The Art of Work

By - Nov 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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By Kerensa Edinger

Milwaukee already has an art museum that in itself is a feat of engineering, but a museum dedicated to the art of engineering is another thing altogether. It may seem an anomaly, but we now have one of those, too. The new Grohmann Museum, on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), is home to Man at Work: The Eckhart G. Grohmann Collection, the largest and most comprehensive of its kind. From agriculture to alchemy, coal mining to tax collecting, the approximately 700 paintings and sculptures display the vast breadth and evolution of human industry.

With few exceptions, the artwork comes from the private collection of Dr. Eckhart Grohmann, an MSOE Regent, Milwaukee businessman and avid collector. Grohmann grew up in Germany, where he would often visit his grandfather’s marble processing business and quarry in Silesia (now part of Poland). In watching the stonecutters and sculptors toil to select and transform their raw materials, he developed an admiration for the beauty of work. To Dr. Grohmann, work is an essential, evolving aspect of human progress.

Currently the chairman and president of Milwaukee’s Aluminum Casting and Engineering Company, which makes high-volume aluminum components for the automotive industry, Dr. Grohmann began his extensive art collection in the 1960s. Grohmann and his wife, Ischi, have long contributed to scholarships for MSOE students and donated funds to buy the property for the Kern Center, MSOE’s health and wellness facility, just a block from the museum.

In the same philanthropic vein, Grohmann donated his collection for the purpose of establishing a museum and provided the funds to purchase and renovate the building that would house it. Constructed in 1924, the three-story, 38,000 square-foot concrete structure was home first to an automobile dealership, Metropolitan Cadillac, and then later occupied by the Federal Reserve Bank until 2004. To fit the needs of the Federal Reserve Bank, the building had relatively small windows and secure, anonymous entrances.

MSOE purchased the structure in 2005; demolition and renovation began in September of 2006. Uihlein-Wilson, the project’s architects, kept the small windows –ideal for allowing in just enough light to preserve the delicate artwork – but replaced the corner of the building at Broadway and State with a glass cylindrical atrium capped by an open metalwork dome.

Soaring over the museum’s entryway is the 700-square-foot mural, its two hemispheres, Vulcan’s Forge and Great Minds of History, linked by a spinning celestial wheel. Vulcan’s Forge reinterprets The Element of Fire, a 16th-century painting by a student of Francesco Bassano that depicts the Roman god Vulcan forging arrows for his son Cupid while Venus, combing her hair with one breast demurely bared, looks on.

For his mural, the German artist H.D. Tylle lifted these primary figures from their cluttered, gloomy backdrop and set them against a simple landscape of rolling hills and blue sky. He used live models and new costumes to paint the figures, transforming the placid, stylized originals into striking creatures of flesh and blood. The poses are the same, but the faces are more arresting and the colors more vivid.

Opposite the deities stand five intellectual giants in front of an arched doorway with the inscription “Scientia sine arte nihil est:” Science without art is nothing. To the left of the doorway, Johannes Gutenberg cradles a book from his press and looks over the shoulder of Leonardo da Vinci as he inspects the blueprint of a flying machine. To the right, Thomas Edison gazes directly down at the viewer, hands tucked into his vest pockets, while Marie Curie holds up a beaker for the observation of Albert Einstein. Another arched building behind Einstein reads “Carpe Diem.”

Directly below the imposing celestial and intellectual presences lies a tile mosaic. Five figures, each lifted from a different work in the collection, ring a pentagram that reads, “Man at Work.” The figures, more modern and vibrantly colored than their originals, are shown in active poses and are interspersed with tools of their respective trades.

The two circular pieces are physically linked by a spiral staircase and intangibly connected by their inspiration and purpose. Tylle explains the reasoning behind the mural and mosaic: the Roman deities represent the tradition of human labor; the great thinkers stand for intellectual guidance in industry; the wheel is one of humanity’s greatest inventions and the cherubs supporting it illustrate how mortal inspiration is handed down from the heavens. The workers in the mosaic below embody all those who take traditions, ideas and heavenly guidance, and physically manifest them in their work.

Tylle has spent 28 years painting industrial art; 45 of his paintings are in the Grohmann collection. Tylle always works on location to ensure that he includes as much visual information as possible in his paintings. “A painting,” he says, “gives you a lot of information from all sides, giving you a complex impression of the subject that you can’t get from photos.” And Tylle’s paintings of factories do seem to bustle with life, activity and the sounds of clanking machinery.

“Children don’t know what their fathers do anymore… people don’t know where their products come from,” Tylle says, so he includes the human element as much as he can in his depictions of work. Addressing this disconnect between material goods and the industry that produces them is part of the Grohmann museum’s mission.

Collection and Exhibition Manager James Kieselburg II emphasizes that first and foremost, the museum is for “the enrichment of the MSOE community” and “enhancing the profile and status of MSOE.” Though the museum is also intended for the benefit the public, it is Dr. Grohmann’s desire that the collection first benefit MSOE. Works from the collection were incorporated into MSOE curricula even before a museum was planned; this informal exposure to art broadened the students’ approach to their chosen fields and gave them access to different modes of interpretation.

After Dr. Grohmann and MSOE President Hermann Viets, Ph.D., decided to have a formal venue for Man at Work, a process of integration began. MSOE held Gallery Night rotations to showcase works from the collection and gradually hired new staff members to develop, organize, and run the new museum.

At press time, both the atrium mural and mosaic were complete, the latter still protected by sheets of plywood with the former receiving last minute touch-ups by the artist. The galleries were empty and still, with only a few paintings propped against the walls. MSOE students filed through the hallways: the building also houses several classrooms.

Outside, scaffolding ringed the entrance, and in the parking lot, a crane lifted a large bronze statue by its neck onto a platform. Two statues already in place on the rooftop waited patiently to be joined by their brethren. A total of twelve bronze statues, all nine-foot-tall replicas of pieces in the collection, will stand on the roof, with six smaller statues displayed in the garden’s interior. Above the atrium, eight stained-glass windows waited to be installed in the dome.

The museum has three exhibition floors plus a lower level and rooftop sculpture garden. Facilities include a vending cafe, a workshop, a gift shop and an auditorium, as well as faculty offices and classrooms. The rooftop garden has 18 sculptures and can be reserved for special events.

The inaugural exhibition, Physicians, Quacks and Alchemists, features 17th century paintings depicting a time when barbers performed major surgery without anesthesia, snake oil salesmen made their rounds and “old sawbones” was an accurate job title. The exhibition opened on October 27, 2007 and runs through January 13, 2008. For more information, call (800) 332-6763 or visit


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