munich Academy under Rudolph von Seitz, a well-known decorative painter and illustrator. Moessel achieved success as a muralist and painter of architectural decoration while still in his twenties, and by the early 1900s had established a reputation as one of Germany's most important architectural painters, with his work in demand by leading German architects. His best-known projects were government buildings and theaters, including City Halls at Leipzig, Duisburg, and Nürnberg, and the Jury Room in Nürnbergs Central Justice Building (site of the 1940s war crimes trials), as well as several officers' clubs on military bases. …

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