Editor's note: The following essay. is reprinted with permission of the Georgia Museum of Art. An exhibition catalogue for the exhibit Figurative Connections: Selected Works by Eric Bransby (June 5-July 25, 2004) will be published in June, 2004. We express appreciation to Rebecca Yates, Editor, Georgia Museum of Art for bringing the essay to our attention. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Georgia Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Eric Bransby: Draftsman and Muralist

by William Underwood Eiland

 

 

At a student show sponsored by Benton at the Associated American Artists Gallery in New York in 1941, Bransby was pleased to have two of his paintings in egg tempera included. On November 23 of that year, Bransby's father officiated at his wedding to Mary Ann Hemmie, another of Benton's students at the institute. Hemmie, who had majored in metalsmithing, created the rings for their wedding. But the private joys and personal honors of adulthood soon paled: Two weeks later came Pearl Harbor, and America as well as the world would be at war.

In 1942, Bransby was drafted into military service; his first assignment was to the graphics department at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. There, he painted a series of mural panels on the fort's history for the Command College Library. His supervisor on this project was the chief librarian as well as the editor of Military Review. Eventually, these panels were transferred to the Post Museum.

In January 1945, the army discharged Bransby, and, anxious to take up their studies again, he and Mary Ann enrolled at the Broadmoor Academy in June 1945. The academy, a part of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, boasted an illustrious faculty, among them the muralist and draftsman Boardman Robinson and the prominent lithographer Lawrence Barrett, both of whom had profound influences on Bransby's work. A few months after his arrival at the academy, Bransby painted a mural in fresco for the lobby between the Garden Gallery and the school. Subsequent renovations at the center, unfortunately, resulted in the destruction of the mural. Bransby painted another mural the next summer for the Cheyenne Mountain Country Club, this time under the direction of Peppino Mangravite, on leave from the chairmanship of Columbia University's department of art.

Boardman Robinson became incapacitated by a stroke in 1947, and Jean Charlot (fig. 1) replaced him as painting instructor: "This appointment proved to be most fortunate for myself, as Jean coached me in fresco mural techniques, as they were practiced in Mexico in the 1920s."[7] While continuing his studies at the Broadmoor Academy, Bransby received the B. A. degree from Colorado College in 1947 and promptly entered the M. A. program. Jean Charlot directed his thesis, which was a fresco in casein entitled Development of the West for the dome in the Cossitt Rotunda at Colorado College. This work, for which Colorado College's campus newspaper The Tiger dubbed the artist "CC's Michael Angelo," required Bransby to conceive and implement paintings for an area with a diameter of some twenty-seven feet. In the course of work, his wife, Mary Ann, constructed a plaster model of the rotunda in order for him to make preliminary drawings; such planning was necessary in particular because of what Bransby describes as "the double curved surface of the underside of the hemisphere." Four doorways lead into the rotunda, and Charlot insisted that Bransby consider both the general and the specific viewpoints of spectators entering the space. At the time, he was especially interested in the works of José Clemente Orozco and admits to the strong influence of the great Mexican artist on his style in this fresco.[8] Charlot was equally influential at this early stage in Bransby's career. The younger artist was impressed with Charlot's ability to apply great intelligence to any project; remarking on Bransby's fascination with the figure and its workings, Charlot characterized Bransby as a "bone and joint man."

In 1949, the dean of the School of Fine Arts at Yale solicited Charlot's opinion on the appointment of Josef Albers to the graduate faculty. Charlot approved and, perhaps believing that Bransby's fascination with bones and joints needed to be counterbalanced by Albers's non-figural art, suggested that Bransby receive one of the four graduate teaching assistant instructorships. He taught several undergraduate courses and served an assistantship with Gill Switzer, an adherent to the principles of Bauhaus architecture, who led Bransby to intensify his studies of design. But, as a graduate student himself, Bransby worked under the direction of Albers:

My curriculum was concentrated in two areas, Painting and Architectural Theory. As a budding muralist it was recognized that it was important for me to understand architectural practice, including contemporary design approaches, as well as the nature of historic styles (mural projects are frequently sited in historic structures; certainly true of the Renaissance as well as of the contemporary scene). Painting under Albers proved to be a rigorous experience, in which one was called upon to both declare, a priori, both one's stylistic approach, choice of general design technique, and the technical means selected to achieve the above. It was then incumbent on the artist to defend the final product in relationship to the above declarations. Albers's technical approach to analyze and "dissect" the rectangle proved to be invaluable to my future practice as a muralist (architecture is predominantly an Abstract art form, in which the rectangle usually plays a dominant design role.) Periodic Charrettes, involving an architect, a painter and a sculptor, directed by Albers, were part of the curriculum. [9]

Bransby, who identified himself unequivocally at this stage in his career as a muralist, accepted a position in the School of Art and Architecture at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, and there he worked on his MFA thesis for Albers.

