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Sculpture Native and Foreign
There can be scant question but that sculpture as displayed at our current exhibitions fails to attract the general public. In place of being a focus of interest it is usually surveyed with ill-disguised indifference or ignored save by a slender fraction of the chosen few. Unless something of a sensational character be on view the plastic arts do not compete upon even terms with painting, and are hence relegated to draughty anteroom or sepulchral subcellar. Though continually seeing sculpture treated in inauspicious fashion we have come to regard the statue, the relief, or the bust, as different phases of the same necessary evil. They are forms of art which, in the popular mind at least, do not convincingly justify their existence.
Such a condition of affairs naturally does not date from today, nor are its causes to be found in the immediate past. Sculpture since its initial florescence has submitted to various transitions. Marble was the inevitable medium in which the Hellenic ideal of beauty found expression. The jubilant richness of the Renaissance attained its apotheosis in bronze, while during the rosetinted dawn of Gothic age the anonymous artist chiselled his naive fusion of paganism and piety into the surface of stone. In due course, however, plastic representation, being restricted to considerations of form alone, found it increasingly difficult to reflect the complexity of contemporary feeling and aspiration. Cradled in joyous serenity, sculpture could not readily take upon itself the sorrows and mortification of the Christian faith. Its day of glory had passed, and thus painting, with its sensuous fun of colour, and faculty of direct transposition, gradually wrested the primacy from its sister art and became the chosen handmaiden of Church and State.
While one can scarcely contend that sculpture suffered an eclipse, it cannot be denied that from this period onward it ceased to enjoy its one-time undisputed supremacy. Stray figures still haunted secluded, vine-covered niche, or graced the fountains and avenues of formal park and garden. Pagan laughter still lingered in the gay wantons of Clodion and Falconet, but the rôle played by the plastic arts was henceforth subsidiary. And yet it is not this perceptible loss of prestige which is responsible for the present plight of sculpture. It is rather due to that radical misconception of the functions of the art which followed close in the wake of the so-called classic revival. Turbulent and grandiose as he indubitably was, Michelangelo proved a less baneful influence than did such smug falsifiers of the antique spirit as Canova and Thorvaldsen. The assiduous imitation of these palpable imitators, and the persistent placing of statue and bust in inept and illogical surroundings, were the chief factors in the progressive alienation of sculpture from popular sympathy. Ruthlessly wrenched from their original setting, and displayed as mere detached curios with no feeling for background, either artistic or historical, it is scant wonder that these pathetic fugitives from a forgotten world held no message for the masses. Sculpture is a legitimate child of light and air. It is indissolubly wedded to an architectural, or at least a decorative ensemble, and, once this precious connexion is severed, the plastic spell is for ever broken.
You will readily concede that sculpture survived numerous changes both social and aesthetic. It managed, as we have seen, to adjust itself to various media. It passed from pagan blitheness to appealing fraternalism, and came bravely down to modern times only to falter in the end through a series of unfortunate misapprehensions as to its true mission. The most conspicuous offenders in this respect have been, it cannot be too often repeated, the museum directors and other custodians who have continued to house the priceless heritage of antique civilization with callous incomprehension. Stark halls and dingy corridors have been congested with genuine originals or chalky casts that struggle in piteous futility for sunlight and the flash of green foliage. The intimate relationship between plastic form and nature has been almost wholly neglected, and, in consequence, few of us can be blamed for growing cold and unresponsive to the claims of this noblest and most exalted of all phases of artistic expression.
Previous to the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 there was, strictly speaking, no sculpture worthy the appellation in America. While such primitives as William Rush and John Frazee practised their profession with commendable integrity of purpose, they were hardly more than ill-equipped craftsmen. Whatever their shortcomings they are, nevertheless, entitled to an ampler measure of consideration than their pretentious successors, Horatio Greenough and Hiram Powers, who espoused the emasculated classicism so much in vogue during the early decades of the last century. Drifting farther and farther from the true Attic spirit, which is essentially concrete, they led the taste of the day into a realm of vapid abstraction. The sense of personality was sacrificed to a smooth, characterless finish. The figures showed no real vitality, and in general conception were the antithesis of that which is inherently sculptural. It was not indeed until our leading artists turned from Rome to Paris, from the immemorial dust of the city by the Tiber to the purple haze which hangs over the Seine, that conditions betrayed substantial improvement.
