Martyl Schweig Langsdorf: Landscape painter; created 'Doomsday Clock' | St. Louis Public Radio

Martyl Schweig Langsdorf: Landscape painter; created 'Doomsday Clock'

Apr 1, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When the St. Louis-born artist known professionally only as “Martyl,” died Tuesday night in Chicago, she was 10 days past her 96th birthday – and just weeks away from her next exhibit.

“She had prepared for it and was completely ready,” said her brother, well-known St. Louis photographer Martin Schweig.

Works on Paper and Mylar 1967-2012, will open as scheduled on May 3, at the Printworks Gallery in Chicago. It will be a celebration of her life and her work as an acclaimed painter since she won an art competition at age 11.

By the time she was 25, Martyl Schweig Langsdorf had bested Tennessee Williams in a writing competition, given St. Louis Symphony guest conductor George Gershwin a private showing of her first exhibit and had painted a mural that remains a cultural icon for a Missouri town.

Her artwork is in the Smithsonian, private collections, libraries, art galleries and art museums coast to coast. She may be best known for a magazine cover she designed in 1947 for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

“I invented the Doomsday Clock,” she said in a 2007 interview for an oral history project at the Art Institute of Chicago.

It has become the universal symbol for the world’s proximity to nuclear apocalypse and, recently, catastrophic climate change. It remains on the magazine’s cover, a testament to Martyl's enduring talent.

Designed to be both a literal object and an abstract idea, the clock epitomizes her overarching artistic style.

Liberated Woman

Painting was her second career choice.  She had plans at 3 “to be the world’s greatest violinist.” She studied violin and piano, but a summer with her mother, an artist, at an art colony in Massachusetts changed her mind.

“When I went to Provincetown, I was 11 and decided that it was much more creative to be a painter than to repeat composers' music,” Martyl said in her oral history.

They studied with famed painter Charles W. Hawthorne.

“I remember the days when she was always painting and I was always annoying her,” laughed Martin, the younger sibling. He stayed home with their father and grandmother.

“Back then in the ‘30s was pretty wild,” Martin said. “When this women’s liberation stuff came about, I thought, ‘they were already liberated.’”

He proudly volunteered that his sister had painted the mural in the post office in Ste. Genevieve.

Her journey to mural-painter began when her mother decided the trek to Cape Cod each year was too expensive. Aimee Schweig and two other artists, Bernard Peters and Jessie Beard Rickly, established the Ste. Genevieve Art Colony and Art School. The quaint setting along the Mississippi River was just an hour south of St. Louis.

Martyl was still a girl at her mother’s side as the new colony thrived. It attracted some of pre-World War II’s brightest stars, including Thomas Hart Benton, Fred Conway, Joe Jones, Oscar Thalinger and Joseph Vorst.

In 1942, she accepted a “New Deal” from the General Services Administration to paint the Ste. Genevieve mural called "La Guignolee." A half-century later, she returned to restore the mural.

“After all those years, people came back to watch me work,” Martyl marveled in 2007. “All the young people that watched it being painted years ago, now were old.”

Then in her mid-‘70s, she did not count herself among the “old.”

Meeting masters

Martyl Suzanne Schweig was born into an artistic world on March 16, 1917.  Along with her artist mother, Aimee Goldstone Schweig, her father, Martin Schweig Sr., and her paternal grandfather, were professional photographers.

She graduated from Mary Institute at 16 and entered Washington University, a stone’s throw from the family’s home on Westminster. She earned a degree in the history of art and archeology.

In college, she encountered a student she remembered as a fellow with “a whiny voice, a sallow complexion and tight, curly hair” and a “dull” play that he read aloud in class. He entered his play in a graduation competition.

“The young man who won the first prize became editor of the Kansas City Star; the second prize was (mine),” she said. “The third prize was to Tennessee Williams, then known as Thomas Lanier Williams.”

As a sophomore, Martyl spent the summer in Colorado Springs at the Fine Arts Center studying drawing with Boardman Robinson. She had her first show the same year at the same time that George Gershwin was conducting a benefit concert for the St. Louis Symphony musicians.

Gershwin heard of her exhibit and called her at her parents’ home. She didn’t believe it was him.

“I thought it was one of my college friends,” she said.