In Champaign-Urbana, Bransby taught drawing and "architectural free-hand drawing." But he also searched for a suitable location for his thesis project and found it in the newly-constructed lobby space of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The program he set for himself was ambitious: two predominantly abstract panels in fresco, where even the figures were to reflect the graphic language of engineering drawings. The lobby, which was brilliantly lit, with good sight lines of the exterior and interior walls, and on two levels, permitted Bransby to design a mural that would in his words "dialogue" with the space itself. Exacting in the planning as always,[10] he also had to send Albers and his thesis committee back at Yale all preliminary drawings, color studies, cartoons, photographs, and other preparatory materials for approval. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish his work before leaving the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana; however, he returned in the summer of 1953 to paint the west wall fresco. Interestingly, he planned a futuristic passage in the mural, but painting it in buon fresco was not successful, and he applied egg tempera to this small section a secco. Here, illustrating the durability of Bransby's essentially Italian technique, the one place where he had to resort to "dry" painting on plaster has suffered the most deterioration over time. In order not to arouse Albers's dislike of "depth" but to stay true to himself, he cleverly used diagonal lines that point to the proper viewing points for the mural to create the illusion of perspective.

Bransby's daughter had developed a chronic asthmatic condition, and her doctor insisted that she return to a drier climate. On the day that Bransby took his daughter and Mary Ann to the train station in Chicago for their relocation to his property in Colorado, he received a telephone call from Leon Kroll, the chairman of the Edwin Austen Abbey Foundation Fellowships in Mural Painting, who informed him that he was one of the two recipients of the next year's fellowships. Although reluctant to do so, Bransby resigned at the end of the semester and returned to his family in Colorado Springs for a year of independent study with the support of the Abbey Foundation Fellowship.

He used this time to experiment with the relationship of figures to the architectural wall and with the application of ethyl silicate to exterior walls. Toward the end of 1952, he contacted Kroll to ask for an extension or renewal of the Abbey Fellowship but learned that should he be successful he would be required to work at the American Academy in Rome, with whom the Abbey Foundation had merged. Because of his daughter's health, Bransby unhappily declined.

Fully aware of what was transpiring in the larger art world, Bransby reflected seriously on his future as a muralist at a time when the Abstract Expressionists spurned figurative drawing and any art that could be perceived as "functional" or decorative. Undaunted, after a period of what he called soul-searching, Bransby decided that the figure and the mural, both of which had attained secondary status in the art world at large by this point, were, however, his areas of interest, and that he would just have to find the walls necessary to continue his work. In fact, he found such a space in 1953 in a medical center in Colorado Springs, but this work was to have a more decorative visual vocabulary than the severe graphic language employed at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Consequently, he divided the space into a rather rigid set of rectangles but enlivened it with motifs of flora and fauna in a style reminiscent of Asian calligraphy.

By 1956, Bransby needed a job in order to pay the mounting expenses of his daughter's illness, and he joined the Air Force Academy's staff as an illustrator, display designer, and, finally, art director. In 1957, he painted Air Defense Command for its headquarters in Colorado Springs. Although he regretted that this appointment for the air force was not an academic one, he found ways in which to apply those principles he had learned on his own or in his academic studies: for example, never one to give up his fascination with the wall, he applied his understanding of the rectangular space of the page to his work as an illustrator and designer of academy publications; and in designing three-dimensional extruded aluminum displays for nation-wide presentations by the academy, he approached each problem through his understanding of Bauhaus design principles. In 1959, the academy commissioned Herbert Bayer, former Bauhaus designer, to plan a museum, with Bransby to serve as Bayer's illustrator.[11]

In spite of such responsibilities at the Air Force Academy, Bransby never forsook his studies of the human figure, and, in fact, during one summer's teaching at Brigham Young University, he painted portable mural panels in wax, casein, and oil emulsion for his host institution.[12] He also painted eight portable panels, curved and convex as a counterpart to the concave dome for which they were destined, entitled History of Navigation, now located at the city's airport, for the planetarium lobby at the academy. According to Henry Adams, "This created an interesting scalloped effect, and also strongly emphasized the trompe-l'oeil character of the paintings themselves. Indeed, the visual effect is rather startling in the intensity of the spatial illusion, since the subject matter of flight and space travel allowed him to float the figures against vast, astronomical, interstellar distances. As if this curvature was not enough, in a few places Eric also applied three-dimensional layering on the forms, to create an added 3-dimensional effect, not unlike the build-up of a halo on a Northern Renaissance altarpiece." [13]