If it was the Paris-trained artists who, during the ensuing interval, made possible the splendid plastic pageant which was such an inspiring feature of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, it was likewise certain Paris men, with the assistance of a few home-taught talents, who were responsible for the results witnessed at San Francisco. Sculpture here for the first time in the annals of American art assumed its rightful place in a broadly conceived decorative scheme. Not only was it admirably correlated with architecture; it was also accorded its proper position as a component part of the landscape. Having already touched upon the sculpture at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in its relation to the several buildings, we may turn to its application to more informal outdoor problems. While the ornamental and monumental sculpture at San Francisco was but a trifle less banal than customary, the various groups and single figures dotted about the grounds disclosed certain engaging effects. They appeared to the best advantage when most closely identified with natural surroundings. Those which created the finest impression were in fact those that seemed spontaneously to spring from their backgrounds. Sculpture of this character should be the epitome of earth, sky, tree, and plant. It is nature herself, it is the veritable spirit of place, which should suggest to the artist his theme and treatment, for only thus can he work with that sympathy and comprehension which make for lasting achievement.
A leisurely, receptive stroll in the proximity, of the Palace of Fine Arts was sufficient to vindicate the above contention. Silhouetted against luxuriant foliage or warm-toned wall surface were numerous familiar figures that never before appeared to like advantage. They are creatures of the open, these fauns, nymphs, shepherd lads, and playful water sprites. They demand, one and all, the shifting caress of light and shade and the fitful stir of the wind. While there are various matters upon which the Department of Fine Arts cannot be congratulated, it merits, in this particular instance, ungrudging praise. Mistakes were made, the most flagrant being the depositing of Mr. Grafly's Pioneer Mother stolidly in front of the main portal of the Palace of Fine Arts, but, on the whole, few exceptions can be taken to the general propriety of the scheme. The climax of this happy outdoor treatment was attained in Ralph Stackpole's Shrine of Inspiration, which rose upon a slight eminence in front of the rotunda. One saw in this composition an inherently sculptural conception given the requisite poetic and imaginative significance through the unique beauty of its entourage.
The development of American sculpture since the somewhat dim, indeterminate days when Patience Wright, of Bordentown, first began modelling wax portraits and silhouettes of celebrities, local and national, is fraught with vicissitudes. Reference has already been made to the Canova-Thorvaidsen period, though it is doubtful whether this particular epoch was more inimical to taste than was the era of the monument manufacturers which followed the conclusion of the Civil War. We have sinned grievously in this latter regard. We have disfigured many a noble space and obstructed countless streets and public squares, yet we are somehow learning our lesson aright. At Philadelphia in 1876 sculpture was not identified with architecture. It was something apart, isolated from the ensemble. At Chicago it was employed in festal fashion after the manner of the French. A still further advance was recorded at San Francisco. You were herewith not confronted with separate works the significance of which it was difficult, if not impossible, to decipher. The aim was to fuse all the arts into a single eloquent, unified, impression. And while the possibilities of plastic form were not so keenly realized or so consistently applied as were those of colour, a distinct improvement was made upon anything of the sort hitherto attempted on so ambitious a scale.
We shall not linger to review in detail the miscellaneous assortments of native sculpture which were immured in the Palace of Fine Arts. Much of this work being already well known, we shall proceed to a consideration of the various foreign sections, for, after all, it is not specific issues, but general outlines, which we aim to trace in these brief sketches. Many of the principal nations represented in the Palace of Fine Arts also possessed separate pavilions of their own, in the embellishment of which sculpture played an appropriate part. The most elaborate of these structures was that of Italy, and it was also the most traditional. No fresh problems were entailed in the construction of this Renaissance palace or the disposal of the numerous statues, ornamental groups, carved seats, etc., in the courts and corridors of this imposing pile. It was the treasury of the past that was alone drawn upon, so in order to see what contemporary Italian sculptors were accomplishing, it was necessary to return to the Fine Arts Palace.