After being convinced it was the famed pianist, she arranged a private tour of her lithographic crayon drawings on paper at a Maryland Avenue gallery. He chose a drawing from Ste. Genevieve and admired another called Gershwin Chord in Trees, a group of trees that looked like a Gershwin chord on the piano.

“It was quite a memorable six or eight hours,” she said.

He was impressed and promised to help if she ever got to New York. She did, for her and her mother’s exhibits at the 1939 World’s fair, but Gershwin had died.

Knowledge painting

Her work was inspired by America’s southwest and many expeditions to Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Japan, Turkey, the U.K. and points in between.

She gave her paintings cryptic, descriptive names like September Fog and Strip Mining in the West.\ Flowering Tree at Dusk was the view from her studio window. She painted and exhibited incessantly in multi-mediums and expanded far beyond the landscapes that established her reputation.

The paintings were created from sketches rather than photographs, using her extraordinary memory and interpretation to fill in the voids. Her painting that hangs in the Mercantile Library, Perryville Station, describes “this selective quality of creating her compositions.”

She grew up during the Depression, so her work often reflected the grim times. She painted scenes of injustice, unfairness and poverty and encouraged change.

When beggars came to their door, her grandmother never turned them away. “I would stand at the screen door and peek out at who was sitting there,” she said. “It would be a man. We’d give him coffee and bread and he'd sit on the back porch and eat.

Years later, from the office window of her WPA job supervising artists, she could see queues of people on the street getting surplus food from the government.

“They were poor people of every color,” she recalled. “They were selling apples on the street.”

“So, I painted what I knew,” she said.

During a visit to the University of Missouri-St. Louis in the 2000s, Martyl lectured on landscape as history. As a child, she had roamed the poorest areas of the city. She painted the buildings she saw there.

“I told the present citizens of this open audience that St. Louis was a very segregated city (then),” she said.

Her paintings of the poor were snapped up by the rich.

“I never quite understood that,” she said. “I was happy to sell the paintings, but I always thought it was strange that they wanted to have that subject matter.”

Earning her way

Martyl was a commercial as well as an artistic success, having “always had a proclivity” for selling her paintings. That didn’t surprise Esther Sparks, who wrote the introduction for Martyl’s upcoming show.

“She was a supremely intelligent woman,” said Sparks, former curator at the Art Institute of Chicago. “She had the most incredible memory for things she had seen, things she had read and relationships between people she cared about."

Martyl attributed some of her success to media support, which she deemed the only way for artists to become known.

“The St. Louis Post-Dispatch then was a great newspaper. It was a crusading newspaper. They were conscious of the arts, particularly because of Joe Pulitzer Jr., who was art conscious,” she said.

She taught for several years at the University of Chicago Midway Studios and was a member of the American Artist Congress and the Artist League of America.

In a career spanning more than eight decades, she exhibited at museums and art institutes in St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. She had nearly a hundred solo exhibitions at galleries throughout the nation.

Her honors included awards from the St. Louis Art Museum, the Kansas City Art Institute, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Institute of Architects.

Almost perfect

She married fellow St. Louisan Alexander Langsdorf Jr. on New Year’s Eve in 1941. They met when he returned home for his first job: building a cyclotron at Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University.

The couple moved to Chicago in 1943, for his new job at University of Chicago. He worked on the Manhattan Project developing the atomic bomb. He later pleaded with the government not to use the weapon.

Her husband’s work coupled with her associations with “leftist” artists brought them to the attention of federal agencies like the State Department, CIA and the FBI. 

Undeterred, she remained outspoken, defiant of authority and uncompromising in her work.

“Having a supportive family to start with, and then a supportive husband, and a supportive community,” she mused, “I mean that’s about as perfect as you can get.”

In 1953, the Langsdorfs bought the landmarked home of architect Paul Schweikher in Schaumburg, Ill., where they lived the rest of their lives.

She returned to St. Louis often and continued to be embraced here.

“Like my mother, (my grandmother) loved St. Louis until she died,” Martyl said in her oral history. “Well. I do too.”

She was preceded in death by her parents and her husband.

Her survivors include two daughters, Suzanne Langsdorf of Arlington, Va., and Alexandra Shoemaker (Dr. Wells Shoemaker) of Aptos, Calif., four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

A memorial service is being planned.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.