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Modern Murals, 1920–1950

Murals, or wall paintings, are one of the oldest forms of visual art known to humans. More than 30,000 years ago, humans painted images on the walls of caves and other natural surfaces. More recently, murals were a popular art form throughout the Roman Empire and in Renaissance Italy. Another revival of mural painting took place between the 1920s and the 1940s, when artists in Europe and the Americas explored modern possibilities for this ancient art form. France, Mexico, and the United States emerged as particular centers for innovative mural painting.

A partially nude woman stands in the center of a large group of men. The men stand and kneel around her, with several figures examining her. The colors are muted and the scene behind the central figure group is obscured.
Fig. 1
Attributed to Il Riccio [Bartolomeo Neroni] (Italian, ca. 1505/15–before 1571). The Continence of Scipio, 1537-39. Fresco transferred to canvas, 50 x 96 1/2 x 2 in. [127 x 245.1 x 5.1 cm]. Gift of Mrs. Julian Bobbs, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 62.170

Traditionally, murals are painted with a technique known as fresco, in which the artist applies pigment directly to wet plaster, resulting in the painting becoming one with the wall. An example of a fresco is this mural attributed to the Sienese painter known as Il Riccio. Frescos must be painted in situ, and allow for little modification by the artist once the plaster has dried. In the late nineteenth century, the idea of a “portable” mural arose. These large-scale paintings on canvas can be affixed to a wall, but may also be removed and placed in another location. Portable murals are ideal for temporary, ephemeral locations such as halls at World’s Fairs. Additionally, some artists created easel paintings for specific architectural sites, further blurring the boundaries between easel and wall paintings.

The Indiana University-Bloomington campus is home to several significant murals, including Thomas Hart Benton’s 1933 mural cycle on the history of the state of Indiana. These works epitomize the figurative style popularly associated with American murals of the 1930s. But artists in the years between the two World Wars also explored other stylistic approaches to mural painting, including abstraction. The Eskenazi Museum of Art is home to one of the most stylistically groundbreaking American murals of the twentieth century: Stuart Davis’s Swing Landscape, the subject of a future exhibition, Swing Landscape: Stuart Davis and the Modernist Mural, scheduled for spring 2022.1 The exhibition catalogue, published by Yale University Press, is available now at the Yale University Press website.

The murals and mural-related paintings featured here were created between 1924 and 1947 for sites as varied as a decorative arts exposition, a public housing project, and a children’s hospital. Although different in style and concept, these works are unified by a sense of experimentation and informed by a spirit of international cultural exchange in an era bracketed by worldwide strife.

In the 1920s, artists in Paris pioneered some of the most avant-garde approaches to mural painting. Fernand Léger, in particular, not only developed completely abstract compositions for murals but also blurred the boundaries between wall and easel paintings. This approach is exemplified in a series of geometric abstract compositions from the mid-1920s that he classified as “mural paintings.” Although they are easel paintings, they were meant to complement the forms and volumes of modernist architecture, in particular the designs of Le Corbusier, with whom Léger began collaborating in 1920. Le Corbusier’s starkly geometric buildings and unornamented white walls—as seen, for example, in the 1923 Villa La Roche in Paris—suggested opportunities for modernist artists to invent a new form of “architectural painting.”

Abstract composition with geometric shapes in brown, white, orange, gray, and black.
The furnished interior of a two-level modernist home is shown in a black-and-white photo. On the main level are two chairs, a tall three-sectioned sideboard with the center door opened down, and an abstract framed painting hanging on the right side. There is a lofted second level with a partially-glass half-height wall.

Figs. 3-4
Left: Fernand Léger (French, 1881–1955). Composition, 1924. Oil on canvas, 51 ½ x 39 ¾ in. (130.8 x 101 cm). Jane and Roger Wolcott Memorial, Gift of Thomas T. Solley, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 75.41.1; Right: Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau, Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 1925. Originally published in the journal L'Architecture Vivant, 1925.

