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The Sculpture and Mural Decorations of the Exposition
The Sculpture and Mural Decorations
"In this fair world of dreams and vagary,
Where all is weak and clothed in failing forms,
Where skies and trees and beauties speak of change,
And always wear a garb that's like our minds,
We hear a cry from those who are about
And from within we hear a quiet voice
That drives us on to do, and do, and do."
The persistent necessity for creation is strikingly proved by the prolific output of the Arts. Year after year, as we whirl through space on our mysterious destiny, undeterred by apparent futility, the primal instinct for the visualization of dreams steadily persists. Good or bad, useful or useless, it must be satisfied. It amounts to a law, like the attraction of the sexes. Discouraged in some directions, it will out in others, never permanently satisfied. Each age and people must have its own art as well as what remains of the arts of past ages and peoples - in spite of scant patronage, commercial limitation, and critics' hostility. The philosopher tells us that everything has been done, yet we must do it again - personally.
Art is so much a part of life that to discourage it is to discourage life itself - as if one would say: "Others have lived; all imaginable kinds of life have been lived. Therefore it is unnecessary for you to experience life."
The plastic and pictorial decoration of an Exposition offer unusual opportunity to the Artist, at the same time imposing handicaps - the briefness of time, the poverty of material. It affords chances for experiment, invention, and originality only limited by the necessary formal settings of the architecture, out of proportion to the initiative of the artists, a majority of whom prefer, either from inclination or necessity, to take the safe course, the beaten path of precedent. Artists are of two kinds - the Imitators and the Innovators. The public also is of two corresponding kinds - those who accept only what they have learned to regard as good, preferring imitations of it to anything requiring the acquisition of a new viewpoint; and that other kind, receptive to new sensations. The first class is the more numerous, which explains why most of our art, in fact most of all art, is imitative - that is, imitative of the works of other artists.
The sculpture and mural decorations of the buildings and grounds of the Exposition adequately represent the output of American art today. It is the best possible collection under existent conditions.
Its many sources of inspiration - all European, like the sources of our racial origin - are clothed in outward resemblances of the styles and tinged with the thought of the masters, old and new, who constitute Precedent. Thus, in sculpture we have imitations, conscious or unconscious, of the Greek, of Michael Angelo, Donatello, Rodin, Barye, Meunier, Saint Gaudens; in painting, of Besnard, Merson, Monet, et cetera, as well as some more complex personal notes, more difficult to relate, although they too are related in the main, adding only another variation of character to the great mass of human ideality. As in nature, there is nothing absolutely pure - nothing that can exist totally unrelated to the whole - so it is in art. Its works should be judged, not by their absolute adherence to any so-called standard, but finally by the appeal they make to the receptive and unprejudiced mind.
Be brave, Mr. Critic - Madame Public, think for yourself, at the risk of ridicule. Be not ashamed to admire what appeals, before learning its author, and when it no longer appeals leave it without remorse.
In this introduction to the sculpture of the Exposition, it is unusually fitting that grateful recognition be accorded the memory of the sculptor whose lively faith in our growth, and tireless energy first launched the enterprise. Karl Bitter possessed more than any other American sculptor that breadth of vision that enabled him to discern talent - that generosity that enabled him to give praise where he believed it due - that suppleness of mind that could comprehend new concepts - and that sense of justice that avoided no obligation. Such an unusual combination of faculties defined a man broader and more profound than his broad achievement - one of the rare personalities in our Art, the most this exponent that sculpture has known in this land. In the initial stages of planning, his fiery initiative and amazing grasp of detail commanded attention, speedily resulting in the first general plan of the sculpture of the buildings and grounds; while later his tenacity and generosity assured the completed unity, as it now stands. Forty-four sculptors contributed designs, the subjects of which were assigned to the number of seventy-eight items, some of which comprise compositions involving a score of figures. The number of replicas used as repeated architectural motifs in order to create an effect of richness necessitated by the styles of architecture, is very numerous.
