Modern Sculpture And Architecture
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
EVER wonderful is power. Falling Niagara's great stream. An engine towing a caravan of freight cars uphill. A great ocean liner cutting the waves. The steam shovel. The turbine engine. The human mind. Particularly fascinating is the latter as it expresses itself in marble, or stone, or steel.
Writing an unhistorical treatise has its advantages. One may linger where he will, pause here and there, flit about—and skip as he pleases. We left sculpture somewhere before the Renaissance. I shall not resume the thread even at that important period—though I may say in passing that Italian sculpture of the fifteenth century differs from Greek in that it deals largely with pictorial expression as against the classic ideal of pure beauty.
If you are desirous of knowing the various steps by which we came by our sculpture there are good books on the subject. My mission is to whet your interest in a number of branches of the vast field of art. And here as elsewhere I choose my artists at random for purposes of illustration.
For my first example among latter-day sculptors I will take one who is as nearly Greek as any in recent times. Chapu, a Frenchman of the late nineteenth century, drew his inspiration from the antique. Instead of the personal element so much in vogue in his day, he sought Greek perfection of form. His Mercury in the Regnault monument, for instance, might have been done by an Athenian of the fourth century B.C. It is entirely Greek in spirit. There is in it no obtruding of the artist's personality. In the subject there is a minimum of personal trait, of character expression. Individuality is sup-pressed in favor of perfection of type.
In this figure Chapu presents the Greek ideal in all its purity. What beauty of form is in this kneeling Mercury! What delicate modeling. You feel the play of perfect muscles under velvet skin. Poise and symmetry are embodied in an exquisite young god.
Quite different is the work of his Belgian contemporary, Constantine Meunier. Meunier created heroic man-gods and gave them man-jobs. This Millet of the mallet deals with workers of mine and field. But he treats them differently than Millet his peasants. No pathos nor self-pity in these he-men of Meunier's. They are greasy but glorious. On his miners is the burden of toil. Yet they are not beaten by the job. They are conquerors. So are his Brick-makers, Quarry-men, Dockhands—and the Ploughman, the Mower and the Sower. Meunier's art is the plastic epic of labor; the glorification of work. What makes it even more impressive is the fact that this great artist had not the slightest thought of teaching moral lessons. He saw beauty among the Belgian miners, dock-hands, farm-hands. Eagerly he sought to reproduce that beauty in his chosen medium. He succeeded admirably. His subject was new. His feelings for beauty old. If his heroic miners also preach a sermon on labor it is not because he willed them to, but because he had done so well in creating real miners.
Constantine Meunier adapted old ideas of sculpture to conditions as he found them. "Gods and gladiators have merely been put into harness. Draperies soft as sea-foam have been exchanged for rough blouse and leather apron. Mercury has slipped his winged heels into sabots. The flexible Discobolus has learned to swing a sledge. It is not Venus, it is Vulcan whom this new race worships." (Modern Artists.)
Painting has its Shakespeare in Rembrandt. Sculpture its Beethoven in Rodin. Just as the fundamentals of art are in close alliance, so each of the arts in turn produces its Shakespeare, its Rembrandt, its Beethoven and its Rodin. Rodin, then, is the Beethoven of marble. He is the challenge of an age which had begun to show signs of dry-rot: the inspiration to an awakened era of creative art.
Like many another genius Rodin had his troubles with the disciples of things as they are. Academic art would have none of him. He was jeered, hooted, despised. But he had seen a vision. By its light did he steer his course. To save its skin conservatism has since been obliged to follow in his wake.
What, then, is this Rodinesque revolution? The man had the effrontery to go back to nature. Do not smile at this. Bear in mind that art is one thing and nature quite another. Art is of the warp and woof of culture. And culture is a series of refinements built up on nature's rough surface—like veneer on wood, or glazing on pottery. Art begins with a groundwork of simplicity and on it lays coat upon coat of glazing to make a polished surface. And just as it gets comfortably settled to the enjoyment of self-satisfaction, along comes some genius and tears loose like the well-known bull in a china shop. Thus came Rodin. His gospel, nature.
But although he went to nature for his inspiration, in his work Rodin often gets quite a distance away from it. He is not a copyist, but an interpreter. In his treatment of corporeal things he is prone to exaggerate, overdo, overplay. He bends and twists his material about at will. But there is nothing twisted about his spiritual message. In that he stays true. And if he distorts in shape it is but to give strength to the idea. Yet rarely does he deviate from the requirements of beauty. In fact, some of his modernist critics accuse his work of being too beautiful to be art.
