Amazing articles on just about every subject...



Modern Sculptors

( Originally Published 1920 )



BY LINA WRIGHT BERLE.

THE tendency of modern sculpture, like that of modern painting, has been toward a greater liberty of subject and treatment. The new note begins to be evident about 1870, and has progressed steadily since then. Until that time European sculpture had been largely concerned with a pale imitation of the classical models, without the classical truth and sincerity. The same influences that led the painters of the last quarter of the nineteenth century to see the world anew for themselves led to a distinctive growth in sculpture, which sought to depict the life of its own generation, instead of confining itself to the illustration of ancient myth or fable.

This modern tendency is shown particularly in the work of the most important of modern French sculptors, whose influence upon the world's art has been almost incalculable. Auguste Rodin, who was born in 1840, has produced in remarkable plastic form, the visible evidence of the twentieth century striving for wider knowledge and for profounder understanding. By deliberately discarding the conventionalities of his art, he has shown his originality, and has justified his point of view.

Of Rodin's statues and groups, there are several which are especially interesting. One of the earliest was the "Portal of Hell,"-a group conceived somewhat after the manner of Dante's "Inferno," and showing a marvellous interpretative power. Other early work included portrait statues, the greatest of which is probably the "Monument to Victor Hugo," in which the character of the poet is brought out with penetrating as well as technical understanding. In similar fashion he treated the impressionist master of painting, Puvis de Chavannes, rep-resenting his ideals and personality as well as his form in the marble.

Best known, however, are his figures which represent the profound intellectual aspects of human nature. Such are the statues of "Contemplation," "The Kiss," and the superb carving "Le Penseur,"-the thinker. Here in the seated figure is summarized the intense human search after understanding, the profound labor to know and perceive the hidden secrets of the soul, the everlasting cry for enlightenment which has made our generation so restless in its search for new fields for conquest. This statue alone would serve to define the modern artist.

As French sculpture centers around Rodin, especially during the period between 1900 and 1910, so American sculpture owes its greatest debt to one man, Augustus St. Gaudens. In a sense this is a debt to France, although St. Gaudens was distinctively American in his work and in his methods; but it is probable that he owed something both to his French and Irish inheritance, and to his training in French schools. He quickly outgrew the stage of imitation, and showed himself in his mature genius. The stages of his career and the characteristics of his technique are worthy of attention.

St. Gaudens was born in Dublin in 1848, but came to this country at the age of six months, so that all his training and interests belonged in this country. He was obliged to leave school when he was but thirteen years old, and was apprenticed to a cameo-cutter in New York, in order that he might learn a trade which would support him and yet give some opportunity for his artistic talents. In this way he lived for the next six years, at the end of which time he went abroad, where he studied and earned his living at the same time.

During all the while he had kept up his studies, working at the various night schools which could help him, and he learned the most fundamental of all the arts necessary for his life-work, drawing, in which he soon excelled. This skill stood him in good stead, as a study of his reliefs will show. In fact, the training which this craft gave him is believed to have done much in developing his genius.

The earliest of his statues was the "Hiawatha," done while he was in Rome, and a statue called "Silence." Neither of these showed more than the work of a clever student. In 1875 he opened a studio in New York, in which he undertook his professional work, beginning with portrait reliefs. It was at this time that he met John La Farge, and under his influence he undertook painting for a time, and helped in the decorating of Trinity Church in Boston. But the great piece of work of this time was the Farragut statue. He was also working on some angels for St. Thomas's Church, angels which are no longer in existence, as they were destroyed by fire.

When the Farragut statue was finished, it was exhibited in Paris, in 1880, and won instant recognition for the sculptor. On his return to America, he began the series of portrait statues which have made him the greatest of American sculptors, and one of the greatest of modern sculptors. These were the Lincoln statue, the Chapin statue, the Shaw Memorial, and the great equestrian statue of Sherman.

The remarkable thing about all the work of St. Gaudens is its composition, as the artist is wont to call it, the arrangement of parts, their proportion to the whole, and the designing which gives to each individual detail its due order and significance. This is noticeable in the Farragut statue, where even the bas-reliefs at the base of the statue itself have their place in the plan of the whole.

These reliefs show what all relief work does, the test of a sculptor's skill. It has been pointed out that relief is the most difficult form of modelling, for it requires an exceptionally sure taste and judgment. An artist cannot content himself with reproducing the form of his subject, as when executing a statue, for he shows only a phase of it, and has no assistance from color as the painter does. Everything must be drawn accurately, as well as modelled truly; and the lower the relief, the more difficult is the modelling. It is the understanding of this that leads Kenyon Cox to call St. Gaudens the most complete master of relief since the fifteenth century.

Among these reliefs, several may be mentioned particularly. There are a number of children, an exquisite "Plaquette Commemorating the Cornish Masque," and finally the monumental Shaw Memorial, in which the most complicated problems are faced and conquered,-and all this without show of technical cleverness, or preoccupation with any-thing except the purely artistic problem presented by the subject, both of them dangers that often beset the sculptor, especially if he be skillful as a craftsman.

Another interesting factor in the success of St. Gaudens' portrait statues lies in his ability to handle modern clothing in such a way as to make it expressive of the personality of the wearer, rather than one of the necessary features of the situation. This is notable in the portraits of the various Civil war heroes in full uniform. Ancient sculpture dealt almost entirely with nude forms, and these were not, of course, admissible in the work he was asked to do. The Lincoln statue is a triumph of this sort, for the clothing of the statue seems a part of its character just as much as any other feature.

