St. Louis Modern is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue featuring a comprehensive essays on architecture and design in St. Louis that expand on themes explored in the exhibition, including in-depth examinations of the city’s embrace of modern aesthetics in sculpture, silver, stained glass, murals, and textiles.
In the excerpt below, exhibition co-curator Genevieve Cortinovis highlights the important role played by Emil Frei & Associates, the 117-year-old St. Louis company that Architectural Record once dubbed “the future of stained glass.”
Religiosity pervaded America in the postwar period, and as suburban populations swelled, so did houses of worship. Modern churches and synagogues sprang up in unprecedented numbers in the St. Louis area, and swiftly the city, with its already-robust tradition of stained-glass design, became an epicenter for its creation and experimentation, primarily through the work of Emil Frei and his descendants, who established what was arguably the most important stained-glass studio in the United States in the twentieth century.(1) Modern painting, with its emphasis on flat planes of color, abstraction, and self-conscious materiality, critically influenced visual developments in the medium, while sweeping movements to modernize religion freed artists to explore new methods of conveying narrative and content.(2) Although Europe is generally credited as the birthplace of modern liturgical stained glass, the United States was home to its maturation, and American stained-glass designers are rightly credited with pushing its technical boundaries to new heights and exposing a vast public to vanguard art and design.
Emil Frei Art Glass (later Emil Frei & Associates) was founded in 1898 by Bavarian immigrant and trained painter Emil Frei Sr., and it would evolve from a studio rooted in an old-world tradition of Munich pictorial stained glass, where rich colors contrasted with carefully rendered representational figures, to a hotbed of technical and artistic innovation with a distinctly American viewpoint. From its start, the firm excelled in the field of liturgical stained glass. It was awarded a grand prize at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition for the windows of the Family Church in Waterton, New York, and subsequently secured commissions across the globe, including the epic mosaic project designed by Hildreth Meière for St. Louis’s New Cathedral, which prompted Frei’s creation, with the German firm Puhl & Wagner, of the Ravenna Mosaic Company.(3) Upon the death of the elder Frei in 1942, the firm passed to Emil Frei Jr., a graduate of the Washington University School of Fine Arts and widely considered a master in the medium of stained glass.(4) The younger Frei called historicizing art “a cadaver” and warned churches against buying readymade “religious objects” rather than customized “works of art.”(5) Under his leadership, the studio embraced the gesamtkunstwerk, a modern ethos that encouraged the seamless integration of architecture and interior decoration, and notably explored and accentuated the unique characteristics of the stained-glass medium. Emil Frei & Associates actively engaged with the local art and architecture community in both liturgical and secular projects, while continuing to collaborate with the most accomplished craftsmen in the field, including George Anderson, a renowned glass cutter and colorist. In the midcentury, the studio worked with the major figures of St. Louis’s modern movement— artists Robert Harmon, Siegfried Reinhardt, Rodney Winfield, and Francis (Frank) Deck and architects Charles Eames, Harris Armstrong, Joseph Murphy, and Frederick Dunn— many of them also Washington University professors or graduates.
Dubbed “the future of stained glass” by Architectural Record in 1948, Emil Frei & Associates was known for its diverse representations of modernism, ranging from stylized figuration to total abstraction, and techniques, including direct painting, etching, airbrushing, and silkscreening.(6) Hundreds of liturgical buildings across St. Louis evince the firm’s multifarious approach. St. Mark’s Episcopal is the earliest significant example of Frei’s foray into modernism. Created by Robert Harmon and Emil Frei Jr. in 1936, in collaboration with architectural partners Frederick Dunn and Charles Nagel Jr., the windows depict scenes from the life of St. Mark and allegorical depictions of human desires, including lust for money and thirst for domination. Allusions to Hitler’s aggression and to workers’ rights, as well as references to the building’s own architects, are slyly inserted into the scenes. The subdued palette of blue and gray, use of negative space, and insertion of contemporary social commentary was radical for its time. Boldly breaking with the prevailing trend of imitation Gothic stained glass, St. Mark’s proved that modernism was a viable choice for religious art and architecture.(7)
Twenty years later, Washington University graduate and professor Siegfried Reinhardt embraced an entirely contrasting modern style in a series of windows interpreting the Beatitudes for the Second Baptist Church in suburban Richmond Heights, designed by Dunn. Reinhardt’s figures, painted directly in oxides onto the surface of custom mouth-blown glass, are dramatically modeled and have exaggerated heads and hands, a technique the artist employed to emphasize particular aspects of the narrative.(8) Abstract decorative elements appear alongside the slender sans-serif text of the eight blessings from the Gospel of Matthew. A limited palette of warm brown and white reinforces the sculptural quality of the figures without overwhelming the church’s minimal, monochromatic interior in pink-hued Chicago common brick. Dunn’s tall, rectangular, and largely unadorned design for the Second Baptist is reminiscent of his earlier St. Mark’s and of Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s Tabernacle Church of Christ in Columbus, Indiana. German-born but raised in St. Louis, Reinhardt was a self-taught artist who excelled in draftsmanship in the Northern European Renaissance tradition. He skillfully applied his unique blend of fantasy and realism to a variety of liturgical art—stained glass, mosaic, and mural—and regularly explored themes of religion and spirituality in his own drawings and paintings. The Mannerist treatment of the figure, also evident in Reinhardt’s portrait of silversmith Maria Regnier, and the Surrealist imagery of the Second Baptist windows epitomize the artist’s fastidious yet imaginative drawing style, as well as Frei’s open and adaptive approach towards stained-glass design and execution.