Rodin is an Impressionist. He is after effects. With him the means to the end is not nearly as important as the end. That accounts for his unpopularity with the conservatives. Convention is ever surrounded by stalwart knights ready to joust for it. This militant display strikes terror to timid breasts. Rodins are not easily frightened.
"Sculpture," said Rodin, "is the art of the hole and the lump." They need not be modeled along lines of accurate reproduction of a given object, but as they appear in atmosphere and light. With rare skill he works up and twists his "lump" in order with the aid of light to bring out the utmost of beauty, or expression, or character. He has the unusual gift of seizing upon a detail, a highlight, and by means of it penetrating the innermost soul of his subject. His keen insight is ably supported by his ability to portray what he sees in the bend of a body or the turn of a face. And always he seeks beauty, character, bigness. The worth-while things engage him, not the trivial.
Rodin is a Beethoven. Or, if you prefer, he is a poet with a range from Shelley to Dante. The depth of thought and feeling in his figure "The Thinker" ; the sheer beauty of his "Apollo"; the delicate love-dream of his "Spring"; the psychological research in his Balzac: rare is the artist who so thoroughly covers the gamut of human emotions.
In his style Rodin is original. A draftsman of unusual ability, he makes clay or marble do his bidding to the latter. His effects are often heightened by rough back-grounds. "Delicate heads and figures seem to grow like flowers out of the marble of their origin." (Orpin, Out-line of Art.)
Modernist ideas are much in evidence in contemporary European and American sculpture. There is a wide range of productions in which form is sacrificed for thought—or for heaven knows what. Artistic distortion is widely practiced. Here, as elsewhere, to a commentator in these despised, newly-rich United States, much depends on what is achieved. If through a bit of distortion you get a little more of poetry, motion or emotion—more power to you. For poetry is more to be desired than exactness of outline. Line is the means, thought the end. Motion, too, is "a consummation devoutly to be wished for." It brings us a little closer to the Chinese ideal of rhythmic vitality. It puts our spirit in harmony with the music of the stars in the firmament. But distortion without rhyme or reason—excuse me.
At the risk of being dubbed an intellectual mossback, I will here reiterate some elementary rules of art. They are dreadfully out of date. But they may be of help when you want to form an opinion of a piece of sculpture and have no other guide handy.
First comes unity. This used to be considered ever so important before the world became educated. For all we know it may come back to favor when some of our cleverness is forgotten and we return to old-fashioned horse sense.
Next we have symmetry. This takes in balance and proportion. An important element it was once in many things besides sculpture.
Beauty was at one time thought to be of some consequence in good sculpture. The Greeks believed in it. And some folks in the present age, at the risk of being called morons, say that the sculpture which the Greeks produced some two thousand years back has not been ex-celled, if equalled, since. Modern terms like light and shade and "color" might well be included under this classification—beauty.
I might add another element—subject. There is really no reason why we should be expected to get a thrill out of representations of things which in themselves are uninteresting. I remember in my youth being told that it is just as easy to love a rich girl as a poor one. I have never put the theory to the test. But it strikes me as containing the germ of a principle for the appreciation of art.
Well, then, for lack of something better apply these simple rules to whatever sculptural pieces you come across. Bear in mind always that simplicity is essential to greatness. Keep before you also the old Chinese principle of rhythmic vitality. It applies to sculpture as to the other arts. There should be something of living spirit even in a piece of clay or marble. Else it is not true art. It should have life, rhythm, pulsation. Without these it fails.
In concluding this miniature outline of modern sculpture, let me present for your consideration a simple but great work by a sincere, unaffected American sculptor. Cyrus Dallin is the man. He is of Boston. The work, the "Great Spirit," stands before the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Mounted on a horse of the broncho type sits an Indian, his arms outstretched and face upraised to the sun. With head held high, and body erect, this Indian is as good a representation of the religious spirit as any in sculpture. The entire composition is one of balance and rare beauty. It is a marvel of draftsmanship, of simplicity in bronze. It has symmetry, color, rhythm, pulsation. And a spirituality so powerful—from the man's heaven-seeking eyes to the downcast head of the pony—it lifts us out of ourselves to glories above and beyond.
The "Great Spirit" by Cyrus Dallin may not be the last word in sculpture. Who knows? But one thing is certain. It is sculpture.