Vitality and exuberance, guided by a distinct sense of order, are the dominant notes of the Arts of the Exposition and pre-eminently of the sculpture. It proclaims with no uncertain voice that "all is right with this Western world" - it is not too much to claim that it supplies the humanized ideality for which the Exposition stands - the daring, boasting masterful spirits of enterprise and imagination - the frank enjoyment of physical beauty and effort - the fascination of danger; as well as the gentler, more reverent of our attitudes, to this mysterious problem that is Life.
One of the strongest influences the sculpture will have will be in the direction of a new impulse to inventive decoration. This field has remained relatively undeveloped, partly owing to our fondness for the portrait idea, but the direction is legitimate and worthy. Architecture, which is the growth of a selective precedence, must be continually supplied with new impulses - new blood to re-energize, rehumanize its conventions - and on the other hand, all such new impulses must be trained into order with architecture. Within the last few years a school devoted to the development of this, as it might be styled, applied sculpture, has been maintained by a group of public-spirited architects under the management of the Society of Beaux Arts Architects and the National Sculpture Society of the United States of America.
The Star Goddess on the colonnades of the Court of the Universe amounts to a definite creation of a new type of repeated architectural finial - a human figure conventionalized to be come architecturally static - yet not so devitalized as to be inert. Based on another style of architecture the finials of the cloister of the Court of Ages serve a correspondingly related purpose, and the crouching figures on columns in this court are excellent examples of decorative crestings.
The groups of the Nations of the East and the Nations of the West are new types in motif and composition of arch-crowning groups - to be seen in silhouette against the sky at all points.
Both of these are grandly successful solutions of problems never before attempted since the ancients imposed the quadriga form of composition. They were first of all made possible by the receptive attitude of the distinguished architects, Messrs. McKim, Mead and White - which proves conclusively to me that those who are most versed in the various forms of antique arts are also those who are most capable of accepting the application of new motifs when sufficiently proven, and of quickly assimilating genuine contributions to the growth of progressive art. By so doing they lend to them all that wealth of refined elegance that has come down through the ages. This acceptance in itself is fraught with much encouragement to the growing school of public sculpture that aims to understand the principles of co-operation and to weld them to an ideal.
The above is true also of the Column of Progress, which was again made possible by the instant comprehension of the architect, Mr. W. Symmes Richardson. The Column illustrates a new use for an ancient motif. A type of monument which while distinctly architectural in mass has been humanized by the use of sculpture embodying a modern poetic idea. Now, Mr. Critic, it does not matter in the least whether you care for this idea or not. The fact remains, and is all important, that as a type of sculptured column it is new and fills architectural and aesthetic requirements, so that other columns of the same or kindred types will be designed.
The Fountain of Energy and the Fountain of the Earth are the two original fountain compositions. By which is meant that while there are many other very charming fountains on the grounds they are distinctly conceived within the rules of precedent and offer no new suggestion of type. An exposition is the proper place to offer new types in design and execution and happy are they who accept the challenge.
The fountains in the Court of the Universe are examples of how the charm of sculpture can vitalize architectural conventions. The crowning figures of these fountains, representations of the Rising and the Setting Suns, have achieved great popularity.
The still potent charm of archaic methods applied to modern uses is well illustrated in the groups of the "Dance" and of "Music" on the terraces of the Court of the Universe. Again on the rotunda of the Fine Arts Palace and elsewhere this tendency crops out and always with the assurance of pleasing. The group representing the "Genius of Creation" lends a modifying note of refinement against the vigorous Western facade of Machinery Building, and adds much to the interest of the vistas north and south of the Avenue of Progress.
There are figures and reliefs of genuine feeling that do not gain by resemblances to the mannerisms of Rodin and Meunier, that are not in harmony with the surrounding architecture. The original figures in the south portal of the Palace of Varied Industries and the panel over the entrance to the Palace of Liberal Arts are quite successful inserts of new thought in old frames in spite of a touch, of this influence. Rodin, the emancipator of modern sculpture, and a notorious anarchist as regards architecture, is not always applicable. The imitation of his style induces a negation of modeling only in evidence in one of his manners of execution.
