I have no real academic art training, so in this field I’d have to be classified as an autodidact or amateur -- maybe both. If, as my dictionary suggests, being an aficionado means being an “avid follower or fan, as of a sport or activity, a devotee,” then I’m not an aficionado though many Scriver customers were exactly that. They didn’t look at the actual work so much as they looked at the other collectors and the value of what they collected. Usually aficionados stick to one genre or category -- in this case it was Western art.
For a long time Western art was below the radar, not quite “real” art -- for kids and the naive. This seems to be because from the time the Parisian “Roman block casting” (think Rodin) replaced marble as the monumental media of choice, Paris naturally was the center of that particular medium. The “Beau Arts” school of painting and sculpture was the pinnacle of sophistication and desirability.
Then it was displaced when war brought so many sophisticated and experimenting “modern” artists to New York City where Abstract Expressionism and other vigorous but less accessible schools of work came to dominate the media. “Real” art was Picasso and Pollock.
The Sculpture Review, which is published by the National Sculpture Society, posted itself on the boundary to defend representational art throughout human history and they’ve done an exemplary job. Bob Scriver was burstingly proud of being a member of the Society. It’s the one magazine I make sure to subscribe to when I’m out of reach of libraries that carry it. Here’s the newest issue.
Each issue has a theme, which for this one is restoration, cleaning, reconstruction and even copying in the interest of recapturing the original. The story keys off the Elgin Marbles, the friezes around the eaves of the Parthenon, shattered but recovered and sort of jigsawed back together in a new museum next to the actual Parthenon in a frame that preserves the gaps as well as the fragments. In another famous example, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the statue was in 118 pieces which were re-situated where they ought to be and then a replica was made that restored the missing parts according to the best guesses. Only one wing survived, so it was copied in obverse for the second wing. The head was lost.
The latest trick in bronze cleaning and restoration, just in time to save some of the Beau Arts bronze monuments -- so familiar and dear to so many of us -- is lasers to remove corrosion. I argue that these are the true precursors of “Western” art, celebrating brave men and valiant horses in action. It’s the context that I tried to recapture for Bob Scriver’s work, though his subject matter was usually local to Blackfeet country.
This is a detail from “The Virginia State Memorial” by Frederick William Sievers (1872-1966) . It’s a figure from action clusters at the bottom of the forty foot column that supports a serene officer on his horse. The monument is at Gettysburg. Sievers was educated at the Academie Julian in Paris, part of the Beaux Arts context. What I love about Sculpture Review is that you’re never in doubt about who the sculptor was, so you can do a bit of research. I’d love to find out who his model was. It seems to be the same man most of the time and he has a truly noble face.
What I love most about Sievers’ work is a quality hard to describe: just enough evidence of the clay work -- esp. that brass serrated loop tool or the curled steel hook in several sizes that pares away clay, leaving subtle tooth lines that somehow make the sculpture realer than real -- something like fine brushwork in a painting by Sargent. With Rodin it was his finger marks in long lines clear enough to imagine the sculptor’s strong hands. For me, one of the best parts of fine sculpture is the strong kinesthetic empathy I can feel, as though I had my hands on the clay myself. Look at the clothing and hair, how real they are and yet “artistic.” No need to make a choice between the two qualities.
But I started out to talk about this issue of Sculpture Review. I love it in part because I’m a snob and like knowing about these fine public bronzes that no one “collects.” Of course, all snobs love anything Parisian and I value the French influence on America, which is why I love Jefferson (among other reasons).
I also like this issue because I understand the “hands on” things about bronze like patining or molding or, indeed, restoration. Modern Art Foundry in New York City, which was Bob’s main foundry other than his own, was one of the leaders in alerting the public to the danger threatening these hundred year and two hundred year old works, esp. in these times of acid rain.
In short, my snob’s refuge from the aficionado-overrun Western art world has always been the National Sculpture Society and Sculpture Review. Therefore it was a shock to open this issue and find a Vogue or Vanity Fair-style whole-page snaphot layout featuring a bunch of aficionados and collectors Western Art-style! An invasion from the pop mags called “Southwest Art” and “Art of the West”!!?? I mean, they’re fine and I read them, but when I was with Bob, cowboy artists were sort of an oxymoron. Now they’ve evidently not just joined the mainstream but have become the cash cows, as exemplified by a Herb Mignery corny cartoon joke about where the grass is greener. Full-page, no less.
What does it mean? There’s not much text. Most of the photos include sculptors. In fact, as I look closer I see that there are few aficionados and collectors after all, so this is still a gathering of true artists -- it just happens to be in Loveland, Colorado, with a cowboy band. Nothing wrong with that! They all seem to be having a good time.
I suppose that when it comes to sculptors, as with their works, what doesn’t stay open to new trends will stagnate and die, but what lets go of the old raison d’etre will become something else, which is also an obliteration. This new phenomenon seems to be an energizing force, so how can I object? After all, they bring their own horses.