The Bronze Age of Paul Manship
MANY art styles don't receive their christening until they have been superseded by a newer style. Art Deco, the predominant mode of decoration between the two world wars, was no exception. As this eclectic style developed and became popular, it was loosely referred to as ``modern.'' In the late 1960s after it had been completely replaced by a more modern ``modern'' style, interest in the movement was revived under the name ``Art Deco.'' The name chosen derived from the landmark Exposition Internationale des Arts D'ecoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in Paris in 1925. The style is actually more recognizable than describable, because it included a variety of elements that should have been incompatible.
Included are the set-back skyscraper with its zigzag outline; the finely detailed architectural ornamentation that might stem from exotic or ancient sources; the streamlined curves of automobiles, diners, and service stations; the rigid stylization of machine-made objects; and finely crafted objects of metals and rare woods which might be in any of these styles.
Paul Manship represents the elegant end of the Art Deco scale. His career spanned the whole of the movement and, indeed, probably helped to shape its sculptural manifestations in America. His was an astonishingly successful career, almost without the angst that is usually associated with art.
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1885, into a family that appreciated the arts, Manship decided to become a sculptor at age 16. At 19, he was in New York City learning from Jo Davidson, a famous portrait sculptor, and from Solon Borglum, an animal sculptor. The latter's better-known brother, Gutzon, whose gigantic Mt. Rushmore carvings of the presidents overshadow his other, more sensitive works, was also an influence.
Manship won the Prix de Rome and spent three years studying at the American Academy in Rome, absorbing the sculptural beauties of the ancient Mediterranean cultures. He returned to New York in 1912 bringing back 96 pieces of bronze sculpture. His exhibition brought instantaneous success, with rave reviews and the sale of all 96 pieces. In no time at all he was established in a studio in Greenwich Village, with Gaston Lachaise as his assistant. Lachaise continued with him for seven years.
Among the elements in Manship's work which we recognize as Art Deco are the lithe springiness of the figures, the clean line of the execution, and the patterned detailing of hair and drapery or fur and feathers. He derived much inspiration from the archaic Greek and Minoan sculptures. While we might wonder why this was hailed as ``modern,'' we realize upon reading the art criticisms of his day that his serene work was quite the opposite of the pervasive influence of Rodin's dramatic Romantic Expressionism and was therefore ``new.''
A bronze called ``Playfulness,'' which shows a young mother playing ride-a-cock-horse with her small son, demonstrates his very individual way of utilizing the wide-open archaic Greek eyes, formalized drapery, and stylized hair in a very unarchaic and delightful pose. The figure is disposed in a single plane, which accorded with Art Deco's predilection for figures in bouncy silhouettes. The exquisite finish of the execution attracted many wealthy collectors.
Paul Manship was interested in public sculpture, and while his name, for some reason, does not seem to attach to his works (perhaps this is true of most sculpture), many are very familiar to us. One might hazard a guess that the Prometheus at Rockefeller Plaza follows close behind the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building (also Art Deco) as a symbol of New York City. Certainly, tourists without number have car- ried home a photo of Manship's Prometheus.
Rockefeller Center itself was the quintessential Art Deco statement. It was conceived as a totally designed work-city within a city, with office buildings, shops, restaurants, entertainment (Radio City Music Hall), transportation access, and the charming parklike promenade that leads back to the ice-skating rink (winter) or outdoor restaurant (summer) and the famous fountain sculpture.
It is a tribute to Manship's art that, although his Prometheus is sometimes called too decorative, its gilded bronze form holds its own against the massif of the huge set-back skyscraper complex and the brightly colored restaurant umbrellas. The figure of Prometheus was created in the smooth, stylized manner Manship had adapted from his earlier pieces influenced by antiquity. It has almost a machined look - another feature of Art Deco.
Manships's interest in Greek and other myths was neither momentary nor superficial; he had read and studied ancient texts and the various recountings of the tales. Many of his earlier works were of mythologic figures. Prometheus was one of the Titans, who, according to the myths, were a race of giants older than the Greek gods although not more powerful. He took pity on shivering humankind, stole fire from the heavens, and brought it down to them. The displeased Zeus punished him with an everlasting doom. Manship's Titan - springing through the circle of the heavens, represented by reliefs of the zodiac constellations around the hoop - looks down with a benevolent expression bearing a superbly beautiful fireball in his right hand.
That fireball in itself would have made a handsome piece of sculpture. It shows more of Manship's imaginatively graceful craft than the main figure. The sculptor was not especially pleased with his Prometheus and felt that he had yielded too much to the pressure of the deadline. He regretted not having made an exact-size plaster cast to correct any proportional deficiencies before going to the final bronze.
Visitors to the 1939 New York World's Fair saw Manship's enormous sundial, ``Time and the Fates,'' and ``Moods of Time,'' a fountain group in front of the Perisphere. Another much-photographed piece is the handsome memorial to Woodrow Wilson (``Celestial Sphere'') in a reflecting pool in front of the Palais des Nations, Geneva, headquarters of the European offices of the United Nations. This is a richly ornamented spherical star map with all the constellations meticulously placed, their major stars shining in white metal. It can be set for any hour of the night.
Although Manship was not an animal sculptor per se, he had gained his Prix de Rome with a relief of horses, and he loved to include birds and animals in his pieces. A thorough study of their anatomies under Solon Borglum had prepared him to do these creatures with the same stylized verve that infused his sculptures of human figures. He was commissioned to do a huge memorial gateway for the Bronx Zoo and later one for a playground in Central Park. Both included striking groups of animals in naturalistic poses and settings. The group of bears for the zoo is strikingly expressive. The gate in Central Park featured a rectangular cartouche, with one of Aesop's fables lettered by Manship himself.
Manship also did a series of small animals and birds which blends an individual sense of the natural, wild presence with simplified patterning for the details of feathers and fur. His ``Owl'' is made of gilded bronze mounted on a semiprecious lapis-lazuli base. Sometimes these were preparatory studies and sometimes done for his own pleasure.
By the World's Fair of 1964-65, tastes had changed. Manship was commissioned with only one piece, ``Armillary Shere and Sundial.'' Ironically, even as his reputation was fading, this sculpture disappeared at the close of the fair, presumed stolen by a scrap metal dealer.
The new ``modern'' style has, as far as I know, not yet received an official christening by art historians. It will include non-representationalism of all sorts, derivations from primitive and ethnic sources, junk sculpture, found objects, and earth works. None of these were part of Manship's sculptural vocabulary. But wherever Art Deco is appreciated in America, Paul Manship's work will be, too. And the tourists will continue to be photographed in front of Prometheus.
An exhibit of Manship's work will be on display at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., until July 23.