There is a vague tendency voiced by some critics to advance the theory that the real future democracy of art depends on the verdict of the man in the street. This is ridiculous. The future of art depends on no one class of men, aristocratic or democratic. It depends on all men. Art is neither democratic nor aristocratic. It knows no class - it is concerned with life at large - elemental life. Art is praise and all things in life are its subjects.
The group "Harvest" surmounting the great niche in the Court of the Seasons is a fine placid thing - and the bull groups on the pylons are time-honored, virile conceptions strikingly placed.
The three-tiered sculpture groupings of the Tower of Ages make rich appeal in relation to the romantic architecture.
There are groups in niches in the west walls that will remain caviar to the general, but which are conceived with a fine sense of decoration, and need only a touch of relation to reconcile them to the observer. To him they are too strange. Yet strangeness exists and if sufficiently medicated is even admired. It is strange when one thinks of it, to have had an Exposition.
"The End of the Trail" is perhaps the most popular work on the grounds - the symbolism is simple and reaches many, with just the right note of sentiment. On the other hand, there are those who have gone beyond the obvious and prefer less realistic subjects particularly in relation to architecture. Of this kind may be found many inserts and details making no particular claim for attention except that of delightful enrichment. The details of the Exposition are excellent and sometimes brilliant.
"The Pioneer" is not well understood. The trappings here puzzle the realists who insist on a portrait of a certain personage - Joaquin Miller. The sculptor, I know, intended nothing of the sort. It is his vision of an aged pioneer living over again for a moment his prime. Astride his ancient pony hung with chance trappings, symbols of association, with axe and rifle with which he conquered the wilderness, he broods the past.
A mural decoration should be fitting for the place which it embellishes - both in color and composition. The subject, also, should be relatively interesting, but not the first consideration as is the color, the line, the chiaros-curo. At a glance the decoration should be the jewel for the surrounding space. The murals at the Exposition are rather unusual in their settings, where every building and every court is so replete with Mr. Guerin's splendid coloring.
Mr. Brangwyn's decorations are by far the most interesting in their free joyous use of color and amusing composition. From about the middle of the cloister under the arches one turns to the right or left and is greeted with a pleasant surprise of color. Then the story appears and is buoyant and rich in execution. One is rather shocked when standing directly near or underneath by the big patches of color and coarse drawing, the vulgar types not well enough drawn to move our admiration. The cloister looked poor to have such rich notes in each corner, but one glance without the arches into the rich and teeming court, and we were reconciled to their placing.
Mr. Simmons' color note is pleasant, seen across the great court. How much more pleasant it is than to have adopted the blue of the heavens as the dominating note - all the blue decorations in spite of their many excellences look dull and grey and weary - the painters have not been able to play up to and dominate the brilliant blue of the sky. In the Court of the Four Seasons one finds color notes that are fitting, though lacking in imaginative interest.
From the Avenue of Palms one looks across the Court of Flowers and sees over an opening what appears to be a crucifixion. On nearer view one is undeceived. The rich orange coloring and darker contrast is very handsome. It is to be regretted that the lunettes over the other doors are again that watery blue from heaven. Though brilliant in themselves and clear in coloring, none of the three decorations in this court are sufficiently naive in design for the space - much too smart and knowing, they might be easel picture motifs used for the occasion. The American public is so quick and clever that it is difficult to find in the painters the simplicity of mind necessary for such work. Again we find good composition and brilliant coloring in the two wall paintings in the Pennsylvania Building.
The Italians have given us an imitation of their frescoing - the doing of it in this manner illustrates the simplicity of the Italian mind, but does not convey to one who has not been to Italy the absolute grandness of Italian fresco.
This is not a detailed review nor can justice here be done to all that honest, earnest, hopeful effort of the world-loving artist - he who delights in the myriad phases of our lovely-terrible life, who naively labors to bring forth his sonnet of praise. Be kind to him all ye who contemplate, and remember how much easier it is to criticize than to - be intelligently sympathetic. It is all for you. Take what you like, and leave the rest without pollution. It may serve to comfort and to joy thy fellow-man.
A. Stirling Calder.
Illustrations and Descriptive Notes of the Sculpture and Mural
Decorations of the Exposition