Values and Achievement as Portrayed in Sculpture
by Marc Mellon

 

  Do you remember the Sixties adage, “You are what you eat.”? The corollary is: You are what you art. Our choices of what books to read, what music to listen to, what movies and theater to attend, what art to live with—whether as collector or creator—are analogous to what we choose to eat in this way: Unless we’re suffering from some sort of masochism, we avoid foods that make us ill. Shouldn’t we protect our psyches as well? Surround yourself with negative individuals, watch TV news, read the tabloids, and these are bound to affect you adversely. Decisions about art, literature, and music, made over time, affect us in a similar way: Consistently choose discordant over harmonic, chaotic over ordered, anti-aesthetic over aesthetic, thrown together over beautifully crafted—and you have a recipe for a soul in uneasy overload, if not crisis.

So it is with sculpture. Down any random street, in the plaza of a downtown center, one can find “sculpture” made of monumental welded I-beams painted nursery school colors—a vacuous amusement, an inept apology for modern architecture’s lack of warmth and character. The 1960s and 70s saw the human figure, when it was represented at all, as alienated, depressed, and mutilated—a resin cast of a clothed figure beaten by club-wielding police; a drug addict, asleep, overdosed, or dead. Seeking spiritual nourishment, we are offered spaced-out humanoids, vacant-faced and gesturally impaired, crudely fashioned from a plaster body cast much like a death mask. Seeing such “art” everywhere, it is easy to imagine that we are past crisis and in aesthetic collapse.

Yet it was not long ago that sculpture was a celebration of the glory of the human figure. In 1928 the National Sculpture Society presented an exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The title of the handsome hardbound 352-page exhibit catalogue was, appropriately, Contemporary American Sculpture.

This exhibit was in tribute. The catalogue’s preface never makes this point directly, but the honoring of achievement was a major part of the sculptor’s trade. The work projected values deemed worthy of the sculptor’s efforts and of the public’s attention. There was a basic understanding that people need principles for guidance and role models for inspiration, and that fine artists are able to clarify, articulate, and satisfy these needs aesthetically in the works they present to the public.

The exhibit included works that today are very familiar: Jo Davidson’s massive bust of a seated larger-than-life Gertrude Stein evokes an era when artists perhaps had more time and interest in sharing ideas and camaraderie. D. C. French’s Abraham Lincoln, monumentally and solemnly weighted with presence, thought, and dignity, stands out as the opus that it is. Beyond Gertrude Stein, tributes to the arts were numerous: John Keats, Eugene O’Neill, Pavlova, two dance works each titled “Joi de Vivre,” busts of sculptors Ivan Mestrovic and Augustus St. Gaudens were all represented—collectively, a cornucopia of tributes to creativity. What a pleasure it would be to see today’s literary icons, great sculptors, and dance world legends similarly honored!

Bronze likenesses of founding fathers George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were included, as was a bust of legendary orator Henry Clay—acknowledgement that there is something known as public service that deserves our respect and applause. There were some dozen war memorials in homage to our soldiers, whose courage and patriotism helped us win the Great War, which had ended not long before. A dozen religious sculptures including “John the Baptist,” “Our Lady of the Holy Child,” “Praying Angel,” and “A Monk” were included, as were several figures with a meditative, spiritual aspect. Each of these works alluded to the faith, whether in God or in man, that helps sustain many if not most of us.

A mythologically inspired “Venus,” “Kneeling Venus,” “Leda,” “Diana,” and “Actacon” (the latter two by Paul Manship) each offered a timeless parable. At least a dozen entries by animiliers, including Anna Hyatt Huntington’s “Fawn Running” and “Jaguar Eating,” spoke to an appreciation for the beauty of nature and the nature of beauty. “The Foundryman” honored America’s blue collar workers and the concept of work. Lief Ericson’s bust, a work titled “First Flight to the North Pole,” and an American Geographical Society Medal gave due to the courage and vision of explorers. “Spirit of the Sun” sought to portray native Americans with dignity. A number of classically inspired female figures meant for fountain, garden, or atrium were exhibited, all technically fine, each meant to imbue a beauty of form and spirit, with evocative if commonly used names like “Inspiration,” and “Torso of Spring.”

Now here we are, seventy years later. The chasm couldn’t be greater between the message delivered by the aptly named Legion of Honor exhibit and the message delivered by today’s “cutting edge” museum shows and magazines.

Comedienne Lily Tomlin once said, “As cynical as I get, I can’t seem to keep up.” It’s a sad but often appropriate observation on our times. We are so bombarded with information, including the goriest details of the private lives of our public figures, that it’s harder than ever to have role models, never mind heroes. But we need role models and heroes. Fortunately, individuals, foundations, corporations and countries still commission portrait busts and statues to honor their own, so artists today still have an opportunity to pass these ideals down to our children and our children’s children.