Once again, reader—gentle, fair, or otherwise—I am in fear of rousing your ire. For in the field of architecture I must take the biggest jump of all. My hurdle this time will be from Gothic Europe to modern New York. Pray do not be vexed with me. Consider, please, that we may learn more about yard goods by carefully examining a few samples of cloth than running all around a worsted mill. Besides, architecture in various periods is a series of variations on original themes. And I have tried to give you a fair idea of these original themes.
Now it is the skyscrapers of our large cities—a distinctly American product—of which I wish to speak. In these again beauty is the bedfellow of utility. In the midst of competition and strife, amid the hurly-burly of dog eat dog: in the thick of the fight of big business, comes a fine feeling for beauty. For man must express himself!
But first let me give you a few underlying principles of architecture as evolved by William M. Mowll, a Boston architect. For lack of a better term we will call this the psychology of architecture. It should help you to appreciate art in buildings—not only in New York or Chicago but in Oshkosh and Kankakee. My interest in New York buildings is only insofar as they can help us to understand buildings anywhere.
In a previous chapter I spoke of the psychology of lines. That forms the basis of Mr. Mowll's theory of architecture. All lines, says he, produce in us certain mental and nerve reactions. A sense of pleasure, of repose, of bigness, aspiration or over-powering awe—these may all be derived from mere outline.
To attain a given psychological effect lines must be correlated and grouped with the particular effect in view. The first thing, then, is for an architect to make up his mind what impression he wants his building to produce. Then he should outline the structure accordingly. The principle is beautifully applied in the interior of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. In other examples it is not so obvious.
Try this experiment for yourself. Draw a line for a base. Over it draw two vertical lines gradually tapering towards the top. Close your design with a straight line. Look at your drawing. See how your eye is drawn up-ward as by a magnet. Now start at the top and follow your lines down. You will find it requires quite an effort. You have now learned a principle in architecture, or in any art for that matter—namely, that the eye follows a taper. A little further concentration on your design will teach you another principle equally important, that the emotions follow the eye. 'Witness the arrow, the spire. Witness, too, the pointed arch and the column. It is thus the artist draws our eye to the spot on which he wants it to rest. A skillful series of tapered lines, and the architect infuses our spirit with celestial aspirations.
Putting up walls and a roof is building. Making a structure or an edifice produce a given impression is architecture. The impression is of vast importance. How, then, is it produced? By a series of lines all tending to the desired reaction. In various parts of the structure these lines are repeated, and in varying forms, until the message sinks in. Your principal motif is driven home at frequent intervals, like an S. O. S. from a ship in distress. Now here, now yonder, at low level, up above—the message is flashing, flashing.
Thus, the Egyptian temple with its heavy, massive columns and dark interior was calculated to produce an effect of power and awe. The Greek temple is calm, serene, majestic. Roman architecture is rich, full-throated, full-blooded: it makes you raise your head and throw out your chest. Along comes the Romanesque church, squat, gloomy, depressing. Three hundred years pass, a great change has come over the mind of man: we have high exaltation, with Gothic architecture.
And all this is achieved by arrangement of lines, by repetition of a linear theme in the entire mass of a building. Perhaps you are wondering if the effect is always premeditated, and if the Greeks and Egyptians were great psychologists. The answer would have to be No. The designers of Greek temples produced their effects with the unerring precision of genius, with that keen sense which transcends knowledge. Gothic architecture rose out of the heart of a race. It did not even have architects. Great art is not directed. It is not governed by the mind. It often comes in spite of it. Yet it conforms to principles just as truly as though it were made with a yardstick. And what we call psychology is but a surface explanation of man's feelings and reactions since he was a fish.
Look, now, on a Greek temple. Well balanced, symmetrical, pure—a splendid and majestic structure. It is calculated to produce certain effects as a unit. But you might not see it in its entirety. Your eye, ordinarily absorbing but a small part of an object at a time, must be helped, hurried, prodded. The temple is surrounded by columns. They are tapered, so that naturally your eye would follow them upwards. But the process is too slow. The artist wants you to take in his handiwork more quickly—he wants his message of beauty to startle. To tapering columns he adds fluting. Your eye rushes upon these grooves, it shoots up on the tracks laid for it.
