"Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meiere,'' at the National Building Museum

By Mark Jenkins
Monday, March 14, 2011; 4:24 PM

Muralist and mosaicist Hildreth Meiere worked on some of the great buildings of the Art Deco period, including Radio City Music Hall, the Nebraska State Capitol and - her first commission - Washington's National Academy of Sciences. So she must have been a modernist, at least by the standards of the 1920s and '30s.

"Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meiere," which opens Saturday at the National Building Museum, gives a qualified assent to Meiere's modernism. Yes, she created art that harmonizes with the streamlined forms of Art Deco structures. But the exhibition reveals three principal things about the New York artist: She was detail-oriented, versatile and something of a classicist.

Along with commercial and government edifices, Meiere worked on numerous churches, cathedrals and synagogues. Many of these have a Hellenistic flavor, suggesting a 20th-century update of imagery you might see in ancient landmarks of Greece or Turkey.

Meiere studied art in Florence but often looked farther East for models. The artist's glass mosaic of St. Peter, designed for "The Transfiguration'' at the Romanesque St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Manhattan, shows Asian simplicity and Mediterranean sunniness; its principal colors are white and gold. Her interior decoration for New York's Temple Emanu-El, the world's largest synagogue, uses sinuous forms - she avoided patterns that might suggest a cross - and a palette heavy on gold and yellow.

All of Meiere's work was collaborative, of course, designed to win the approval of both architects and their clients. The marble floor of the Nebraska State Capitol's foyer uses Greek mythological motifs to express such concepts as "The Genius of Creative Energy.'' But the Senate chamber's ceiling depicts scenes of a more local subject, the Plains Indians.

Meiere designed for diverse materials; she did tapestries and stained glass as well as works in tile, metal, oil paint and glass mosaic. Some of her murals resemble magazine illustrations on a grand scale: "Progress of Women" (painted for Chicago's 1933 Century of Progress exposition) is oil on canvas. Lobby panels for the Travelers Insurance Company headquarters in Hartford, Conn., (completed in 1956) are mosaics but seem to emphasize the theme - progress, again - over the material.

The organizers of this informative exhibition, which originated at St. Bonaventure University in Upstate New York, couldn't very well include Meiere's finished work, which is mostly attached to walls (including the apse of the Washington National Cathedral's Resurrection Chapel). In some cases, the show can provide only photographs of the buildings and their details.

But Meiere, who died in 1961, didn't jump from sketches to the final product. She painted full-size cartoons and often built scale models. Some of those are shown here, giving a strong sense of the completed work. Even so, "Walls" is likely to inspire some sightseeing trips around town and to Manhattan - and maybe even to Lincoln, Neb.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

"Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meiere"

Saturday march 19 through Nov. 27√ at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. (Metro: Judiciary Square). 202-272-2448. www.nbm.org.

Hours: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m to 5 p.m.

Admission:Free.


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