In the local news lately, there have been stories about the impending demolition of the Mobile Civic Center and plans for the huge plot of land there in the heart of Downtown. But generally missing from the discussion is the fate of two artistic masterpieces inside the Civic Center. These are the massive, vibrant mosaics of “Mardi Gras” and “Circus” by Conrad Albrizio located in the entrance foyer of the arena. A new book by art historian Carolyn A. Bercier, appearing just this spring, tells us that these mosaics, completed in 1965, eight years before his death, were Albrizio’s last murals and are the distillation of a passionate artistic career that began in the 1920s.
If the mosaics are cause for concern, it is because sometimes the unthinkable happens — the recent despoliation and sale of the magnificent Downtown, neo-Gothic St. Joseph’s Catholic Church comes to mind. A committee formed by the city government to examine proposals for the Civic Center property has discussed the mosaics, says Brad Christensen, the city’s director of real estate asset management. “The mayor has asked me to look into what it would take to move and restore them. There is a high likelihood that the city will do whatever it takes to save these,” though he did add that, as of yet, nothing is certain.
Too often, the murals of Conrad Albrizio in Mobile receive only a passing glance or an appreciative “Nice!” Yet the name of the artist is not well-known here. Besides the Civic Center mosaics, Albrizio completed a mosaic of the “History of Medicine” at the University of South Alabama Health Center in 1965, a small mosaic of a mother and child in the old YWCA building on Government Street in 1958, a mosaic devoted to the history of law and justice in 1958 for the Mobile County courthouse, which now hangs in Mobile Government Plaza, and a stupendous cycle of frescoes on maritime trade and commerce in 1949 in the lobby of what is now the Waterman-Smith Building on St. Joseph Street. The Waterman frescoes are worthy of a pilgrimage to see them, as they all are. What the larger murals have in common is a soaring vision of human achievement and interdependence, of building and discovering, of ages, races and peoples, of numinous myth, divine afflatus, color, energy and movement. They startle and hoist us up skyward out of our workaday Mobile-Baldwin errands and routines. In her book, “The Frescoes of Conrad Albrizio: Public Murals in the Midcentury South,” published by LSU Press, Bercier tells us that Albrizio was “committed to the idea of the artist as a socially conscious leader” and that he had “an unwavering belief in the need for public art.”
Born in 1894 to Italian immigrant parents, Albrizio grew up in New York City. In 1914, he entered the Beaux Arts Institute to study architectural design, and during World War I, he entered the Navy. On a wartime visit to New Orleans, “he was drawn to the quaint and peaceful niches of the French Quarter,” Bercier tells us. In 1919, he returned to New Orleans and moved into an apartment near Jackson Square, right next to the apartment of William Faulkner and his roommate Bill Spratling. Albrizio enjoyed the life of “creative, free-spirited, often party-loving bohemians” in the 1920s Vieux Carré, a scene that included not only Faulkner but also Sherwood Anderson, Lyle Saxon and others. Albrizio became a founding member of the influential New Orleans Arts and Crafts Club. In 1923, he returned to New York to study painting under George Luks, a member of the renowned Ashcan School, and in 1924, he made his first trip to Europe to study at a private art school in the Paris Montparnasse district. Unfortunately, he found the French “cold and brusque,” but on a visit to Italy, he found that Rome, “in all her glory and grandeur, was alive.”
In 1929, he went back to Rome to study fresco, encaustic and oil painting under Venturini Papari, an “outstanding technician and restorer of old masters,” and in 1930, Albrizio studied fresco in Fontainebleau, France.
Bercier devotes an entire chapter to Mobile’s Waterman frescoes, with their geometrically complicated but unified narratives of “Commerce and Migration,” “Effects of Commerce on Primitive People,” and “Civic Well-Being,” as well as smaller insets and a dome painting. Bercier calls them “one of the longest fresco cycles in the United States.” Albrizio himself said of the Waterman frescoes, “I hope the people of Mobile like it. [I want to take] art out of the gallery and into a place where it can be seen in everyday life.”
In 1931, Albrizio married a writer with Mobile relations, Imogene Inge of Greensboro. From the 1930s to the 1950s, he worked out of New Orleans as a “wildly prolific” artist in his prime, creating murals for Huey Long’s new state capitol complex, the Louisiana State University campus, and many other sites, and he became an art instructor at LSU. Bercier tracks his artistic evolution from murals showing working men and women in the style of Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera to American Regionalism similar to the style of Thomas Hart Benton, whom indeed Albrizio knew in New York and corresponded with. In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, when his Mobile murals were done, his work became more symbolic and philosophical. His last fresco cycle from 1954 can still be seen at the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal.
With the advent of modern architecture came wrenching change. In the 1950s, frescoes were going out of fashion in the U.S., and mosaics were felt to be more in keeping with the clean, angular lines of new public buildings. Accordingly, to learn mosaic technique, Albrizio went to Mexico in 1955, and in 1958 he went to Venice, famed for its Murano glassmaking foundries. Over a 10-year period, when Albrizio was in his 60s and 70s, he made several mosaics in Louisiana and Mobile, of which the enormous Civic Center mosaics are the last. Albrizio traveled again to Venice in 1964 to find the glass “tesserae” pieces for these, and he created them there with the help of Venetian craftsmen as his assistants.
Both Civic Center mosaics writhe with movement and color. “Mardi Gras” features a prancing American drum majorette, musical harlequins, a churning sea, straining seahorses and Neptune lifting his trident against a sky of streaming rays. The crests of Mobile’s four oldest Mardi Gras mystic societies are prominently displayed on Neptune’s amphibious float. The other huge mosaic of “Circus” shows a giant clown jumping over a contortionist while trapeze artists fly through the air, a stunt rider stands on horseback, and elephants rear up and flourish their trunks. After their completion, Albrizio suffered successive strokes and health problems. He returned to oil painting in his final years and died at the age of 78 in 1973, still a resident of his beloved French Quarter.
According to Brad Christensen, the Mobile city government will be contacting an Ohio company, McKay Lodge Art Conservation Laboratory, about the feasibility of preserving the Civic Center mosaics. An article on the company’s website details how, in 2005, they removed the courthouse mosaic tiles and remounted them onto lightweight aluminum panels for relocation. In view of Albrizio’s lifelong striving for perfection, the Civic Center mosaics surely represent, as Milton put it, “the precious life-blood of a master spirit.” It is to be hoped that, on his watch, Mayor Stimpson will save these two crown jewels of the city.
Frank Daugherty is author of the comic Mardi Gras-themed novel “Isle of Joy.”