Gilbert Brown Wilson: Finally Out at Swope Pt.1

Now through December 30, the Swope Art Museum features work by Gilbert Wilson. Terre Haute has never fully embraced this native son; however, in spite of grumbling about the anti-war, anti-capitalist nature of his local murals, they were never painted over. Since they weren’t in buildings that later generations tore down in the name of economic progress, Wilson’s work has been preserved better than a lot of our town’s history.

Adding to the site-specific work in town, Wilson’s nephews left his works on paper to the Swope, and his letters and journals and miscellaneous writings are at the Vigo County Public Library. There’s a certain irony in this, of course. Gil Wilson railed in a letter to the author himself about the fact that he couldn’t get a copy of Theodore Dreiser’s work at the public library in his hometown, and in a letter written on May 6, 1935 to Rabbi Taxay of Temple Israel, Wilson says, “There is in the Swope will a provision for a $10,000 Art Gallery here someday. A most miserable idea! Nothing perverts art more than a Gallery. The money should be put into something living and of survival value.”

Good Intentions: Two Unrealized Projects by Gilbert Brown Wilson, in spite of its somewhat condescending title, provides a welcome opportunity to assess examples of Wilson’s work other than the murals we are used to seeing at local schools. For people familiar with these, it’s no surprise to encounter several examples of the larger male bodies that were Wilson’s homoerotic ideal in the exhibit.

The same year he was complaining to the rabbi of how a gallery perverts art, Wilson wrote to the Jewett Institute of Scranton, Pennsylvania seeking anatomy diagrams to use as a study for “Age” in a planned mural. He explained, “I simply want to draw a huge, rolling robust being who is, physically, a regular behemoth without seeming to be a ridiculously fat and pudgy mountain of flesh. (Maybe I am trying to do something impossible.)”

Wilson refers to “blending of good proportion and weight – just the right combination of muscle and flesh that [results in] admirably impressive and awesome creatures.” He could be describing Dr. Fred Donaghy, George Krietenstein, and Max Ehrmann, prominent Terre Haute citizens and objects of Gil’s affection at the time.

Clearly, Wilson drew on this ideal for his full-length portrait of Ahab from Moby Dick. Illustrating Melville’s lengthy work may have been sparked initially by a desire to compete with Rockwell Kent, for whom Wilson had worked as an unhappy apprentice. Gil was always looking for a profitable opportunity, and the edition of the book with Kent’s drawings had sold well. However, like any artist, he was eager to juxtapose aspects of the plot and characterization with his own experiences. Wilson’s vision for the book was vastly different from the older artist’s. And Gilbert kept imagining projects incorporating his interpretation of Moby Dick for decades, including an opera in which he might play the role of Pip himself.

One might say Wilson’s interest in Moby Dick was, appropriately, obsessive.

The Swope exhibits large panels Wilson intended for a mural in the Frankfort, Kentucky library.

Although smaller, a series of illustrations from decades earlier depicting Ahab’s madness dominate the Swope gallery in which they are hung. The first is realistic, but each subsequent face becomes more abstract until the eyes are the only recognizable feature.

It’s important to note that Wilson’s ideas about insanity were not merely theoretical. In 1932, he corresponded with G. W. Goler, a doctor in Rochester, New York regarding eugenics – the theme for a mural he hoped to include in a larger project for a kind of chapel for science. Although close association with Nazi ideology has discredited eugenics, many forward thinking people were once interested in its possibility to create a more ideal world. Gilbert Wilson and Dr. Fred Donaghy were two of them.

On January 26, Wilson described to Goler how he and Donaghy often went to Saturday clinics at the Indianapolis insane hospital, “where those awful derelicts of humanity are brought out one by one and exhibited.” They also visited the Home for Feebleminded Boys in Fort Wayne.

These odd excursions occurred when Wilson was a student at the institute of higher learning now called Indiana State University. In his correspondence and his journals, Gil writes directly about his love for Donaghy. The professor was, unsurprisingly, more circumspect. Were the trips to these mental institutions the way Donaghy could safely spend a day with the younger man?

Wilson attributed the visits to a kind of mentoring. He wrote, “[Donaghy] is greatly interested in my work and goes out of his way to help me expose myself to these devastating but deeply stirring impressions. In all these institutions he is known professionally, and with him I am able to get a closer and more candid observation of the circumstances of these terrible cases.

There on those long lingering walks thru those corridors, flanked on both sides with cells containing wreck after wreck, I have sketched them. Humanity hideously desecrated – life appallingly warped, distorted and misshapen from the beautiful thing it was destined to be. There is where I saw the wide pitiful eyes, those strange searching stares that I shall put into my mural because they are in themselves such adequate symbols of an awful indictment of our civilization.”

Clearly, the images of madness stayed with Gilbert Wilson for decades, and he used them effectively as source material for his dynamic portrayal of Ahab’s madness.

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