Bronze age

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 29

Paul Manship had the artistic world at his feet – but fell from fashion. Alastair Smart still finds much to admire in his Art Deco sculptures

Who was the most popular American sculptor in the first half of the 20th century? For those a little sketchy on their dates, Augustus Saint-Gaudens died in 1907, so it wasn't him. David Smith, for his part, didn't produce his best work until after the Second World War – so it wasn't him either.

The answer is, in fact, Paul Manship. Born in St Paul, Minnesota, on Christmas Eve 1885, he was America's go-to guy for pretty much any interwar public sculpture commission. Yet, after his death in 1966, he suffered what one might call a 'Reverse Van Gogh': posthumous oblivion after lifelong fame.

Manship's reputation is now experiencing re-evaluation: in recent years some of his works have achieved double-estimate, million-dollar sums at auction. Perhaps focus has finally been allowed to return to the exquisite craftsmanship of such works as his 1921 Diana – a bronze sculpture of the Greek goddess – which is to be offered at Bonhams New York in November's American Art sale.

In his pomp, Manship was elected as President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters – and of the National Sculpture Society.

He was chairman of the Smithsonian Art Commission, vice-president of the National Academy of Design, all the while picking up prizes and accolades. He and Rodin were the only living, non-British sculptors to be granted solo shows at the Tate before World War II.

It wasn't just the artistic establishment that revered him: the political one did too. He created busts of Theodore Roosevelt, John D Rockefeller and Henry L Stimson, among others, and lived regally on 72nd Street in Manhattan. Having bought three connected town houses, he gutted their interiors and adorned the space with tapestries, balconies and gilded candelabra of his own design. Some of the Jazz Age's most swinging dinner parties were held there, with guests treated to the finest wines at a 15ft-long cherry dining table, which Manship had himself carved with the signs of the zodiac.

Why, then, did his star fall? The simplest explanation is that fashions change and Manship's representational art in bronze – often depicting subjects from Greek myth – looked outmoded when the fad for abstraction took over in the 1950s. It was decreed that David Smith's welded-steel constructions were where American sculpture was at, and Manship's popularity took a hit.

But it had been his ability to manipulate bronze that led to Manship's original rise – and perfection of technique endures beyond the vagaries of fashion. He was well schooled in his art. Manship's career had gone from strength to strength after he won a scholarship to study at the American Academy in Rome in 1909, and it was among the artistic avatars of Europe, especially on trips around the Mediterranean, that he developed his style. The sculpture of Ancient Greece became a huge influence, though not so much the Classical period as the earlier, Archaic one: he rejected naturalism for expressive directness, an air of mystery and depersonalized faces.

It wasn't solely the past that interested Manship, of course. When he arrived back in New York, he was quick to twin tradition with modernity. This was an age – the dawn of the Roaring Twenties – when the machine was king, and Manship came to specialize in fleet lines and sleekly modeled bodies that were synonymous with the automobile. He became a leading light of Art Deco. His work managed to suggest past, present and future simultaneously. The public loved it.

Art Deco, between the wars, was transforming New York. It was one of the last, so-called 'total styles' affecting all parts of people's lives, from furniture to architecture. In the 1920s and 1930s Art Deco skyscrapers went up in Manhattan at a furious pace. One of Manship's patrons – America's richest citizen, John D Rockefeller – was responsible for a whole complex of them (the Rockefeller Center), where Manship's most famous work can still be found: his gilded 1934 sculpture of the Titan Prometheus for the fountain that overlooks a hugely popular winter ice-skating rink in the Lower Plaza. His other notable public works include the giant Aesop's Fables gates at New York Zoological Park in the Bronx.

In his sculptural synthesis of influences, Manship is an elegant reflection of the can-do confidence of that era, a time when American truly was the greatest nation on the planet. The Great Depression of the 1930s had little impact on either Manship or his major clients, but it knocked the confidence of the country more generally. And then the brutalities of the Second World War served to undermine the taste for perfected surfaces and idealized mythologies.

Yet Manship merely broadened his skills until they extended to every branch of sculpture, from the medal to the grand monument. His Diana, a salon-sized sculpture, is inspired by the myth of the Greek goddess of hunting, who was spotted bathing naked in a stream by the mortal hunter Actaeon. In fury, Diana struck him with an arrow that transformed Actaeon into a stag – on whom his hounds, no longer able to recognize their master, pounced. It was a subject popular in the Renaissance, adapted most famously by Titian in his painting Diana and Actaeon, which can now be found in London's National Gallery.

Yet, where the Venetian master focused on the supreme moment of exposure, when the stunned hunter catches sight of the goddess au naturel, Manship opted for the moment when Diana – bow poised, torso contorted – has just fired her arrow. He produced it with a companion piece, Actaeon, in which the newly hit hunter sprouts antlers from his head. In a clever conceit, Manship linked the two sculptures by the flight of the unseen arrow, whose passage through time and space connects the two points of the story. His pair of figures also pull away from each other in a stylised and tragic dance. But where Diana appears weightless, Actaeon is rigid of limb – any attempt at escape is evidently doomed.

Manship was much taken by their tale, producing sketches of it as early as 1915. He made various bronze sculptures of the duo too, the example now on sale being his earliest Diana. The American art scholar, Harry Rand, called it "the triumph of Manship's career".

The silver plating on this model is also unique among all Manship's Dianas. It has survived for 95 years intact, serving both to illuminate the deity and, in a sense, act as a layer of armor as she attacks Actaeon.

So while the hounds of time might have pawed away at Manship's standing, his work continues to offer a fascinating glimpse into not just the aesthetic values – but also the psyche – of the American people as their nation cemented its position as the most powerful on earth.

Alastair Smart is a freelance journalist and art critic.

Sale: American Art
New York
Tuesday 22 November at 2pm
Enquiries: Kayla Carlsen +1 917 206 1699

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