Walker Memorial (Building 50)
Commissioned by the industrialist and MIT treasurer Everett Morss, these imposing mural paintings are the first permanently installed works of art on the MIT campus. They were painted by Edwin Howland Blashfield, an MIT graduate of the class of 1869 in Civil Engineering. Blashfield became one of the most celebrated artists and muralists of his day.
The north wall, an homage to Alma Mater, was painted in less than three weeks in late 1923, when the artist was approaching 80. (He was assisted by Vincent Aderente, whose signature can be seen with Blashfield’s.)
The work was painted on huge pieces of canvas that had been adhered to the wall. The central panel is rigidly symmetrical, with the centrally enthroned Alma Mater approached by two groups of acolytes extending laurel wreaths. The composition deliberately recalls the tradition in Christian art of the ascending Madonna attended by saints and apostles. Alma Mater is surrounded by personifications of learning through the printed page, learning through experiment, and learning through the various branches of knowledge. They hover above the Charles River Basin, with a spectral hint of the MIT buildings in the background.
The two side panels (added just after the rush to complete the central panel for an Alumni dinner in early January, 1924) bring the elevated scene down to earth with trees that appear to grow straight up from the floor. Unexplained spectral figures glide through this grove. The murals on the south wall were not executed until 1930. The right panel, which has been identified asHumanity Led by Knowledge and Inventiondepicts a mother and children of varying ages progressing from Chaos to Light, accompanied by cherubs bearing the scales of Justice. On the left, the most dark and dramatic mural squarely faces the ethical challenge that has confronted science from the outset. The Latin inscription (from Genesis) in the roundel spells out: “Ye Shall Be Us Gods Knowing Good and Evil.” The lab-coated scientist is crowned by a figure said to be Hygenia (goddess of Health). He stands between two giant jars containing beneficient and malevolent gasses, symbolizing the constructive and destructive possibilities unleased with every new discovery. With the horrors of the First World War still fresh, soldiers and diplomats gather at the Council table of the World. Dogs of war lurk near evil gasses, while Famine threatens the background. The strangely out-of-scale, dark colossal head within the shadow of the Tree of Knowledge is said to represent Nature; her relation to the rest of the drama is (perhaps deliberately) unclear.
Commissioned by MIT