Notre Dame wants to impress you with glories above. Great arched doorways, like the bass notes of an organ, proclaim the message. The theme is taken up and repeated by windows with pointed arches, then more windows, and cornices—row upon row of designs pointing upward, upward, upward. Finally spires take up the theme. It ends in a blaze of glory—as if the cathedral itself is filled with exaltation at having transmitted its eternal message.
An endless number of examples might be cited to illustrate psychological effects produced by buildings. From round-domed peace of Mohammedan mosque to spirit-crushing mediaeval cell, walls and roofs cover the full range of human emotion. What, then, shall we look for in the appreciation of architecture?
A building, like a person, is interesting as it has some-thing to say. You have heard of sermons in stone. That has definite meaning. Also music in stone. The art of architecture is to put living force into cold building material—to make it speak and sing. The first thing to look for, then, is the message. Does the building have some-thing to say for itself? Does it exalt or depress; give you a feeling of meanness or vastness, make you glad you are alive or regret the day you were born?
Please remember, by the bye, that in order to be successful in delivering its message a building must have unity. It must speak with all its heart. It cannot succeed with half measures, any more than will Tom Jones convince pretty Lucy Brown that she ought to marry him without putting his heart into the plea. There must be no wobbling between one set of expressions and an-other. The story must ring true.
A good piece of architecture should possess symmetry. It should have balance. It should conform to the rules of composition. Nor is beauty entirely to be overlooked. In this art as in all others those of us who are old-fashioned still consider beauty essential. Finally, look for our Chinese standard—rhythmic vitality. A sense of rhythm, of harmony, is as vital to a building as to any-thing else. That is what makes music in stone.
With the few simple rules which I have tried to sprinkle among the foregoing paragraphs you may be able to judge examples of architecture wherever you find them. No need therefore for taking up your time with too many descriptions of buildings. But I trust you appreciate by now the way in which the office buildings of New York express ideals. How these colossal monuments to Mammon are symbolic of aspiration to ends other than financial. For man must express himself!
The American architectural Renaissance began with the Chicago World's Fair, in the early days of the present century. Strangely enough, it received its impetus from the re-discovery of classic models. As at various stages in history, the inspiration for new achievement was the finding of old simplicity. At the World's Fair a number of Eastern architects collaborated in erecting a group of buildings. Their Court of Honor tended to unity of effect, from common cornice to brilliant whiteness and majestic colonnades—the style being entirely classic. The very soul of the nation was stirred by the magnificence and balanced harmony of these buildings. There followed a great wave of construction along lines Roman and Greek. As Fiske Kimball puts it in his American Architecture, "American designers made what had been thought a dead language the idiom of correct speech, expressing with unexpected flexibility the ideas of a new age."
And now we are ready for a glimpse of the skyscrapers of New York. Under architects like Cass Gilbert and McKim, Mead and White, brick and stone were made to express lofty thoughts, besides fulfilling the practical need for height. In the Woolworth building a cathedral of commerce was raised in soaring Gothic. With all its immense height this building is in excellent taste, combining simplicity with beauty and harmony. Full of quiet dignity, of a quality almost ethereal, it radiates peace and meditation amid the confusion of a mad scramble after nickels and dimes.
The newest movement in this field deals with sculptured mass effects. Surface and detail are no longer important. Buildings rise up like a series of toy blocks, in sections, wide at the bottom and considerably shrunk at each upward stage. Thus the Hotel Shelton rises "in three great leaps of rhythmic height, gathering in its forces for the final flight." In an office building at the foot of Park Avenue built by Ely Jacques Kahn "there are only three simple masses, three diminishing cubes.
The staged tower of the Babylonians comes again to life." In the new spirit also is the New York Telephone Building. Its vast height is achieved entirely by "cubical steppings and recessings." The effects sought are mass, light and shade. There are also the aspiring lines of the American Radiator Building, with its great variety and experimentation in color. Again to quote from Fiske Kimball, its "black piers leap upward, tipped with gold, the golden crown blazes in the level sun and gleams afar at night."
This movement in architecture is too new to permit of critical comparison. My only suggestion is that you apply the principles which I have here tried to outline and be your own judge. Every building speaks a message. Does the message interest you, that is the question.
Please note one more phase of the building of today. In previous stages of history architecture centered about the church. Great edifices were erected to unseen gods. Architecture today concerns itself mainly with the physical and spiritual needs of man. Schools, hospitals, libraries, museums, and other public buildings rising all about us point this moral:—that at last we are learning what various creeds have been trying to teach us for several thousand years—the religion of the brotherhood of man.