Léger painted Composition in 1925 for Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, a model for a modernist home constructed for the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Le Corbusier considered art integral to his architectural aesthetic. In addition to Léger’s Composition, the model interior contained paintings and sculptures by the modernist artists Henri Laurens, Jacques Lipchitz, and Amédé Ozenfant. These works of art were meant to add color and visual interest to the setting. The flat, interlocking shapes and simplified palette of Composition harmonized perfectly with its architectural environment.

Not all of Léger’s mural-like paintings were quite as austere as Composition. In his large-scale painting of 1919, The City, he drew inspiration from the bright and even cacophonous sights—electric lights, advertising billboards, streetcars, and the like—encountered on the modern urban street. This and similar works by Léger had a profound influence on Stuart Davis, perhaps the most groundbreaking American muralist of the 1930s.

Davis met Léger while spending a year in Paris in 1928–29, and he deepened his relationship with the French artist during Léger’s several visits to the United States in the following decade. Léger’s influence is evident in Swing Landscape; however, Davis has also created a wholly original composition inspired by the landscapes and popular music of the United States. Embedded in the vibrant compositions are references to the seaside town of Gloucester, Massachusetts (where Davis spent many summers), the rhythms of swing music, and, possibly, the bridges and streets of New York City, the mural’s intended home.

An abstracted seaside landscape contained stylized forms representing buoys, ropes, and rigging. Composed of overlapping geometric shapes in very bright colors.
Fig. 6
Stuart Davis (American, 1892–1964). Swing Landscape, 1938. Oil on canvas, 86 ¾ x 173 1/8 in. Allocated by the U.S. Government, Commissioned through the New Deal Art Projects, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 42.1

In 1935, Davis joined the Mural Division of the Federal Art Project, one of the relief programs established under the auspices of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Swing Landscape was commissioned through the Mural Division for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn, one of the first federally subsidized housing developments in this country. While Le Corbusier designed modernist homes integrating painting and sculpture for private clients, the Williamsburg Housing Project’s architects and planners sought to bring modernist art and design to a less privileged demographic.

Designed by William Lescaze in a modernist style inspired by avant-garde German aesthetics of the 1920s, the Williamsburg Housing Project was to be further distinguished through the incorporation of murals and sculptures in its public spaces. Swing Landscape was one of seventeen murals commissioned for the site. However, due to financial concerns—and possibly aesthetic debates—only five murals were ultimately installed. Swing Landscape was not among them, and came instead to Indiana University in 1942. Because it was a “portable mural,” it was easily transportable from one location to another.

Like Swing Landscape, Peter Busa’s mural study for a children's hospital, acquired by the Eskenazi Museum in 2015, was commissioned by the Federal Art Project’s Mural Division. However, unlike Davis, Busa never realized the completion of his mural. Mural designs commissioned through the Federal Art Project went through a lengthy and bureaucratic approval process before they could be finalized and installed. Artists first submitted a black and white sketch, then a color sketch and a full-scale color detail in the same medium in which the mural would be painted. At seven feet long, it is very likely that Busa’s oil painting was one of his final studies for the mural. It is believed to have ultimately been rejected, however, because the hospital’s doctors feared that the abstract composition would frighten their young patients.

Abstracted depiction of two playing children in organic overlapping shapes. They are portrayed in bright colors against a black and white background.
Fig. 8
Peter Busa (American, 1914–1985). Mural Study for Children’s Hospital (Probably Hospital for Chronic Diseases, The Bronx), ca. 1940. Oil on canvas, 27 3/16 x 87 in. (69.1 x 221 cm). Museum purchase with funds from the Clarence W. and Mildred Long Art Purchase Fund, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2015.133

