The art world's brief new bronze age

Although bronze was ultimately to be of crucial importance to pre-World War I American sculpture, it took a while for it to catch on. But now several major museum and gallery exhibitions devoted to the art and history of this form have opened. Of these, the Newark Museum's current ``American Bronze Sculpture: 1850 to the Present'' scores most significantly in thoroughness and handsomeness of presentation. Gary A. Reynolds, the Newark exhibition's organizer, indicates in his introductory remarks to the show's excellent catalog, ``Until the middle of the 19th century, most American sculpture was made of marble, wood, plaster, or wax, primarily for the simple reason that American foundries did not have the technological capabilities to cast bronze sculpture. The earliest castings in this country were [made in response] to the increasing demand for public monuments and the realization that bronze was a more durable material than either wood or stone and better suited to survive the often harsh American climate.''

The problem lay in finding foundries capable of casting monumental works. After several unsuccessful attempts by Robert Ball Hughes, Clark Mills, and Henry Kirke Brown to cast their large sculpture in foundries they themselves had built, the task was given to the Ames Manufacturing Company in Chicopee, Mass. Mr. Brown and his assistant spent many months there during 1854-55 supervising the workmen engaged on Brown's large equestrian statue of Washington destined for the City of New York. With its success when unveiled in Union Square in 1856, the reputations of both artist and foundry were firmly established.

From then until roughly 1914, bronze rode high in everyone's estimation. By the early 1920s, however, it had begun to lose its appeal for progressive American sculpture, and within a decade its decline was very much in evidence. A partial resurgence after World War II was short-lived, and it was followed by a 20-year period during which bronze was almost ignored. Only in the past few years has it again become of major interest to American sculptors, several of whom have utilized it in ways that would have been unimaginable even a few decades earlier.

I recommend this exhibition highly. Its 88 works by 57 sculptors are intelligently assembled and include a large number of excellent pieces. Among the most notable are Borglum's ``Seated Lincoln,'' Nadelman's ``Female Dancer,'' Lipchitz's ``Sacrifice II,'' and Graves's ``Lacinate.''

At the Newark Museum through Feb. 3.

Unlikely as it seems, the American Museum of Natural History here is one of the important art museums of the United States. It may own no Rembrandts or C'ezannes, employ a staff more familiar with fossils and dinosaurs than with Fragonard and Delacroix, and yet it houses more genuine and superior art than many museums devoted exclusively to painting and sculpture. There are those, of course, who would disagree, who would claim that the museum's huge collection of tribal and ``primitive'' artifacts has everything to do with archaeology and anthropology, and nothing to do with art. Those who feel this way, however, have obviously not paid close attention to the museum's numerous permanent displays and special exhibits devoted to the peoples and the art of ancient times and distant places. And neither have they really looked at the masterpieces some of these ``primitive'' societies produced.

They were given other opportunities to do so recently when a new permanent exhibition hall devoted to the Pacific Islands was opened to the public. The Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Cultures focuses upon the traditional cultures of Indonesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, the Philippines, and Australia, and it does so by means of maps, models, and roughly 1,500 fascinating and important artifacts and works of art.

The late Dr. Mead was a staff member of the museum for 52 years, during which time she made significant contributions to the study of Pacific cultures. She was also largely responsible for the organization and selection of the materials on display in the hall, and in fact collected 250 of them for the museum during her various trips to the Pacific.

The hall itself is color-coded to differentiate the various cultures and to create an island-like effect. At the far end from the entrance, a 12-foot high cast of an Easter Island head presides over numerous displays, including an elaborately carved Maori storehouse; four richly detailed scale models depicting aspects of traditional life in Samoa, Bali, Central Australia, and the Admiralty Islands; colorful feathered capes used by Hawaiian nobility; coconut-fiber armor worn by a warrior of the Gilbert Islands; a massive, hand-carved Caledonian door; and a map of ocean routes and islands made of sticks and shells that once belonged to Robert Louis Stevenson.

Of particular interest as works of art are a number of extraordinary masks from New Guinea and New Ireland; an exquisitely carved feast-bowl from New Zealand; a birdman figure representing ``makemake,'' the most revered eastern island diety; the wicker frame of a head of Tu, the Hawaiian war god; and various musical instruments. Every item is displayed within a living context, as something produced by real human beings with a specific purpose in mind, and not merely as an interesting or beautiful object to be appreciated for its shape, color, design, or craftsmanship alone.

The hall, in short, while designed primarily to transmit information about Pacific cultures, can also be visited exclusively for its art. When one considers it is only one of several such halls devoted to primitive societies scattered throughout the museum, it becomes very clear why this museum of natural history also qualifies as a major museum of art.

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