Sculpture can be a unique tribute to achievement. For the sculptor, the primary aim beyond creating a likeness is to project the strengths and values of the individuals being honored. How did they accomplish what they did? Something of the person’s character should be unveiled, the fire in the belly, the focus, the intensity, the warmth, the strength. Achievers are often complex people, and something of what they’ve overcome to succeed should also project through the portrait. With all due deference to Leonardo, working in three dimensions holds a special opportunity by allowing the sculptor to emphasize strong but often conflicting qualities from different views. When we view a bust, for example, we scan the entirety and perceive the subject’s nuanced personality.

As an example of an achiever meeting life’s challenges, consider President George Bush. He overcame being shot down in the Pacific during World War II, lost a child to leukemia, was derided and opposed by elements of Left and Right while rejecting the extremes of both. He served our country as CIA Director, Vice President, and President. There needs to be something of his personal passage and many career milestones in any bust of him. As another example, in Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal’s bronze portrait, nothing was done to hide the lines in her forehead, as they speak of her inspirational struggle to come back, as she did, from a massive stroke. R. Brinkley Smithers’ bust projects the warmth and self-deprecating humor of a legendary alcoholic who transformed himself into an equally legendary philanthropist. Philadelphia’s monumental statue of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” conveys the pleasure this small town, overweight, oft-slighted girl attained, feeling sexy and light on her feet, as she took center stage and hit the high notes. To capture the whole, a portrait artist should know his subject as well as any biographer.

A side note: For the sake of space we focus here on sculpture. But in our century, coins and medallions have actually kept more of their classical use and meaning than sculpture has. In addition to the familiar profile portrait of kings and emperors found on coins going back as far as 2,500 years, there are medallions produced to commemorate almost everything. These include works of the highest level, by artists such as St. Gaudens and Rodin. The field of coins and medallions deserves careful study, and its rewards for the serious art collector are vast.

The subject of medallions leads quite naturally to sports commemoratives. The growth in this century of college sports, professional sports, and international events including the Olympics, has brought corresponding opportunities for sculptors. There are many sports sculptors who don’t quite hit the mark aesthetically, but the same is true of portrait sculptors, dance sculptors, and Western sculptors—the sheer popularity of these themes attracts multitudes of artists. And as in any time in art history, a small handful stand out.

Back in the earlier part of the century, the then young sculptor Frank Eliscu was asked to create several clay models of football players for what was to be an award for a college athlete. Naturally, as clients often do, the award’s sponsors didn’t pick his favorite model. But the model they chose became college football’s “Heisman Trophy”—an award even those who know little about sport would likely recognize. Despite Eliscu’s future achievements, it was to become his best known sculpture.

The appeal in sculpting sport goes beyond the obvious exhilarating challenge of capturing a beautifully toned figure in often balletic motion. The athlete’s body, his or her movements and expressions, the act of physically excelling, are admired by all who aspire to personal achievement. The passion of the sports fan is perhaps most intense because the metaphor is so personally meaningful, poignant and moving to the point of actual tears.

Those who don’t enjoy following any sport might want to rethink their aversion. There is much to be inspired by in sport: teamwork, finding a second wind, making that extra effort, attaining a personal best. These concepts are much more than platitudes: for millions of youngsters, the hero-worship of great athletes is like a stepping stone to a wider view of achievement, and the collection and appreciation of sports art can be an opening onto a wider aesthetic vista. (For the avowed sports hater, Bud Greenspan’s documentary films chronicling inspiring individual stories from the Olympic Games are ideal. They will help anyone better understand why the Greeks treated their Olympic champions as heroes, and why we should, too.)

Finally, as an exercise in composition and to illustrate the depth of unmet needs in sculpture today, an exercise is suggested. Picture two or three great figures, two or three achievers in whatever field who have not yet been immortalized in sculpture. Imagine what kind of statue a proper tribute would involve. For polio vaccine discoverer Jonas Salk, or for Albert Einstein, or for astronaut and Senator John Glenn, what would be the ideal setting? The most eloquent pose?

In answering these questions we come to grips with the hard specifics of what is valuable in life. In imagining a statue, we recapture what the person so honored was and is to us. In seeing the statue built, we experience those virtues and values with immediacy, as though they were always with us. As indeed they always should be.

Marc Mellon is well known for his portrait busts and statues of achievers in many fields. Included among his works are bronzes honoring Mickey Mantle, Martina Navratilova, and Agnes de Mille. He is the creator of the NBA MVP trophy, and this year, he created the new WNBA trophy for the Women’s National Basketball Association.