Wisconsin Standard

Power in Principle


Murals of the UW Rathskeller

The UW Memorial Union opened in 1928 as a meeting place for students and soon after, in 1933, the Rathskeller started serving beer. “Rathskeller” is the name of the room found in the basement of a traditional Bavarian town hall which is used as a tap room. The story of how the Rathskeller came to be is well documented, but the story that the murals in the hall tell is less well accounted. In this series of articles I will explore the connections between the art and the school. The murals were created in two phases, the main hall first and the side rooms later. At the opening of the building, the main hall murals were being painted by Eugene Hausler, an artist trained in Germany who had immigrated to Wisconsin. Then in 1978, these murals underwent restoration by Kurt Schaldach, who then also added all the murals to the Stiftskeller portion of the hall. Stiftskeller translates to “founders’ cellar” and refers to one of the oldest operating restaurants in the world, St. Peters Stiftskeller, located in Austria. Both artists were familiar with rathskeller décor and continue the strong German ancestral legacy in Wisconsin. While this is one of the most popular places on the UW campus, its decorations remain cryptic to many students.

These murals were not chosen arbitrarily. The artists wanted to share their tradition and portray the society of German universities and fraternal culture. Thus, all the themes relate back to this. One mural particularly foreign yet interesting shows two men fencing. Despite the familiar foils and hand behind the back, this fencing is not like what we are used to in the NCAA or Olympics. Neither of the participants wear white, they have no helmets, they wear what seems like aprons and their shoulders are squared facing each other. The title given provides a clue, reading “Mensur Auslage- Los!” This translates to “Mensur display- Lets go!”

“Mensur” is a German fraternal tradition also known as “academic fencing.” It is called this because members of different student orgs would challenge each other to a bout. The cap of the man on the right gives away their student identity. The blades are sharp, but the body is heavily padded, as seen in the image. Iron googles, like those in the mural, with a nose guard were usually worn. Participants stand at a fixed stance and the target is to hit the exposed parts of the face while blocking yourself from being hit.

Sometimes, the first to draw the others blood would win. The primary goal, however, is to prove your honor and courage by not flinching or dodging. This would often result in scars, called smite. These were worn with pride and were seen as a testament to the bearer’s character. Based on my research, I found that this design was based off of an antique postcard. The title can be taken as someone excited to watch the bout. However, “Mensur, Auslage, Los” is also the equivalent of “ready, set, go” in academic fencing. “Mensur” refers to the dimension or measure between the two members. “Display” means for them to get set, or display their blades in the proper way. “Los” means “let’s go”.

Today, the bouts are less common usually between members within a fraternity and used as a rite of passage or means of strengthening bonds. Scars are also much rarer due to face shields and/or on-site medical professionals. The experience associated with Germanic culture, overcoming fear, personal growth, taking a hit and accepting the assessment still lives on in walls of the University of Wisconsin Rathskeller.