Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s extensive mural cycle depicting the history of humankind was created for the Main Library then located at Fifth Street and Santa Monica Boulevard. The artist painted the mural entirely by himself on more than 38 plywood panels that were prepared by two technical assistants who carefully measured, cut and doweled them together so that the mural appeared seamlessly on every wall of the main reading room. Work on the project began on February 8, 1934 and the mural was publicly unveiled on August 25, 1935.
The mural’s twin narratives celebrating artistic and scientific achievements were integral to the original installation scheme. Upon entering the library, the viewer’s attention focused on the opposite (or north) wall behind the circulation desk. There a series of seven Prologue panels depicted the “technical and imaginative pursuits” of early humans as they sought to overcome nature. A lunette-shaped panel fitted underneath an arch over the desk portrayed the dissemination of knowledge as people from all parts of the world assembled on land and by sea. Above the lunette, the beginning of the mural was marked by a small keystone panel that linked the scientific panels (moving away from the Prologue to the left along the northwest, west and southwest walls) with the creative arts’ narrative (moving to the right along the northeast, east and southeast walls). The mural’s themes came together in the moving picture panels positioned on the south wall near the main entrance. Macdonald-Wright considered film to be the consummate art and technical medium; and therefore made the film-shooting scene a centerpiece of the mural.
Macdonald-Wright painted more than 160 figures, including 46 portraits, of legendary, historical and living individuals who represented art, philosophy, music, science, industry, literature, film, theology and scholarship among other achievements. Important figures from both Eastern and Western civilization, such as Lao Tzu, Aristotle, Socrates, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Confucius, Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Poe are depicted. Santa Monica natives, like actress Gloria Stuart, and local landscapes and flora are also portrayed.
Documentation of the original mural installation is provided by the mural catalogue of 1935 (reproduced in the Artist’s Statement); Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives’ photographs of the mural in situ from 1935 to 1965; Smithsonian American Art Museum registrar’s files; and records of the mural’s conservation by ConservArt in 2005-06.
The current installation of the Santa Monica Public Library Mural follows a scheme developed by the new Main Library’s architects Moore Ruble Yudell (MRY) of Santa Monica, working with the Main Library project team, the mural consultant, and the conservators. One of the challenges of reinstalling Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s 2,000-square-foot composition was that the original order and arrangement of its 38 constituent panels was site-specific to the expanded and remodeled Carnegie library building. After carefully considering a plan to hang the mural panels in their original order, MRY recommended an alternative scheme. This layout displays most of the mural high on perimeter walls of the new library’s second floor reading area; keeps panels grouped in cohesive scenes; and avoids some of the indiscriminant breaking up of panels that placing them in their original order would have resulted in the new library facility.
Prologue panels in the new Main Library.
William Short Photography.
The seven panels making up the Prologue, for example, are hung high on the large wall expanse along the Seventh Street side of the new Main Library. A key panel grouping in the scientific or technical narrative stream – featuring Laplace and Hershel; Newton, Galileo, and Copernicus; and Bacon – is clustered in the Reference area. What Macdonald-Wright considered the culmination of the mural cycle, the Moving Picture Industry scene, is strategically hung in one of the new library’s most striking architectural features, the second-level belvedere, which provides views down Santa Monica Boulevard to the ocean. In a few cases, the grouping of panels was an aesthetic decision. For example, the pairing of the Modern Industrial Life panel with a section from “The Ring of the Nibelung” scene was made because both of these panels are similar in size and shape and therefore appear aesthetically as pendant pieces in the reinstallation scheme.
After conserving most of the mural in 2005, ConservArt Associates installed all of the panels using a system involving angled metal brackets. Panels placed low on the wall are protected by glass shields. The current installation shows the unique shapes of the mural panels resulting from their spanning door and window frames in the old library. It also reveals dowel details of some of the panels that were separated as part of their new placement. The conservation team installed the mural cycle in stages with most of it hung by the Main Library’s Grand Opening on January 7, 2006. The remaining panels were installed by early February 2006.
Famous scientists' panels in new Main Library. William Short Photography.
Moving Picture and Steel Worker panels in the new Main Library. William Short Photography
|Diagram of mural installation detail using angled bracket approach for Zeno panel. ConservArt Associates, 2004.|