The Art of Man at Work

An enjoyable dining experience is not just about the food, but also the people you share it with and a setting that engages your senses. For this reason, the Food Slam takes place at the Grohmann Museum, among hundreds of works of great art featuring working men and women.

In 1968, Dr. Eckhart G. Grohmann acquired his first painting of a blacksmith’s forge while chairman and president of Milwaukee’s Aluminum Casting & Engineering. It now hangs behind the desk in his extraordinary top floor office. That painting was the start of a collection that now boasts more than 900 works depicting laborers of various crafts and trades, and marvels of industry. As you take in the paintings of mostly German and Dutch artists as well as Americans and other Europeans, you can see the marriage of hard work and art on which Milwaukee was built.

Every Food Slam I tell myself I will go back to the museum and spend some time, and so I was delighted to have the chance to visit with James Kieselburg, the museum’s director, and bask in the collection and his knowledge of it. An anthropologist by training, James can speak not only of the quality and history of the art, but of the ethnographic and historical information we can gain from its subjects; for this museum of art is also a museum of labor.

foyer mosaic

foyer mosaic

While you’re at the Food Slam (Because you’re going, right?) between nibbles, chatting with all the cool people that will be there and bidding on auction items, you’ll have a chance to spend some time with the works. Here are a few things that might enrich your experience:

The original and larger-than-life reproduction on the rooftop garden

The original and larger-than-life reproduction on the rooftop garden

  • The rooftop garden features 12 larger-than-life and 6 life-sized reproductions of works in the gallery. Start up there, assign each of your friends a figure, and see who finds the original work first. (Peek in the windows of Dr. Grohmann’s office before you head out to commune with the workers on the roof.)
  • The figures in the floor mosaic at the entrance also come from works in the gallery. You can play the same game here.
  • On the first floor you’ll find a charming video produced by John Sutherland for USSteel in 1959. In it you’ll see how excited they were about one day going to the moon and images drawn from works in the first floor collection. Can you spot them? (Other videos in the museum show contemporary process of the work in the surrounding art.)
  • Note the filing system and method of payment in “The Peasant Lawyer.” James tells us that lawyers of the time were really translators for a mostly illiterate public.
  • "Peasant Lawyer"

    “Peasant Lawyer”

  • Throughout the collection there are several pairings of paintings depicting the same kind of labor in Europe and America. Seaweed harvest is one of them (and one of my favorite pieces in the museum). Can you find others?
  • The museum holds the largest collection of 17th Century Dutch medical paintings in the world. They are terribly intriguing. Go ahead and make a diagnosis. Your guess is as good as the doctors depicted. (Probably a good idea to not to visit this area while eating.)
  • “Print Shop” by D. Heim is also, according to James, an historical document. It shows in great detail the first of a certain kind of printing press. Can you guess what makes the press special? You’ll also see the origin of “uppercase” and “lowercase” letters.
  • Finally, in accordance with German industrial art tradition, Dr. Grohmann appears in a painting on the first floor. Maybe you can find him.

There is so much to learn and appreciate at the museum, you’ll certainly want to visit again when your mouth isn’t full.

My musical pairing: Richard Wagner –“The Mastersingers of Nuremberg – Overture”  The opera was inspired by the painting Master Martin the Cooper and his Journeymen, Cooper Shop, Old Germany in 1568 by Wilhelm Kolbe ca. 1816. You’ll find it on the third floor. Despite the title and the trade it depicts, the artist, by his use of light, shows us the real subjects of this story.

by Food Slam blogger Steph Kilen

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