Hell with the Lid Off

| June 14th, 2013, 6:11 PM

Munhall Blog Gabi

Walking through the hallway at Carnegie Museum of Art, my eyes detected the familiar two letters of DU [“You”] for the renowned Swiss Art magazine founded in 1941. It was the February 1983 issue dedicated to Pittsburgh (!). Edgar Munhall, born and raised in Pittsburgh and later curator of the Frick Collection in New York (1965–2000) contributed the opening essay. Unimpressed by the devastating descriptions of poets and intellectuals, he portrays the steel city in a surprisingly positive way. Munhall had left Pittsburgh for New York in 1951, then 17 years old.

“The city I was leaving did not have a very good reputation. As one of the greatest industrial centers of the word it had been described by Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936, American journalist) in 1905 as ‘Hell with the lid off.’ A few years later [sic] Herbert Spencer (1820–1903, English philosopher) opined that, ‘A month in Pittsburgh would justify anyone in committing suicide,’ and, on her deathbed in 1924 Eleonora Duse (1858–1924, Italian actress) was said to have exclaimed, ‘Oh, my God, I am dying in Pittsburgh!’ The short-story-writer O. Henry (1862–1910, American) called the city ‘the low-down-est hole in the surface of the earth.'”

Unlike them, Munhall expresses the true love for his hometown: “Growing up in such a maligned environment had left me with totally different feelings, for I had always thought that Pittsburgh possessed a magical and unique beauty, sinister and awesome. Even before I had found artistic parallels in Whistler’s views of London to justify my cause, I had thrilled to the experience of walking to school unable to see through the smoky fog more than three feet in front me.”

Gabriela Burkhalter is the guest curator of The Playground Project.