Athos Menaboni is best known as Atlanta's Audubon. Yet, his beloved paintings of native birds represent the second phase of a long, productive career. The first, equally fruitful period is the subject of “Room With a View: Murals by Athos Menaboni” at Kennesaw State University's Don Russell Clayton Gallery.
The Italian-born artist, who began his training at age 9, brought a set of well-developed artistic skills with him when he immigrated to the U.S. in 1920. He found his way to Atlanta in 1927 and fortuitously met Philip Shutze, Atlanta’s premier classical architect. A mutual appreciation society developed, and Shutze gave Menaboni his first important commissions. The architect also connected him with Atlanta's elite, many of whom became his clients as well.
Menaboni would create murals in residences, offices and restaurants in Atlanta and environs for the next 30 years. This exhibition, curated by director and chief curator Teresa Bramlette Reeves, includes four major pieces, all of which are sure to take some Atlantans down memory lane.
The centerpiece is the newly conserved “Rolling Hills of Cherokee County, Ga.” (1951) which once hung in the C&S Bank in Five Points. The young boy looking out over a valley of farmland would doubtless see something very different today.
The 12 1/2-by-63-foot mural exemplifies his confident handling of scale and composition. The slightly off-center figure is framed by a blooming magnolia tree and a pine -- Menaboni was as deft depicting trees as he was with birds, a few of which perch on their limbs.
The exhibition also includes one of the mirrored-glass panels that graced the Capital City Club's Mirador Room in downtown Atlanta. It features a blue jay on a branch of a pine tree, which extends elegantly across the rectangular mirror.
Shutze had commissioned the panels in 1939 with an eye to brightening the windowless dining room with this conceit of nature and light. Its effect is evident in the old photos accompanying the mural.
Small drawings, both proposals and studies, demonstrate Menaboni's range. The earliest proposals for government buildings, perhaps WPA projects, are executed in a Diego Rivera-style of figuration inflected by the Old Master Italian altarpieces and project a civic gravitas. Those for homes and restaurants are more relaxed and fluid, lightened with wit and whimsy. One charming example features a monkey hanging by his tail from a vine, pointing to the frog resting on ledge below.
A trip to Japan in 1959 inspired his references to Asian art, both in choice of motifs and in style. That same year he created a traditional Japanese screen, “A Tree in Autumn With Birds,” painted on silk, for the board room of Lockheed Aeronautical Systems (now Lockheed Martin Corp.) in Marietta.
Like his bird paintings, these murals are the product of Menaboni's passion for nature, acute power of observation and Old World skills -- a delightful chapter in Atlanta’s art history.
Catherine Fox is chief art critic for www.ArtsATL.com.
“Room With a View: Murals by Athos Menaboni.” Through June 28. Noon-4 p.m., Mondays-Thursdays. Don Russell Clayton Gallery, Bailey Performance Center, Kennesaw State University, 1000 Chastain Road, Kennesaw. 770-499-3223, www.kennesaw.edu/arts/galleries.
Bottom line: A delightful chapter in Atlanta's art history.
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