Friday, May 20, 2011

The Art of the Missouri Capitol

Well, my friends, here is a book you need to have. It’s been years in the making, and it’s hot off the presses! Ta-dahhh!

If you’re a Missourian, this book will make you proud, because its subject is a source of pride: the marvelous paintings, sculptures, stained glass, and other artworks that decorate our capitol in Jefferson City.

I have to admit, because my grandmas lived in Jeff City and we visited the capitol a lot, I grew up with a skewed idea of what a capitol building should be like. Aren’t they all, basically, big, huge, glorious art and history museums, where hot-air politicians happen to meet occasionally for the purposes of legislation? . . . They aren’t?

The Missouri state capitol is often ranked among the most beautiful in the United States. It was built during the end of the American Renaissance architectural era in a classical-inspired style, before Art Deco and other modern, less majestic styles became popular—so the grandeur of the architecture, by itself, inspires awe.

But what really sets the Missouri capitol apart is the “decoration”—truly an understatement for what we have: a collection of works by some of the finest artists and muralists between the two world wars, which has been augmented with more top-rate art ever since.

Around 1917, when it was clear that the special tax to raise funds for the construction of the new capitol would produce surplus income, the state stuck to its plan for allocating that money for the capitol, and channeled the revenue into the artworks that adorn it today. (Folks, think about our state: this would never happen today! How lucky we are that they made that decision when they did.)

Our state owes great thanks to the “Capitol Decoration Commission,” chaired by Dr. John Pickard (of the University of Missouri—Pickard Hall, home of the Museum of Art and Architecture, is named after him). This group of five prominent and well-connected Missouri art connoisseurs were charged with selecting artists--some of the greatest, from American and abroad--and seeking bids for the paintings, sculptures, and other artwork to adorn what were originally blank walls and plain pediments in the state’s newly built capitol.

The Decoration Commission was also, of course, charged with staying within budget and meeting deadlines, and, as you can imagine, they simultaneously had to deal with artists’ idiosyncrasies and the artistic ignorance and short-sightedness of some outspoken, obstinate legislators. They had to play political games that none of them relished at all.

It wasn’t an easy task! But the commission fulfilled its obligation beautifully, and the result is a collection of breathtaking, priceless artworks owned by the people of Missouri and proudly on display at our state capitol.

This year, 2011, marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the destruction of the old capitol building, an event that paved the way for the construction of the present capitol. It’s also the ninetieth anniversary of the unveiling of the first big batch of artworks, as well as the seventieth anniversary of the completion of the famous mural by Thomas Hart Benton in the capitol’s House Lounge.

Thus it’s appropriate that a book like this be published this year—and unlike most “media” flittering around our culture these days, a volume like this isn’t created “overnight,” or even in a month! (Note sarcasm.) It was at least ten years in the making. The authors, Missouri historian Bob Priddy and art historian Jeffrey Ball, have been researching and studying the artworks and the stories behind their creation for well over a decade (actually, more like twenty years).

Click here to read a statement on the book by Bob Priddy, who, gracious as always, puts the emphasis on the greatness of his subject as opposed to himself.

This book’s publication also required persistence, resolve, and serious fund-raising efforts by numerous state leaders, among them Senator Wayne Goode and Kenneth Winn; and the book has been delivered to us in a lovely and substantial form by the talented staff at the University of Missouri Press (check out their catalog; they’re the publisher for Missouri subjects).

In addition to the stories of how the commission chose and worked with the artists, there’s an added layer of history to the project, since most of the works in the capitol depict some historic episode or person in Missouri’s past, either straightforwardly or symbolically. Indeed, if you study the capitol artworks, and read the commentary in this book, you will essentially receive a crash course in the history of Missouri. (And you’ll have a blast in the process!)

When I first heard about this project about ten years ago, I was thrilled with the idea of there being simply a full-color book containing beautiful color pictures of all the capitol’s artworks—not even counting any informative and authoritative text. And this book “delivers” in that sense, too; it’s like an exhibition catalogue—but so much more.

When you’re visiting the capitol, you’re usually on a schedule; the hallways are rather dark; it’s hard to study the paintings. But in this book, you can see entire murals, sculptures, stained-glass windows, for extended contemplation, even though they are a small fraction of their actual size.

The principal photographer for this project was Jefferson City’s incredibly talented Lloyd Grotjan, who owns Full Spectrum Photo and Audio on High Street. In addition to his dozens of technically flawless, sharp reproductions of all the enormous murals, his many architectural photos capture subtle details of our capitol as well the sweeping vistas of rotundas, staircases, and galleries.

The Missouri state capitol—its structure, its artwork, its museum—is a priceless treasure owned by the people of our state. This book tells the story of its beautiful art; and hopefully, it will remind us of how precious our capitol is, and how important it is to maintain it.

Suggested in This Post----

Visit the Missouri State Capitol

Yep, you can just walk right in and start looking around. This isn’t a monarchy, and we don’t have royalty: this breathtaking, majestic building belongs to the citizens of Missouri. The capitol is deservedly Jefferson City’s number-one tourist attraction.

Make sure you visit the Missouri State Museum on the first floor, which on one side highlights Missouri’s natural history, and on the other, the history of Missouri’s people. But don’t forget to go up to the second and third floors to enjoy the paintings, sculpture, views, and architecture.

I recently spoke with a fellow, a grown man and a business owner, here in Jeff City, who admitted he hadn’t been inside the capitol since he was a child. What the—?! Needless to say, he shall remain nameless, since I don’t want to embarrass this fellow.

Take a Guided Tour the Capitol

Guided tours allow you to see some areas normally unavailable to the public, including the incredible Benton paintings in the House Lounge. These free tours are offered Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (except during the noon hour); and Sundays at 10:00, 11:00, 2:00, and 3:00. (If you have more than ten in your group, you need reservations. Click here for more information on guided tours).

Buy the Book!

This book belongs in the home of every proud Missourian. Here are some links so you can purchase it; take your pick: the publisher’s site; Downtown Book and Toy; Amazon.

Step right up!

Thank you, Sue, for sharing some of your beautiful photos for this post. You're a really excellent photographer, and I don't know what I'd do without you! You make my blog look far better than it really is!


MSA said...

Hidden gem needs more promotion. I hope capital arts gallery and the Jefferson art club can help promote more events and items like this. I really appreciate the effort to help Mid Missouri. Great book.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thank you for your comment, MSA. I have to disagree with you on one point: the Missouri State Capitol isn't exactly a hidden gem--heck, you get great views of it from nearly every major throughfare in town. It's a plain as day.

But the artwork inside--the capitol could very easily be mentioned alongside the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Nelson, the Daum in Sedalia, MU's Museum of Art and Archaeology, and others as a "must-see" art destination in our state.

The capitol's art is often taken for granted--by out-of-towners, because they don't care much about Jeff City, and by locals, for whom it's "old news." The situation is a shame, and I'm sure that funding--for sponsoring exciting new exhibitions and for publicity--is a big part of it.

Thanks again for your kind comment, and yes, it is a great book!