Monday, May 22, 2006

The Dream of George Grey Barnard

George Grey Barnard (1863-1938) was a small-town Iowa boy who shot to the top of the art world about 100 years ago --- beginning as an enthusiastic taxidermist (taxidermy is sculpture, you know) -- spending a brief time at the Art Institute of Chicago -- and spending 20 years -- on and off -- in Paris.

For those who visit the Met in NYC -- there's an incredible two-figure, over-life-size marble in the room of American sculpture. It's a concept piece called "The two natures of Man" -- and he carved it in his late twenties. (it doesn't quite hit the mark for me -- but still--- I've got to admire his prodigious talent and ambition)

I was introduced to him in Lytle Park in Cincinnati (that's my beloved Taft Museum in the background). My father admired this figure -- so I paid hommage to it every time I went to the Taft (great collection of Barbizon painters and English portraits and landscapes, BTW ). From behind --- the figure of Lincoln might be seen as a very large, frumpy man (he's eight-feet tall) urinating in the park -- so my father always referred to it as the "pissing Lincoln"

Here's a story about that statue that I've lifted from somewhere on the net:

"The statue was completed in 1916 and, after being exhibited in New York, was sent to Cincinnati where it was unveiled by William Howard Taft in March, 1917. Later, in response to a desire to commemorate the century-long peace between the United States and Britain following the Treaty of Ghent, Charles Taft agreed to pay for a replica of Barnard's Lincoln to stand outside the Houses of Parliament in London.
However, Barnard's depiction of Lincoln - "the lugubrious expression, the stooped shoulders, the shabby clothes, the gigantic hands and feet" - was condemned as "grotesque and defamatory." Robert Lincoln, the President's son, joined a large group of objectors that deemed the statue unfit for display in London. Instead, it was presented to the city of Manchester where one newspaper proclaimed, "whilst London was to receive Lincoln the president, Manchester had got Lincoln the man; a statue of power and dignity, whose face had that 'something fitted to touch the spirit of the children of future generations like the great Stone face of another American imagining.'" Another paper contrasted Barnard's representation of Lincoln with those "fantastical sculptures which give us heroes in foolish postures, as they never were and never could be.""

Neat -- huh ?

This figure of Lincoln is heroic -- but it's a special, American kind heroism -- fit for the back-woodsy hills of Kentucky that are right accross the river from this small Cincinnati park. The "man of the people" -- who stands for freedom -- for everyone -- high and low, rich and poor, bigshots and nobodies, Euros and Afros, whites and blacks. Nothing special about him - nothing special about his family -- it's all about a shared ideal of a nation for everyone.

And here's a shot of the artist himself -- standing beside an enormous version of Lincoln's head.

And something else that everyone who visits NYC should know: the Met's stand-alone museum of Medieval art in Fort Tryon Park (way up near the tip of the island) -- called the "Cloisters Museum" began as a collection of Medieval architectural fragments assembled by George Grey Barnard. He was a medievalist ! -- and, of course he was --- because he wanted to see sculpture that might be called expressive rather than classical. He was both a great collector -- and a great sculptor -- and I take my hat off for him -- twice.

Have you ever been up to Washington Heights? and walked around those majestic gardens and magnificent views of the Hudson River valley -- on a hot, sunny, summer's day ? And then ... walked over to the cool, dark interiors of the Cloisters Museum -- with all it's sacred sculpture -- the fabulous Unicorn tapestries -- and the medieval courtyards -- so close to one of the world's busiest cities -- but so quiet -- that the only sound is the buzzing bees in the herbal gardens ? If so -- you too can pay hommage to the sculptor who got this place started -- and not just to the Rockefeller who ended up buying it and giving it to the Met.

But Medieval sculpture wasn't all Barnard was assembling on these heights above Manhattan -- he also had a dream to construct an "Art Acropolis" -- a peace memorial, in the wake of WWI -- that would honor the dead and celebrate life with a garden of monumental sculpture (not just his own) -- a site that would draw other talents equal to his own -- like the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages that drew generation after generation of great sculptors and artisans.

(above is a mock-up of the "Rainbow Arch" -- that would serve as a gate to this park -- it was to be 5-stories tall)

(above is a life-size detail from that plan -- ready to be copied over to marble)

So what happened ? Why wasn't the park built ?

The story goes --- that Barnard sold his medieval museum and the surrounding land to Rockefeller -- who leased the studio back to Barnard -- but eventually evicted him from it -- and finally donated the whole thing to the Met.

Barnard spent the last 20 of his life on this project - leaving all his models at a stone-cutters yard and leaving an estate that was supposed pay for constuction --- but nobody seems to know any more of the story. Did the cash run out ? (it was the height of the Depression, after all) Did somebody renege on a deal ? Was the City of New York unwilling to follow through with the plan ? Had they ever agreed to do it in the first place ? ----- who knows ?

But as I look at the 'Rainbow arch' pictured above -- and the sculpture that adorned it -- I'm not sure that I'd be that enthusiastic about it either.

It's a noble effort --- an admirable dream -- but those wan, ghostly, somewhat effete figures, just don't make for me -- like say -- the monumental work of the younger sculptor, Paul Manship, whose work Rockefeller put into Rockefeller Plaza.

I'm just not sure that this great dreamer was ready to make something like an "Art Acropolis" -- and maybe his nation wasn't ready to dream such a dream either.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i just read a story about what happened in a history of muscatine, iowa by william randall

excellent book

vandals destroyed the statue. cops asked George what he wanted to do?

"Start again."

He died before finishing.

where did you find the images, I'd like a good one of what it was suppose to be.


thom gunn

November 26, 2006  

Post a Comment

<< Home