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The Bronze Age of Paul Manship

By Margaret Tsuda / June 12, 1989

MANY art styles don't receive their christening until they have been superseded by a newer style.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.

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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.