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Doug Moe: 'The Strike' has striking sense of timing

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Lisa Wolfe
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« on: March 21, 2011, 04:28:20 pm »

Doug Moe: 'The Strike' has striking sense of timing
Doug Moe: 'The Strike' has striking sense of timing
DOUG MOE | | 1 Comment | Posted: Monday, March 21, 2011 8:00 am

“The Strike,” a painting by Robert Koehler, is the subject of a new book by James Dennis, professor emeritus of art history at UW-Madison. Deutsches Historisches Museum
DOUG MOE Moe writes about Madison and the people who make it a unique place. His column runs Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays in the State Journal.
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Say this for "The Strike," a painting by Milwaukee-raised artist Robert Koehler. For more than a century, it has had an impeccable sense of timing.
The oil painting depicting factory workers walking off the job and confronting their employer made its public debut in New York City in spring 1886, just as labor strikes demanding an eight-hour work day were breaking out in cities across the country.
"It was a sensation," James Dennis, an emeritus professor of art history at UW-Madison, was saying of the painting last week.
Now — in another master stroke of timing, given the events of the past few weeks at the state Capitol — Dennis's book on the painting, "Robert Koehler's 'The Strike': The Improbable Story of an Iconic 1886 Painting of Labor Protest," is being published by the University of Wisconsin Press.
It tells a remarkable tale that includes a period of some 40 years when the painting was in obscurity and unavailable for viewing. It was rediscovered by an Oshkosh native named Lee Baxandall, and eventually returned to Germany, where Koehler painted it, and where today it is regarded as a national treasure.
Dennis, the new book's author, is an Ohio native who came to Madison in 1957 as a graduate student in art history. He began teaching here full-time in 1964, and in 1982 Dennis bought a famous Madison house, the Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian design at 441 Toepfer Ave. We sat in the home Friday morning and Dennis spoke about the evolution of "The Strike."
Robert Koehler was born in 1850 in Hamburg, Germany, the son of a machinist. The family immigrated to the United States in 1854, eventually landing in Milwaukee, where Koehler apprenticed as a commercial lithographer and also studied painting with an accomplished Milwaukee artist.
He then took art classes in New York and Munich, and in 1884 was completing his course work at Munich's Royal Academy of Art while working as a lithographer.
"The Strike" would be Koehler's "diploma painting" at the Royal Academy, and it was inspired by the labor unrest that preceded its 1885 composition, including a violent 1877 railroad strike in the United States.
"The Strike" — at 9 feet long, a very large painting — first went on public view at New York's National Academy of Design in April 1886. One month later, it was reproduced in Harper's Weekly, a highly popular periodical, just as May Day labor protests erupted in cities nationwide.
It became a symbol of the May Day demonstrations and Harper's called it the "conspicuous painting of the year."
An exhibition in Paris followed — where "The Strike" received an award — and then the painting came to the United States, to Milwaukee, where Koehler was reared, and where he hoped it might wind up.
Instead — wealthy Milwaukee art patrons being not altogether comfortable with the subject matter of "The Strike" — it went with the artist to Minneapolis, where Koehler taught art. "The Strike" wound up first on the wall of a dark hallway in the Minneapolis Public Library, and then in storage. Koehler died in 1917.
It was in 1970, in Cambridge, Mass., that Wisconsin native Lee Baxandall saw a reproduction of "The Strike" in a left wing publication and became fascinated with the painting, now decades in obscurity.
Baxandall tracked it to Minneapolis, purchased it, had it restored, and exhibited it at a gallery associated with the Hospital Workers Union in New York City. The New York Times took note, and "The Strike" was back on the map.
It was purchased in 1990 for $450,000 by the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, in Koehler's native Germany. Dennis saw it on a visit to Berlin in 1999. Always intrigued by "The Strike" — and acquainted with Baxandall, the man who rescued it from oblivion — Dennis decided to write a biography of the painting.
With the book finished, Dennis is hopeful of bringing "The Strike" to Wisconsin for an exhibit. One of his former students, curator of the Milwaukee Art Museum, is interested. "Wouldn't that be terrific?" Dennis said.
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
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