The traditional recipe for a mural requires:
  • One (1) person wealthy enough to own a big wall; and
  • one (1) person talented enough to paint on it.
Unfortunately, these two ingredients don't always mix well. 

The reason for this probably dates back to ancient Babylonia.  The cruel and powerful King Belshazzar, worshipper of gold and merchandiser of the souls of men, had conquered all his neighbors.  He had nothing left to fear from anyone.  Yet, when he held a victory feast for a thousand of his princes and warlords, Belshazzar became rattled by markings he discovered on his palace wall:

Poet Sir Osbert Sitwell beautifully described this biblical story, and what happened when the great king saw the famous writing on the wall:
And this was the writing that was written:
In that night was Belshazzar the King slain
And his kingdom divided.
Whatever the origins of the bad blood,  trouble seems to flare up regularly when artists write on the walls of the rich and powerful.  One side or the other seems to get weighed in the balance and found wanting.

British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland commissioned James Whistler to paint a mural on Leyland's wall but then refused to pay Whistler's price.  Whistler returned to Leyland's house and changed the mural to portray Leyland as a vain peacock squabbling over a bag of gold.

Whistler proudly proclaimed that he had immortalized Leyland as a peacock (and in fact most people today probably remember Leyland this way).

In 1925 the great Frank Brangwyn was commissioned to paint a mural of "the British Empire" for the House of Lords.

Brangwyn put his heart and soul into what he hoped would be a great masterpiece, but after only five of the eighteen panels were completed, Brangwyn too was weighed in the balance and found wanting. the Royal Fine Art Commission, in a stunning display of bad judgment, rejected the mural.  Among the excuses later offered was the fact that the panels, designed as “a profusion of motifs drawn from all over the world, a rich brightly-hued tapestry of allusions to Africa, India, Burma and Canada, teeming with humanity and exotic birds and beasts,” were not appropriate for the traditional staid English decor. 

Five years later, Brangwyn became enmeshed in another controversy over his murals for Rockefeller Centre in New York.  In 1934 he was selected by the fabulously wealthy Nelson Rockefeller to paint a mural  on the theme “Man at the Crossroads.” Brangwyn's mural included a picture of Jesus but the Rockefellers ordered it removed, so Brangwyn ended up repainting Jesus with his back to the viewer.  In the words of Bertram Wolfe, Brangwyn made Jesus turn his back “upon the Temple of the Money Changers.” 

But Brangwyn had it easy compared to another muralist for Rockefeller Center.  Diego Rivera's entire mural was famously destroyed by the Rockefellers because Rivera refused to paint out an image of Lenin.   

Which brings us to Paul Le Page, the buffoon currently serving as Governor of the State of Maine. LePage removed a mural from the state's Department of Labor because the mural offended his "pro-business philosophy."   In what must be a new low in the history of human reaction to art, Le Page cited an anonymous fax complaining that in “communist North Korea... they use these murals to brainwash the masses.”

The artist, Judy Taylor, claimed that the mural was intended to depict milestones from the state's labor history, including Rosie the Riveter at Bath Iron Works and a famous 1937 shoe worker’s strike.  “There was never any intention to be pro-labor or anti-labor, it was a pure depiction of the facts.”

 At the time of Diego Rivera's battle with the Rockefellers, E.B. White wrote the following poem, which appeared in the New Yorker:
Said John D's grandson, Nelson.
[T]ho your art I dislike to hamper,
I owe a little to God and Gramper,

And after all,
It's my wall.....
We'll see if it is, said Rivera.
I think that White put his finger on the heart of many of these disputes.  Wall owners and muralists sometimes have different notions about who owns the wall in the more meaningful sense.  There is more than one kind of property.

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