The sculpture of Italy, like that of other European countries, today exemplifies two distinct tendencies. The one instances that reversion to archaic tradition which finds its most acute manifestation in the work of certain of the younger French artists and their transalpine imitators. The other illustrates that return to the freedom of Renaissance ideals which attains its supreme expression with such masters as Auguste Rodin and Leonardo Bistolfi. Thus far the Italians have not achieved anything of moment in the former category. It is Bistolfi and his followers who are producing the noblest work of contemporary Italy, for they have rejected an effete Greco-Roman heritage and turned, like Rodin, to fresher sources of feeling and inspiration. Owing to the regrettable absence of Bistolfi, the sculpture in the Italian Section at the Panama-Pacific Exposition lost not a little significance. A certain florid elegance characterized Arturo Dazzi's Portrait of a Lady. Giovanni Nicolini showed power and mastery of design, and in Ermenegildo Luppi's Grandmother's Idol one noted a suggestion of the nervous modelling and direct, graphic method so brilliantly employed by Prince Paul Troubetzkoy. There was, however, little else of importance. While the contributions of Professor Ferrari commanded attention, and The Kiss, Michelo Vedani, paid eloquent tribute to Rodin, one was not inspired by the balance of the offering. Considering their rich endowment and incomparable background the latter-day Italians scarcely occupy the position they should in modern sculpture. They have not succeeded in escaping the influence of a certain decadent formalism which seems to destroy individual effort and initiative.
Like that of Italy, the sculpture contributed by France to the Panama-Pacific Exposition was on view partly in the national Pavilion, and partly in the Palace of Fine Arts. The exalted names such as Rodin, Bartholomé, Bourdelle, Dalou, Mercié, and the like were nearly all represented by one or more subjects. One missed, it is true, Falguière, who oddly enough, figured in the painting section only. One also deplored the absence of Maillol, but, taken together, the display evinced variety and interest. Special prominence was by the way accorded the medallic art, a department in which the French have attained unique distinction.
It might well have been inferred that the master modeller of Meudon would triumph over his colleagues in any collection of contemporary French, or other sculpture, and such was the case at San Francisco. In the spacious courtyard of the Pavilion sat the Penseur brooding and stressful. Within was a series of portrait busts which, in the final analysis, will doubtless constitute Rodin's chief title to immortality. The general average of merit was above that of Italy. There was less perfunctory work, and distinct significance attached to such essays in simplified form as Joseph Bernard's Young Woman with a Water Jar and René Quillivic's The Foot Bath. In these figures, both of which reveal obvious sympathy with the modern archaistic spirit, we note a legitimate indebtedness to Aristide Maillol. It is quite frankly a welcome tendency, and one which, if it does not relapse into mere mannerism, should produce valuable results.
Had you pursued the impressionistic rather than the scholastic method and passed with not too rigid scrutiny through the remaining galleries you would have come upon certain works of more than common interest. In the Swedish Section the powerful and broadly monumental conceptions of David Edström dominated all others. Most modern sculpture is fictile, that of Edström is glyptic. He gets his effects from the hardest granite, not the ready tractability of clay. The display of sculpture in the Netherlands Section, while not otherwise important, was notable through the inclusion of three objects by Charles van Wyk, a young artist who possesses something of Meunier's vigour of handling and deep sympathy for the downtrodden. The generous representation accorded Hans St. Lerche, and the decorative panels by Dagfin Werenskiold, were the features of the Norwegian exhibit, while the chief points of attraction in the Argentine room were the work of Juan Cárlos Oliva Navarro and Alberto Lagos. And, finally, Prince Troubetzkoy, fluent and spirited as ever, furnished the requisite flavour of cosmopolitanism to the International Section.
You will presumably have noted in the sculpture as seen at the Panama-Pacific Exposition not a few encouraging signs. The endeavour to escape from a fatal fixity of type, the attempt to attain a more personal expression, and the realization that sculpture must not stand alone in sterile, melancholy isolation are welcome tendencies. We can never, and we should never, aim to recapture the antique spirit. If sculpture is to survive, it must be brought into closer accord with contemporary feelings and ideas. The desire, and the power, to see objects plastically should be more consciously cultivated, for to this craving sculpture will surely not fail to respond. It was thus when the human form first emerged from the vase of potter, and the relief evolved from rude hieroglyph, and thus it is today.