Francis Deck, a Washington University graduate and later vice president of Emil Frei & Associates, utilized the rapidly evolving technique of airbrushing and screenprinting to achieve subtle tonality and crisp pattern in his windows from the mid-1950s made for the renovation of the Church of St. Charles Borromeo, which had been built in 1869.(9) One particularly striking window from the series depicts the legend of the mother pelican feeding her young, an ancient story adopted by Christianity as a symbol of Christ’s self-sacrifice. Composed of three panels, the central figure, a slender-necked pelican with abstracted, softly modeled feathers, delicately pecks her breast. A stream of red blood flows from the wound to her three chicks huddled in a nest below, a simple semicircle veined with thin, black intersecting lines. Stylized vegetation, reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s cutouts and stained glass from the same period, flanks and surmounts the central scene, with vines, leaves, and flowers described through abstract patterns and silhouettes.(10) Deck, a master of color, uses a predominantly cool palette of gray, purple, blue, and green punctuated by bursts of red and gold, used sparingly in a band of fleurs-de-lis at the window’s base. A variety of hand-blown glass—stretch-marked German glass in the central composition and seedy Blenko glass in the frame—generates added textural richness and contrast. While the pelicans are undeniably the central theme, Deck lavishes as much attention on the surrounding leaves and surmounting grape vine, leading the eye towards the heavens. With a profound knowledge of Christian theology, the artist excelled in conveying complex spiritual concepts with abstract symbolism and minimal pictorial narrative.(11)
- George McCue, “St. Louis Stained Glass Center,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch Everyday Magazine, undated press clipping (c. 1957), Emil Frei Jr. Collection, Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.
- Paul F. Damaz, “Stained Glass: A Dead Art Full of Life,” Journal RAIC, December 1961: 29. The Roman Catholic Church, which had more than 45 million followers in the United States by 1964, famously addressed many of these ideas in the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65.
- The Ravenna Mosaic Company, later known as The Ravenna Company, amicably separated from Emil Frei & Associates in 1929.
- Emily Grant Hutchings, “Art and Artist,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, October 6, 1935.
- “Emil Frei Says Great Contemporary Church Art Possible,” St. Louis Catholic, undated press clipping (c. 1957), Emil Frei Jr. Collection, Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.
- “The Future of Stained Glass: The Workshop and Designs of Emil Frei, Inc.,” Architectural Record, June 1948: 124.
- Nancy Blair “A Church in the Modern Mode—in South St. Louis,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, January 21, 1939.
- Siegfried Reinhardt, “Artist Statement” (c. 1957), Emil Frei Jr. Collection, Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.
- Norbury L. Wayman, History of St. Louis Neighborhoods: Midtown (St. Louis: St. Louis Community Development Agency, 1978), https://www.stlouis-mo.gov/archive/neighborhood- histories-norbury-wayman/midtown/text18.htm.
- Henri Matisse’s Nuit de Noel, a stained-glass window commissioned by LIFE magazine for the Christmas celebrations at Rockefeller Center in 1952 is a particularly good comparison. Both the window and its maquette are in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
- Aaron Frei, interview with the author, October 9, 2014.