With the improvement of his daughter's health and her enrollment at Colorado College, Eric and Mary Ann could return to teaching in the fall of 1963 at Western Illinois University, where Bransby painted a mural (fig. 2). After two years there, however, he transferred to the University of Missouri, Kansas City, where he taught for the next twenty years, from 1965 until 1985. He was elated that once again he could devote his artistic energy to the figure and to mural painting, especially since the emergence and popularity of Pop Art and Magic Realism had once again asserted the importance of the human figure. He was excited to be in charge of the figure drawing programs, including the courses in anatomy, and he had developed a special model-viewing stand that allowed the students to study the model from a variety of perspectives, with a screen covered with horizontal and vertical coordinates placed behind the model as a reference to proportion and a mirror in order to visualize the model in the round.

During the summers of 1968, 1970, and 1974, the university supported Bransby's travel to Arezzo for studies of Piero della Francesca's Legend of the True Cross in the church of San Francesco. True to his abiding interests, he studied exhaustively the relationship of the design of the mural to its architectural setting. Ulrich Middeldorf, the director of the German Institute in Florence, assisted Bransby in identifying the fourteenth-century floor plan of the church and the chapel in which Piero painted his frescoes. Of particular interest was Piero's use of "spectator viewpoints," and whether or not he had used modular units in creating the design.

He made two other trips of significance for his work in the 1970s: in 1972 to Mexico to examine the work of the Mexican muralists, especially his teacher Charlot; and in 1978 to Istanbul to study the late Byzantine mosaics and fresco murals in the Kariye d'Jami mosque. Never content with his knowledge of the figure and its movement, he also studied Edweard Muybridge's discoveries of motion, strobe photographs of figures in action, and the works of the Futurists as well as the analytic cubists, whose fracturing of the figure and simultaneity in depiction particularly intrigued him.

During this period, Bransby enjoyed three major mural commissions. For each project, he used panels rather than the buon fresco technique in a concept original to him:

Utilizing a concept of portable panels of different sizes (primarily rectangular) mounted on the Wall, as a kind of 'constellation' of panels, in which a succession of pictorial images move from panel to panel (much in the same way that images move in the traditional, large, multi-paneled altarpiece). Since the Wall surrounds and appears in the interstices between individual panels, the exposed parts of the Wall itself become an integral part of the Mural. A low relief, sculptural element is produced by slight variations in panel thickness as the panels project from the Wall. [14]

For Student Life at Rockhurst College, he painted three panels that he arranged as an "ivory tower" in which various figures engage in academic pursuits. From models he constructed before placing the panels in the space, he was able to create effects of trompe-l'oeil through chiaroscuro and bas-relief. The Alumni Association of the University of Missouri commissioned Bransby to paint a mural for the main stairway of the landing in the library. Bransby installed a cluster of relatively small decorative panels for which the drawing of the figures depended on Futurist inspiration with the subject itself an homage to Botticelli's Primavera, meant, in the artist's words, to "echo Botticelli's decorative treatment of the myth." Henry Adams has remarked that these panels in particular illustrate Bransby's interest in "the complex relationship between architectural space and pictorial illusion."[15] Bransby himself insists that "[a] mural is not simply a big painting or a view out an imaginary window. It has an architectural function to perform ... If the art does not work with the building, it loses its meaning and becomes even less satisfactory than mere ornament."[16]

As the viewer descends the stairs, he or she sees the three Graces, and when ascending, the viewer witnesses Chloris transfigured by the breath of Zephyr into Flora: "Both panels deal with the theme of transformation, and appropriately, the figures are composed of slightly disjointed fragments, like those of a Futurist painting. Moreover, the scattered panels of the composition add additional drama to this visual game, since each separately framed section records another free-floating piece of human anatomy." [17]

In 1976, Bransby won a four-state competition to design and complete a mural in the City of Sedalia's Municipal Building. Again, he studied the architecture of the space to find the best viewpoints; his solution was two tall panels flanking the entrance to the council chambers and four small panels mounted over the doors: "The pictorial material in the flanking panels is 'framed' by tall angular abstract, decorative panels. These are tilted in relationship to the wall, so that only the framing panels are seen when approaching the mural along the corridor. The pictorial panels are tilted so that they can only be viewed from directly in from of the Wall. As with the Rockhurst Mural, the entire mural can be viewed from directly in front, from the floor, from a balcony and from an adjacent staircase landing."[18] Ever creative in constructing interior planes and facets, the artist also betrays in this mural his interest in Precisionism and the interplay of man and machine through a vertical arrangement that moves not only upward but inward as well.


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