Photo Friday: Underlying Principles of Beauty

St. Paul Chapel reredos. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

St. Paul Chapel reredos. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

In a letter to George G. Booth ca 1931, Detroit News Art Critic Florence Davies, writes of artist Hildreth Meiere, “All over the place she discovered these refinements of line, these essential underlying principles of beauty. I have taken many people to Cranbrook, never anyone who saw it with so much understanding.”

Meiere (1892-1961) was a distinguished Art Deco muralist, painter, and decorative artist. Her commissions range from the medallions on the exterior of Radio City Music Hall to the dome in the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C. to the reredos panels in St. Paul’s Chapel in Christ Church Cranbrook. Educated at Manhattanville, the Art Students League, the California School of Fine Arts, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and in Florence, Italy, Meiere was a renowned muralist, as well as an important figure in the history of American Liturgical Art, and a preeminent mosaicist.

“It drives me wild to be spoken of as ‘one of the best women artists,” Meiere wrote to a friend in 1936, “I’ve worked as an equal with men and my rating as an equal is all that I value.” In 1956, she was the first woman honored with The Fine Arts Medal of the American Institute of Architects. Although it has taken years for her work to be discovered and viewed in its rich cultural context, we are grateful for her artistry here at Cranbrook.

Note: You can view more information and images of Hildreth Meiere’s work here.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

John Cunningham and the Cranbrook School Mosaics

One of Cranbrook School’s earliest art teachers, John Cunningham (1904-2004), was a man of many talents. Born in New Jersey to a literary and artistic family, Cunningham attended a Manhattan prep school but spent summers working on ships that sailed the globe. After receiving both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in art from the University of California,  he studied painting with Hans Hoffman in Munich, and sculpture and painting with André Lhote in Paris.

Cunningham landed back in New York during the depression where he picked up odd jobs painting murals in the Catskills and set design for the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra before he landed a position as the Head of the Fine Arts Department at Cranbrook School for Boys in 1931. By December, Cunningham had created a large transparency in imitation of a stained glass window. It was placed in the Cranbrook School dining hall during the Christmas pageant and was illuminated from behind with floodlights.

Cranbrook School Art Instructor, John Cunningham

John Cunningham in the Club Room, 1933 Richard G. Askew, photographer.

Wildly popular with the students and the faculty, Cunningham formed an Art Club. One of the major projects of the club students was to transform an unfinished room (now home to the Robotics Club) under the Senior Study Hall into a “very elaborate club room.” The highlight of the room was a series of hand-set glass mosaics by Cunningham that represented great men of antiquity. (Originally, his plan was to have one wall of panels representing ancient figures and a second wall which featured more modern figures including Sun Yat Sen, Ghandi and Lenin. This was never realized.) Additional changes to the room included the addition of a fireplace and ceiling stencils created by the boys that portrayed the history of transportation.

Cunningham was also known for the work of his students – particularly wood sculptures created by the Lower School boys. These were featured in an exhibition at the Kalamazoo Art Institute in 1932, and were so well received that additional museums across the state featured the exhibition as well before being displayed in the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.

Mosaic detail by John Cunningham

Mosaic detail by John Cunningham, 2015. Leslie S. Edwards, photographer.
The mosaic, which features Imhotep, Buddha, Christ, and Francis of Assissi remains today. The door no longer exists and the painted beams have been covered by a drop ceiling.

While it is not clear exactly why Cunningham left Cranbrook, his view of modern art did not mesh with that of headmaster William O. Stevens. The Cranbrook School paper The Crane reported that Cunningham was leaving to pursue work in Czechoslovakia. At the end of the 1932-1933 school year (during the time of the national Bank Holiday), Cunningham resigned. He and his wife ultimately returned to California where they purchased the Carmel Art Institute where Cunningham taught until it closed in 1992.

~ Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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