Thursday, June 7, 2012

Herbert Matter’s 1955 History of Writing Mural for the Grosse Pointe Public Library

The Central branch of the Grosse Pointe Public Library was designed by architect Marcel Breuer and opened in 1953 in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan. Shown (top is a vintage photograph of the library building that dates from the around the mid-50s. The image above is of Herbert Matter’s (1907–1984) History of Writing photomontage-mural for the Grosse Pointe Public Library, which was completed in 1955. This image is a clipping from a 1956 article in American Artist magazine written by Eugene M. Ettenberg. For the caption, Ettenberg summarized Matter’s project outline:

Matter’s mural, twenty-five feet long and nine feet high, for the new Grosse Pointe, Michigan Public Library designed by Marcel Breuer, portrays the history of the alphabet. Starting with the prehistoric stone scribblings, it follows the development of our letters through pictographs—cave drawings, hieroglyphs, Easter Island and Mayan markings—early communications from Crete, China, Arabia, and right up to the present-day letter form we term “Egyptian” to be seen on the locomotives and cars of the New Haven Railroad.

Detail images above are courtesy of the Grosse Pointe Public Library. Select image for a larger view.

According to library information, W. Hawkins Ferry felt it would be appropriate for the library to have art depicting the development of the written word (the idea was Matter’s concept) and commissioned Matter to do the mural. The mural, completed in 1955 for the adult reading room, is a photomontage—Matter’s preferred medium. The work displays a pattern of communication symbols and illustrates the evolution of writing from 12,000 B.C. It includes elements of Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit, Chinese and the typeface of the Gutenberg Bible.

Above is a brief, hand-written correspondence from Matter to Breuer (1955) that accompanied the enclosure outlining the chronology of artifacts and elements within the mural. Apparently there were inevitable delays in completing the mural on time and in the note Matter thanks Breuer for his patience. This piece is in the Marcel Breuer Digital Archive, Syracuse University Library. [1]
  1. Matter, Herbert. Letter to Marcel Breuer: Mural for the Grosse Pointe Public Library. 1951-52 [1955]. Syracuse University, Syracuse. Web. 5 June 2012.
Below is the didactic for the mural indicating a caption for each sign, symbol, script, and letter. Note the columns of information in grid units which seems to reinforce the implied gird structure of the mural itself.

Image is courtesy of the Grosse Pointe Public Library.

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