American Art, architecture, art, book, Bourdelle, David Smith sculptor, Dr. F. Stoedtner photographer, education, Italy, Le Corbusier, Maillol, Max Klinger, Mino Rosso, Mussolini, National Sculpture Society, Nietzsche sculpture, Ossip Zadkine, Quand les Cathedrals etaient blanche book title, Rodin, Sculptors Guild, Sculpture, Thayaht artist
In our earlier posts on sculpture, we have shown that the American Art world, as a whole, had enormous difficulty accepting abstract sculpture (the straight line versus the round curve as abstract sculpture has been defined by some), and publicizing its historical context with links to the developments in Europe at the time.
Modestly, even the Sculptors Guild in its 1942 Exhibition showed only a very limited number of semi-abstract work. Ossip Zadkine (France) showed an abstract garden sculpture. The other piece “Leda” is by David Smith who diligently worked with abstract form as was documented by work in earlier exhibition catalogs from the Guild. (all shown in order above)
Notwithstanding, Alexander Calder’s abstract work, the mobiles from the early thirties, or the few times the work of the British sculptor Henry Moore had been exhibited here. There was little appetite in America for this difficult three dimensional art form in the abstract.
The National Sculpture Society, not to be confused with the Sculptors Guild, had an important exhibition in 1929 in San Francisco at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. The hardbound catalog with its 300 plus pages and numerous photos of entrants’ work did not show a single abstract work.
As a defense, one might respond, these sculptors, as a whole, were of an older generation born before 1900 and some even in the 1860’s and 1870’s. Many had studied at the great academies in Paris or Rome, and had seen work by the great figurative sculptors Rodin, Bourdelle, Maillol. Being as it may, Europe had already enjoyed early on, abstract work by avant garde artists like Boccioni, Duchamp-Villon, Picasso, and other cubists like the sculptors Archipenko, Brancusi, Czaky, Lipchitz, Zadkine or Otto Freundlich and a number of Futurists since the early 1900’s. The United States had not sent an official delegation to participate in the great 1925 Decorative Arts Exposition held in Paris with the justification there was nothing new that the USA could contribute to the Arts.
But perhaps now, we can explore some other reasoning behind the lack of abstract work in the USA at that time. There are many socio economic reasons, such as, the fact the old continent was going through tremendous social changes since the late 19th century with uprisings, the start of the socialist movements, poverty and war since 1848. The old continent had seen massive changes in the arts from impressionism through cubism with major and minor currents vying for attention in the press in a relatively short period.
In the USA things were rather different, artists were not necessarily at the forefront of social change, they probably were afraid of losing status as the bearers of the torch of American enlightenment and were generally not bearers of revolutionary thought! Perhaps these sculptors had lost the new battle for the mind of the public before it even started.
The torch bearers in America of modernism and enlightenment were architects, so-called sculptors in three dimensions, who generally could build higher than Europeans ever could, and, at ever greater dazzling speed, would expand the plane of the horizon into a tabernacle of higher straight forms at ever greater dazzling speed. They were not, as a whole, encumbered by conventional taste like the Europeans were, for the simple reason that there was no day to day comparison for an architect from the old to the new, other than in the major cities on the east coast at best.
Or to speak with Le Corbusier’s own words in 1937 in his book Quand les Cathedrals etaient blanche when he returned from his trip to America he noticed the lack of the centuries old cathedrals and lamented on the lack of men’s passion for the spiritual in the new world. (see above)
Those American towns were rational places which had been settled only 200 years earlier and still struggled with the prevailing classicism of the Palladian style. Is it possible that the European artists felt the currents of cultural and societal change way before their counterparts in America? The answer is yes. War was looming in the background. We can go on and name the high priests of artistic change: Max Ernst, Man Ray, the Russian Tatlin, all of whom were definitely known to the art critics in the USA.
But something was lacking over here. Perhaps the need for change in the psyche of the artist. Where else but Italy could the sculptor Mino Rosso make an abstract sculpture (above) of a head in 1934, made of bronze and aluminium and call it the head of Mussolini, Italy’s fascist leader and get away with it. Is this “regime art“? Yes of course!
That art did not exist in America until the mid thirties with the WPA projects, when some American artists ended up working for the Federal Government. The sculpture featured below is actually not the most famous abstract head of Mussolini at the time. That honor goes to the artist Thayaht.