Grace Notes


Sometimes, you see a work of art and you break out into spontaneous applause. Here we see two examples.

Augustus Saint-Gauden’s “Diana” there in the background is well-known. It was originally designed to adorn the top of Madison Square Garden (the cool, original one) and was fitted out as a weathervane, of all things. It proved so successful that Saint-Gaudens refined the original over the next few years and produced it in different scales.

It’s deceptively simple, isn’t it? Diana is perched on one toe, leaning slightly forward towards her target, captured in the moment before she releases the arrow. There’s nothing complicated about the pose but executing it with consummate grace must have been a nightmare. The human body is composed of hunks of irregularly-distributed meat suspended on stems connected by dozens of joints. We can intuit when an artist or sculptor has articulated a figure correctly and when it’s even slightly “off” we can spot it instantly and intuitively, even if we can’t figure out exactly <em>why</em> we’re reacting so negatively.

The same puritanical groups that drove MacMonnies’ “Bacchante And Infant Faun” out of Boston attacked “Diana,” too. What a bunch of dopes.

I imagine, and hope, tat Harriet Whitney Frishmuth’s “The Vine” gave the all of the members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union heart attacks. I’d never seen or heard of it before my first visit to Gallery 700. Via the Met, I read that she often posed dancers for figures and the edition of bronzes she cast of this one in tabletop size was so successful and well-received that she decided to re-do it, with a new model, in this monumental scale.

I keep learning about figure sculpture and my mind continues to boggle. To conceive of this figure; to execute it flawlessly; <em>and</em> to solve what must be some serious engineering problems to keep this dynamic pose stable as it’s built up in clay and then fixed in bronze; all in all, this is the calling card of consummate skill.

It also pleases me that Frishmuth has taken a very real ballet dancer by the name of Desha Delteil and made her immortal, as MacMonnies immortalized Eugenie Pasque. Dancing is a hard legacy to preserve because it all about motion and time, and photography is about freezing motion and stopping time. Desha Deltell was well-photographed and even filmed during the 1920s. But no photo or movie could have created such a lasting monument to Delteil’s form and movement as the series of sculptures she posed for in Frishmith’s studio.

I read that Deltell lived into her Eighties. I like to imagine her stopping by the Met every now and again to say hello to Twentysomething Desha. If I looked as good as that at any brief period of my life, I’d be pretty happy that it got captured for posterity.

None of that distracts from the dramatic impact that “The Vine” has on you. It’s like a Maxfield Parrish painting in three dimensions.

I keep coming back to the sculpture gallery in the American Wing because I keep failing to get a photo of “Bacchante” that I’m totally happy with. And I keep reading about “Bacchante” because every new detail I learn about the work, its sculptor, its subject, and that era of sculpture draws me in deeper.

The nice side effect of all of this is that although I’ve become so distracted by “Bacchante” that I’ve barely spent any time in the rest of the Met, I’m growing to know all of the figures in this one gallery in greater detail. I know the stories of many of the artists and many of the models, even. I can see Audrey Munson’s face in two sculptures that surround “Bacchante,” and I think about the two very different fates of those two models. I see “Diana” in the background of “Bacchante,” and I think about what a valuable teacher and mentor Saint-Gaudens was for MacMonnies, and I also think about MacMonnies’ own “Diana” and how heavily influenced it was by another of his teachers. During my previous visit, I realized that the gallery had two works by this other sculptor I’ve been reading about, a guy who was born about twenty years too soon to take advantage of this vibrant revolution that came in the late 1800s and whose work seemed to me just so leaden and obligated to 100 years of tradition.

Et cetera. Though I’d certainly admired “The Vine” during my previous visits, I didn’t learn anything about its sculpture. And now, after 45 minutes of image searches, I want to get to know this Harriet Whitney Frishmuth a lot better.

My pal Mark Evanier has been to every San Diego Comic-Con and offers great advice to first-time attendees. It’s so big that you can’t possibly see it all. So focus on just one <em>kind</em> of Comic-Con you want to attend. Meeting artists and writers? Attending panels? Shopping for cool stuff? Pick one and you’ll have a great time.

This wisdom occurred to me during my visit yesterday. Big museums are baffling. Maybe the best way to enjoy it is to think of it as seven different museums sharing the same space, and then go deep-dive on your favorite one. I suspect I’ll have years to go before I’m done with this sculpture gallery.