Friday, January 18, 2013

The Kean Room Mural: An interpretation

The Kean Room in the library was once simply the room below the Pilling Room (where the Ph.D dissertations reside).  It held government documents back then.  Much further back, when the Rose Library first opened in 1939, and decades thereafter, until the Learning Center was added on in 1982, it was the library lobby, the grand space first encountered on entering the building.  With the transformation of that space into the Kean Room, some of that old grandeur has returned.

In fact, the Kean Room would take us back further than 1939, to before there even was a library at Drew, or Drew at all, to 1836, the year recalled by the expansive mural painted on the south wall by New Jersey artist, Daniel Mulligan. The painting shows at either end of the wall Mead Hall and the New Jersey State House as they might have looked in 1836 (around the time Mead Hall was built), in tribute to the career of Governor and President (of Drew) Tom Kean, who presided at different times at both places.  In between the buildings is painted a continuous expanse of natural beauty: trees, fields, deer, mountains in the distance.

The room is effectively a time machine.  The realistic appearance of the two buildings--and of the humans and horses that activate the setting, the grazing deer and the trees and clouds that quieten it--is an illusion.  For the mural suggests that Mead Hall and the New Jersey State House occupy a shared landscape within a brief walk (or gallop) of each other.  In fact, it is just a few steps from the eastern side of the wall, where Mead Hall is painted, to the western side, where the State House sits.  This unrealistic juxtaposition supports a non-literalistic read of the picture, or at least suggests multiple levels at which it might impress the viewer, much like a Bible passage interpreted, as the medievals would have, at three or four levels: the literal, the moral, the allegorical, and/or the mystical.

For anyone attuned to the early allegorical readings of Genesis rendered by Philo of Alexandria, numbers are allusive.  The painting read allegorically invites enumeration.  For instance, in the State House setting there are six horses, and in the Mead Hall setting seven humans.  Within a biblical economy of time, six connotes work and seven, redemptive rest.  And so we have, not the four horses of the apocalypse, but the six horses of productive labor fueling the energies of the governmental State House; and the seven humans of Mead Hall engaged in the solitary or paired reflection, let us suppose, on themes of redemption, as several years hence (from 1836) the seminarians sojourning in Mead Hall (when it had become Drew Theological Seminary, in 1867) would indeed be doing.  A visual pun helps make the point about the reflective activity of the seven humans: just in front of Mead Hall, a small pond quietly reflects its image. (No such pond reflects the State House.) Such a read is what we might well hear from Philo, if he could be transported forward to our time.

But there is also the moral (non-allegorical) reading.  The juxtaposition of Mead Hall and the State House provokes reflection on the relation between college and community, education and state, learning and governance.  Some of the objects on display around the room, from the career of Tom Kean, nurture those thoughts.  But for me, the artist leads thought elsewhere.  For by a switch of perspective, much like what happens in an optical illusion, such as the Necker Cube, the two buildings recede into the background of a pastoral scene that highlights trees, clouds, and prospects onto a far, horizon-trending distance--away from education and state, from Drew, from "the world" entirely.  (What encourages this reading are the colors of nature in the mural (as opposed to those of the buildings)--blue and green, the official colors of Drew University.)  Perhaps this is the mystical read of the picture.  We should not forget the dual and inter-related secular and religious meanings of: "pastoral" or that 1836, the year the painting evokes, was also when Ralph Waldo Emerson published his ground-breaking (for American transcendentalism) mystical allegory, NatureMore paint is expended on the clouds in this mural, wending their way along the whole top of the wall and nestling between the intervening doors, than on either of the buildings.  And clouds for their part do enjoy a painterly tradition of attention to their varying forms.  Daniel Mulligan's clouds can take their place with Constable's.  Whatever the weather outside, the Kean Room clouds communicate their hope in and perhaps even witness to another and better world.

For excellent photos of the Kean Room and its mural, see the Fall 2012 issue of the Library's newsletter, Visions.