Sunday, December 03, 2017


Portrait Bust of Jesus on the Cross by Scriver

A very wealthy woman commissioned Bob Scriver to make a portrait of her husband playing polo.  She was so pleased with it that she asked him to make her a Crucifix because, despite her wealth, she was ill and suffering.  About that time Bob’s second wife’s brother, Maurice Chaillot, was just back from France and Bob thought he looked like Jesus, so Maurice posed for the “corpus” which is what the body of Jesus is called.

Bob’s method was to refer to reality, often doing portraits.  But how he saw this reality — which he never consciously distorted — was naturally affected by his life at the time.  In the course of doing the corpus, Maurice — who was far more sophisticated, a professor in fact — began to educate Bob about being more impressionistic.  The reflection of the conversation was two portraits, one of them a realistic bust of Maurice without interpretation and the other being a rough bust of the face of the corpus based on Maurice.  People had for a long time urged Bob to use a looser style, partly because the measure in Montana is always the style of Charlie Russell.  On a larger basis, Rodin.

"To See Eternity" by Scriver

At this point Bob’s daughter, Margaret, was diagnosed with cancer.  He made a bust of her as she lay in the hospital, near death.  It was closely realistic, so much so that it was a little shocking, marked for death; he had to make some small changes.  When she died, Bob made a “Pieta” the traditional vignette of Mary grieving over the dead body of Jesus.  As models he used his second wife’s brother again, plus an older sister.  

Scriver's Pieta

These sculptures form a small group: corpus, two busts of Maurice, bust of Margaret, and Pieta.  The subjects are popular American Christianity in the 20th century, without conscious interpretation but permeated by personal experience.  In using this style — Beaux Arts realism as exemplified in many famous monuments —Bob was consciously doing narrative realism and not interpreting except in the bust of Jesus guided by Maurice.  It was not at all formally theological, not trying to say anything about the technical paradox of Jesus the Christ being both human and God.  Indeed, to Bob the concept of “Christ” had no content - it was as though “Christ” were Jesus’ last name.

Bob’s clientele and the local people were respectful, as they are accustomed when dealing with cultural Christianity.  He received praise.  Also, he was drawn back into his life during and after WWII, and the people of that time.  When we had married, he had begun calling me by his second wife’s name and confusing me with her, acting as he had when married to her, which was impatient and patronizing.  But then he moved into the period during which he created the rodeo series, which brought big-time praise and real money, but also major stress.  He had a near-fatal heart attack that changed him forever.  The marriage broke, he divorced me, and I left.  After a few years with Multnomah County Animal Control, I went to seminary.

An old-timer, a former law man, had a dream about putting a portrait of Jesus at the top of a famous and gorgeous mountain pass.  He wanted a seated version, much like the popular images of Jesus looking benign and comforting.  He wanted an icon of peace.  Bob sort of took the idea away from him and a committee in Cut Bank, the county seat just off the rez, formed.  They were money-centered, wanting a tourist attraction like their giant talking penguin.  They bought land, broke ground, made a lot of publicity before anyone had really seen the plan, which was supposed to be a Jesus so big that one could go up in the head like the Statue of Liberty.  No engineers were involved in this plan for an experimental structure on land with a drastic climate.

Maurice and Helene DeVicq, the in-laws who had posed for the previous Christian statues, took a more artistic view and suggested that at the base there be little scenes illustrating peace, like a mother and child, a boy and his calf.  These were never begun.  Maurice posed again and this time George Montgomery was back on the Montana scene and helped by supplying a “genuine” researched robe from the Hollywood costumers.  I have a video of the creation of the seated Jesus, everyone rather loud and nervous.  

The whole project was ended by one comment: that Jesus looked like an old man straining to relieve his bowels.  The folk rule is that one must never think about gods who shit.  (Never think about their sex life either.)  

I think on some level in some corner of his mind, Bob thought that making this gigantic statue was equivalent to seminary.  He said he was proud of me for graduating from seminary, though he didn’t really know what happened at such a place.  We shared good memories of Chicago.  His were on the South Side at Vandercook School of Music which was to him a transcendent experience of meaning.  I had hoped that would be my seminary experience, but it was a place of analysis, history, language and thought — quite different from any folk understanding and, I soon discovered, a way of thinking not welcomed by congregations who just want a little cheerleading on Sunday morning.

But it is enlightening and oddly tolerant when it comes to the whole question of monuments and graven images.  Maybe we could call it the Ozymandias principle.  All these images are only temporary, whether they are melted down to make cannons. exploded off cliffs, or pulled down by emotional crowds.  The giant Jesus, though a seated figure is close enough to a triangle to keep from tipping over, would soon be eroded, maybe even defiled.  If you think I’m really talking about our American politics, you’d be correct.

Even the abstract and principled constructs of cultures like EuroChristian hegemony or patriotic Confederacy will erode and deconstruct and morph into economic convenience.  The ability of humans to “hallucinate” stories like being able to reincarnate or return to a supposedly idyllic past is a very powerful force in our communal lives.  What we need is more development of future options that don’t leave the surface of the planet itself destroyed for human habitation.  Real life is full of shit and loss, poison and violence.  We’ll never get rid of it.  We need more than nostalgia or obsession with control.  More than little gods with monuments.

"Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

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