Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 102

Part 102: Call Me Unpredictable

The Moline scenery collection can be divided into two categories: existing scenery that was refurbished for the 1930 stage and newly designed scenery created specifically for the new Cathedral stage. These two categories can be further subdivided into other groups that are identifiable by painting techniques characteristic of individual artists. The entire Moline collection does not appear as a unified whole with a shared aesthetic. I have to wonder if this was apparent to those who worked in the studio or who purchased the scenery.

The new scenery produced by Becker & Bro. during 1930 can be easily identified by the excessive the use of spatter. However, other identifying characteristics include the use of paint glazes, a predominance of primary colors, and unrefined line work.

A.A.S.R. 15th degree ruins painted detail from the Valley of Moline collection, 1930. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

In contrast, the oldest scenery lacks spatter, uses a richer color palette, has precise lining, and the paint application is much more refined.

Original scenery from the Valley of Moline refurbished in 1930 for the new stage. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
Painted detail from original wood setting. Valley of Moline refurbished in 1930 for the new stage. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

These older drops were already by the Valley of Moline were refurbished for the new stage in 1930. Although there is no documentation that notes who created the original scenery, almost all of the scenery has a Becker & Bro. studio label stenciled on the edge of each drop. Even those without any identification do not appear to be the work of either Sosman & Landis or Volland Studios. One other possibility may be that the earliest pieces were purchased piece-meal over the course of a decade and prior to 1925.

Good examples to show the variation in quality and style are the original wood scene and later 15th degree ruins and 21st degree ruined abbey settings. The Moline landscape depicts a more traditional style of scenic art and aesthetic associated with works produced from 1910-1920. There is a depth in the shadows and underlying warmth that is later replaced by a predominantly cool glaze. The tree trunks, branches and floral work suggest a skilled hand of a studio artist who was well versed in exteriors scenes and landscapes.

Original wood setting refurbished for the Valley of Moline in 1930 for the new stage. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

Becker lists in his scenery estimate from February 1930, that one of the “used” scenes for new stage is the wood setting. This scene is reminiscent of many other painted compositions created for both fraternal and commercial stages during the first two decades of the twentieth century. By the 1920s, many shadow areas in landscape compositions incorporate ultramarine blue. Cool hues dominate the recesses in theatrical landscapes during that time.

Painted detail from the 21st degree ruined abbey setting. Valley of Moline collection, 1930. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

It is possible that the variations of paintings techniques were due to the lack of consistent supervision in the Becker paint shop. John Becker was the primary designer and scenic artist for the company, whereas his brother primarily worked with the actual scenery construction and subsequent installation. John was also company’s main salesman, responsible for networking and contracting new work across the country. That meant he spent a great deal of time away from the studio. His continued trips and negotiations with the Valley of Moline are one such example. Was this the reason that many Becker & Bro. installations fail to depict a consistent quality and unifying style?

To be continued…

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