Printing is the Inseparable Companion of Achievement
In February 2020, right before everyone moved to online classes because of COVID, the university installed a new mural in the Conrad Elvehjem building. This 18-foot long, 500-pound mural was originally in the Democrat Printing Co. plant in another part of Madison, which it was specially commissioned for. This explains the title, Printing is the Inseparable Companion of Achievement, and the subject matter. Due to a change in ownership, repurposing, and renovations it was donated to UW Madison by the Frautschi Family. They have also pledged to cover the restoration process. (This is the same family which donated land by the nature preserve.)
This mural was painted in 1951 by James Watrous. This is not his first piece on campus; he has a significant presence on campus starting with his bachelor’s degree from UW Madison. He then went on to earn his masters and doctoral degree from the alma mater. He was part of the faculty and taught art history at UW from 1935 to 1976. During this time, he created a lot of art around Madison and around the Midwest becoming well known for his work through commissions in public buildings like universities, post offices and libraries.
Printing is the Inseparable Companion of Achievement is by the north entrance of the Conrad Elvehjem building. This space is used for students going to class, patrons entering the art museum, and faculty of the art history department to their offices; over all a high traffic area. Few, however, take the time to take in this mural with many details and references. The overall theme and depiction is how printing is done and has led to the spread of knowledge throughout the world. The title of the work is in gold lettering (with gold leaf) across the top painting and can be seen from floor level. The use of gold leaf really makes certain parts stick out on the maroon background, and in the lighting of the current space creates a real shine. The background and figures are painted with egg tempura.
At the center of the piece is two men wearing aprons, the uniform of an operator, handling a printing press. It has the letter “A” on it, the first of the alphabet. One holds a blank sheet of paper. The other points towards a red square which represents a book. The cover says “Christopher Plantin” and has an image of a compass with a circle around it. Plantin was an early press operator in Antwerp in the 1500s, he is known for printing fine religious texts, some of which survive today. He is recognized for his significant contributions to cultural, artistic, religious, and scientific activities. The compass design seen is the logo of his press. There are also 6 sections with figures and references around the central two which represent printing, music, folklore, religion, geography, and biology. These will be analyzed in future articles.
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