- Winold Reiss and the Cincinnati Union Terminal: Fanfare for the Common Man by Gretchen Garner
ISBN: 9780821422021 (cloth), $49.95; 9780821422038 (paper), $26.95.
Surprisingly little has been published on the impressive mosaic murals in the rotunda of the Cincinnati Union Terminal, considering their unquestionable artistic quality and the outstanding building they are part of—the terminal was the largest unsupported half-dome in the world when it opened in 1933. Art historian Gretchen Garner sets out to fill this gap with a lavishly illustrated account on the genesis, reception, and dramatic fate of the murals after the train station ceased its function as a state transportation hub in 1972. How can we critically evaluate the mural, its narrative of American cultural history, and its contribution to the visual archive of international modernism?
Garner’s concise Winold Reiss and the Cincinnati Union Terminal offers a convincing three-part structure, starting with a description of the murals, followed by a biographical overview of the German immigrant artist Winold Reiss, and ending by situating the murals in the art history context of the 1920s and ’30s. In addition Reiss’s fourteen colorful industrial/worker murals, which are closely related to the history Cincinnati, the two enormous mosaic murals following the curve of the rotunda murals (each 105 feet wide and 22 feet high) rank among the most impressive contributions to the design of the terminal, now the Cincinnati Museum Center.
The rotunda features a realistic foreground dominated by larger-than-life mosaic silhouette figures ranging from Indians and settlers to workers and engineers. While the murals have no official title, they clearly combine historical references to the city of Cincinnati and the history of transportation. Reiss described his composition:
The panel on the left [the south mural] expresses symbolically the development of our country from the early Indian days to our late industrial era. In the background, I have portrayed the history of transportation, so important a feature in the American scene. The Indians on the left represent the original inhabitants of America who greet the healthy and virile pioneers coming over prairies. In the pioneer group, which includes a typical [End Page 102] pioneer family, I have tried to express the courage and fortitude of the man; the loyalty and love of the mother; the wondering romance of the past and future in the eyes of the boy. All these qualities are the foundation upon which America stands.(15–16)
Clearly, in his depictions, Reiss offers his interpretation of European-American encounters, progress, and future aspirations. As Gretchen Garner points out, when Reiss won the commission for the mosaic murals, in 1931, he had just become a naturalized citizen. The importance of becoming an American can hardly be overestimated. Reiss had been fighting for his right to proudly proclaim “I am an American” by painting in the spirit of “We the people,” emphasizing racial equality. With citizenship papers in his hands, he felt comfortable remapping the history of American civilization as a bold success story emphasizing his personal vision of “America,” which continues to inspire visitors of the building.
Garner traces the biography of Reiss, born on September 16, 1886 in the German city of Karlsruhe. In 1911, Reiss enrolled in the Akademie der Bildenden Künste Munich (Academy of Fine Arts), studying with the famous art nouveau painter, sculptor, engraver, and architect Franz von Stuck. In the same year, he also attended the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts) studying with the influential painter, designer, and graphic artist Julius Diez. After his arrival in the United States, Reiss quickly established himself as a creative force in downtown Manhattan. Despite his initial success with enthusiastic activities at his New York studios and the publication of a stylish magazine, Modern Art Collector (1915–17), he became disillusioned with life in the American metropolis. The vision of a democratic unity of people from all corners of the world proved to be merely a mirage. Ethnic ghettos, intolerance, racial disrespect, chauvinism, and a general sense of cultural hierarchies...