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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Museum Displays Controversial Mural

News Feature


Covered by paneling from 1964 until Commencement last June, the murals now displayed on the entrance hall of the Busch-Reisinger Museum have been a source of controversy since they were first unveiled in 1937.

Painted by Lewis W. Rubenstein '30, the murals portray characters of two ancient legends, the Niebelung and the Ragnarok, in modern accesories to represent what Rubenstein saw as the major threat to world peace at the time: fascism.

After the murals were unveiled in 1937, 2 years before the Nazi invasion of Poland, many considered their symbolism an insult to the leader of a foreign nation. The museum maintained that the paintings were simply representations of the legends.

Rubenstein said yesterday the murals "were frescos based on Germanic and Norse legends which I used to make a commentary on world events," adding that he "did not wish to represent any specific figures."

Reginald H. Phelps '37, former Senior Tutor on German, said the attack on Hitler is obvious: "Look at those boots and the face."

The north wall features an evil dwarf sporting brown breeches, riding boots, a whip, and a sinister moustache. On the east wall, a blond, well-built Nordic armed with a flamethrower leads to group of giants wearing helmets similar to those of the modern German army.

In 1964, the murals were covered with wallboard "to give us more wall space for the collection," Charles L. Kuhn, curator of the Museum until 1968, said yesterday.

The paneling was removed at Rubenstein's request during last year's Commencement, to coincide with his 50th class reunion. He wanted a sign the works and was concerned about their condition.

When the wallboard was removed, damage was discovered. Rubenstein worked closely with Arthur Beale, head of conservation at the Fogg Museum of Art, to restore the paintings.

According to Charles W. Haxthausen, associate curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, the murals produce ambivalent reactions in patrons. He said many are confused by the paintings' meaning and dismayed by the overtly violent images of the murals.

Haxthausen said the works are not considered part of the museum's per- manent collection adding that their future is uncertain.

"The works are very good examples of the mural movement of the 1930's and we hope to keep them available for study even if they are re-covered," he said

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