The Lincoln statue is considered one of the greatest portrait statues in existence, and nobody can see the strong lines, austere figure, and somber mien without realizing to the full the personality that lay behind the homely exterior of the martyred President. To render into visible form the character of a man is the task of portraiture; and it is in this that it has its unchanging superiority over photography, which can never hope to show more than the external man.

Probably the greatest single statue of St. Gaudens is the one about whose meaning there has been the greatest uncertainty. It is the Adams Memorial in one of the Washington cemeteries,-a great, seated figure, draped and hooded, in somber reflection. There have been many attempts to name this statue, but none of them are satisfying. It has variously been called "Death," "Grief," and "The Peace of God." Something of the same dignity can be seen in the less mysterious and exquisitely beautiful statue, "Amor-Caritas," a lovely form, scarcely indicated under her long, loose draperies, with upraised arms and out-spread wings supporting a tablet bearing the inscription.

There are two other American sculptors whose work has won definite and unquestioned recognition,-one of whom was for a time with St. Gaudens. These are Frederick Macmonnies and Daniel Chester French.

Macmonnies, who was born in 1863, was for a while with St. Gaudens, and has since done distinguished work of various kinds. He, too, has done a great deal of historical work, since we are still in the stage of erecting monuments to our national heroes, rather than de-voting ourselves to the representation of ideal things, as an older civilization tends to do. The most well known of his statues is that of Nathan Hale, in New York, which is in itself a massive and faithful rendering of the devotion of a patriot who gave "the last full measure of devotion."

Not less striking is the virile statue of the "Horse-tamer," a vigorous and powerful study, which reveals qualities of strength and sincerity which are notable. It suggests to the observer a field which would seem a distinctive one for the development of American art, and which has actually been provocative of some remarkable studies. This is offered by the American Indian, roaming on his native prairies, sometimes mounted, sometimes on foot, and everywhere exhibiting his unspoiled vigor and strength. With this particular form of artistic expression the name of Cyrus Dallin is especially linked.

Dallin was born in 1861 in the state of Utah, where he had full opportunity to watch the Indians, and where he learned their language and customs. Among his statues of them, there are three particularly interesting ones,-the "Signal of Peace," in Chicago, "The Medicine-Man," in Philadelphia, and the "Appeal to the Great Spirit," in Boston. The last mentioned is a superb equestrian statue, on which the seated figure stretches out imploring arms to the unknown power which controls his destinies.

To French belongs the credit for a marvellous piece of idealism, unlike the "Peace of God" of St. Gaudens, but deserving comparison with it for its conception of death. This is the "Death Staying the Hand of the Sculptor," a memorial for a young sculptor's tomb. An-other statue also challenges comparison with St. Gaudens, for it is a portrait statue of Phillips Brooks, designed for a number of people who were not pleased with the statue executed by the older master on the same subject, and which was finished during his period of failing health.

There are two statues of Macmonnies which should be mentioned, for they are concerned entirely with ideal conceptions, and show great originality of conception and strength of execution. They are the "Winged Victory," and the "Bacchante," both of them studies in the representation of ideal rather than historical subjects.

American art in its sculptural forms has been largely preoccupied with the commemoration of historical scenes and developments. This is the necessary first step in the adjustment of art to the life of the people. It is a necessary one, but it is also one that should be followed by a less literal one. The appearance of an abstract art, such as finds its expression not in portrait-work, but in the visible presentation of poetic ideals and conceptions, is the sign of a liberated art and a public which has ceased to look only for the cruder values of art. That we have achieved a series of great- historical portraits is a great achievement, and one that should not be belittled; but after the development of an art which is based on reality comes the growth of an art that has its roots in the finer things of the spirit which have no other tangible expression. The memorial statue of St. Gaudens, and the "Death Staying the Hand of the Sculptor" are expressions of this newer and more mature development of sculpture.

Such an ideal art is international in its scope and significance, and it seeks to symbolize the regions of experience and understanding in which all nations are one. This international spirit, which is for all time, is the true objective of art, which speaks a language all can understand if they will; and this is increasingly occupied, not with the contemplation of individual heroisms, great as they are, but with the perpetuation of the eternal problems, hopes, and beliefs of mankind.

To produce such an international art is a test, not only of technical skill and resource, but of character as well. What makes the art of the Italian Renaissance the thing it is, is not merely the craftmanship of the whole, but the spirit of eager, awakened inquiry which animated it. The intellectual and physical vitality which under-lay all its productions gives a thrill to us even at this distance. It is noticeable even in the exaggerations of manner which were the necessary development of the age. In the same way we must strive to inform our art, whether it be sculpture or music or painting, with a distinctive spirit which shall make it truly representative of the intellectual and social currents of the time which produces it. It is an unfortunate fact that in the minds of many people, the ideal elements are associated with weakness and with lack of vital energy. There are many who- would far rather see a "strong" piece of work, uninfluenced by the finer feelings, if only it appeals to the exuberant animalism in us all to some extent. This is right and natural enough; but it is not the final test of a great art, such as we all wish to see. It is to be hoped that in time there will arise out of the conflicting tendencies and ideals of the present day some coherent aim, in the execution of which our hopes may be realized, in part at least. In that day we shall perceive, even more than at present the debt which we owe to the sculptors whom we have just noticed, whose work is largely an attempt to serve this very cause.

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com