Both Davis’s and Busa’s murals—featuring vibrant palettes, swirling energetic forms, and “allover” compositions that force the eye of the spectator to keep moving—foreshadow the development of Abstract Expressionism in the United States just after World War II. Most American muralists of the 1930s, however, pursued a more figurative style in their work, inspired by the renaissance of mural painting in Mexico. In the 1920s and 1930s, there was a steady exchange of artists and aesthetic ideas between Mexico and the United States, often revolving around mural painting. This cultural exchange is the subject of an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

The Mexican mural movement arose following the conclusion of the Mexican Revolution in 1920. Social and economic reforms implemented at this time spurred a new generation of artists to emphasize the history, culture, and accomplishments of the Mexican people in their work. Many murals were sponsored by the state and installed in governmental, university, and other public buildings, especially in Mexico City. The Eskenazi Museum’s collection contains paintings by two of the most significant Mexican muralists—Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo. Although these paintings are not specifically related to murals, their styles and compositions are reminiscent of these artists’ approaches to mural painting.

David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and Diego Rivera were known as los tres grandes (“the big three”) of the Mexican mural movement. Aligned with the political left, they were deeply sympathetic to the need for social change and celebrated the lives of the country’s working classes, whose culture blended indigenous traditions with Catholic practices. Rivera’s painting Danzante depicts Don Jesús Robles, who worked as a brickmaker and handyman. Rivera portrays him in the garb he wore as a Conchero dancer, a member of a religious association dedicated to preserving traditional dances and music.

A brightly-colored mural shows many people gathered in a sunny park with trees and balloons. One of the central figures is a skeleton in a white dress, who is standing next to a frowning man in a suit and bowler hat on the right and holding hands with a short young man in a too-tight waistcoat and flat hat on the left. Around them are numerous individuals from Mexican history.
Fig. 10
Diego Rivera. Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Park, 1947. Fresco, 51 x 15 feet. Hotel del Prado, Mexico City

Rivera painted the portrait of Robles in 1947, while simultaneously working on a major mural for the Hotel del Prado in Mexico City, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Park. It was painted using the traditional fresco technique, which Rivera had studied in Italy. In his frescoes and easel paintings alike, Rivera preferred a rich, jewel-like palette and simple legible forms that can be easily read from a distance. And like Danzante, the composition of this mural reveals his fascination with human character, presenting a panoply of figures from his own life and from Mexican history.

Rufino Tamayo’s approach to mural painting differed greatly from Rivera’s, as did his political inclinations, although both artists celebrated Mexico’s multicultural heritage and were especially drawn to its pre-Hispanic traditions. But unlike Rivera and his circle, Tamayo was skeptical of the goals of the Mexican Revolution, and he avoided using his art to advance political messages. And whereas Rivera’s communist sympathies had caused him difficulties with commissions in the United States, Tamayo enjoyed great success in New York, where he lived in the 1930s and 1940s. Two Women Combing Their Hair dates to this American period of his career. Tamayo’s aesthetic, as evidenced in this work, diverges greatly from that of Rivera. His somber, earth-toned palette was likely influenced by indigenous pottery, though his subject is one that recurs throughout the history of Western art.

In Bloomington, we are witnessing a mural renaissance of our own. As part of its Bicentennial Heritage Preservation and Campus Beautification Project, Indiana University commissioned new murals for Wright Quad and Presidents Hall on the Bloomington campus. Unveiled in January 2020, the works were created respectively by Caleb Weintraub, associate professor of painting in the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design, and Bonnie Sklarski, professor emerita in the same school. And the process is underway to select an artist to paint a cycle of murals for the Lilly Library. Murals and other forms of public art, some of it ephemeral, can be found throughout Bloomington, as well. A map and guide can be found at Limestone Post Magazine.

Jenny McComas
Curator of European and American Art
With assistance from Michelle Mandarino, Graduate Assistant for European and American Art

The IU Eskenazi Museum of Art would like to thank the Terra Foundation for American Art for their support and generosity of the museum's Curator of European and American Art.


1 Originally scheduled for Fall 2020, the exhibition has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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McComas, Jenny. "Modern Murals, 1920–1950." Collections Online. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2020.

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