Friday, August 10, 2007

Sculptures at St. Mark's in the Bowery and Tompkins Square Park

Aside from the benefits of training yourself to actually think about what you're seeing (see my posts of 7/24/07, 7/25/07, and 7/25/07, subtitled "Open eyes, engage brain"), a sculpture walk can also be a great excuse to get out of your house should the place suddenly be filled with noxious fumes from waterproofing paint being applied in the basement. Here are photos from yesterday's hour-long jaunt from Astor Place to Tompkins Square Park. Only one has appeared on .

Above: St.-Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie, 2nd Ave. at 10th St., has two lions by the entrance doors and another outside its fence. Why? In New Testament lore, the symbol of St. Mark is the lion. The one sitting outside the fence imitates Donatello's Marzocco, which became a symbol of Florence in the 15th-c. (The original is now in the Bargello Museum, and a copy occupies its earlier site in the Piazza della Signoria.) St. Mark's is the second oldest church in the city, occupying the site of Peter Stuyvesant's family chapel.

Stuyvesant himself is buried on the grounds of St. Mark's (see the stone in the east side of the foundation), and a bust of him by Toon Dupuis stands to the right of the church. It dates to 1911, a quarter century before the Stuyvesant by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in nearby Stuyvesant Park. (See Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan #16.) You could guess that from the texture, which is realist/naturalist rather than Rodinesque.

Above: At either end of St. Mark's porch, twined with roses, are over life-size marble sculptures of Native Americans. St. Mark's website notes that they were unveiled in 1920 and identifies them as Aspiration and Inspiration. I have no idea which is which. These are among the last works by Solon Borglum (brother of Gutzon Borglum, creator of Mt. Rushmore), who was known for his romanticized portrayals of Native Americans. The Little Lady of the Dew, another work by Solon Borglum - mentioned in Brooks's Permanent New Yorkers and in Proske's Brookgreen Gardens Sculpture (I, 78) as a fountain figure - is perhaps this fountain on at the corner of the St. Mark's grounds. It's not mentioned on the St. Mark's site.

I'd visited Tompkins Square Park several times before I tracked down the General Slocum Memorial, tucked behind a brick rest-room pavilion on the north side of the 9th St. Traverse. On a balmy day in June, 1904, the paddlewheel steamer General Slocum (named after the Civil War general whose likeness by Frederick MacMonnies stands at Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn), set off on a picnic excursion with the congregation of St. Mark's German Lutheran Church, then located near Tompkins Square. The passengers were mostly German immigrant women and children. Near Hell Gate the steamboat caught fire. Within 15 minutes, over a thousand died in what remains the worst maritime disaster in the New York area. (See Encyclopedia of New York p. 457.)

This 1906 memorial by Bruno Louis Zimm is quite lovely, although rather worn. The inscription on the west side reads, "In memory of those who lost their lives in the disaster to the steamer General Slocum June XV MCMIV." The one on the east side reads, "Dedicated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies the Year of Our Lord MCMVI."

Above: detail of the General Slocum Memorial. The inscription on the front, "They were earth's purest children, young and fair," sounded like poetic syntax to me, and turns out to be from Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Revolt of Islam," also known as "Laon and Cynthia; or, The Revolution of the Golden City," written in 1817:

They were earth's purest children, young and fair,
With eyes the shrines of unawakened thought,
And brows as bright as spring or morning, ere
Dark time had there its evil legend wrought
In characters of cloud which wither not.

Above: Tompkins Square also has a zinc reproduction of a statue of Hebe (Youth) by Danish Neoclassical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. It stands atop a small structure protecting a fountain erected by 19th-c. temperance advocates. Today, when a bottle of Poland Spring is available for the price of ten minutes' work at minimum wage, it's difficult to remember that New York's water supply in the early 19th c. could be deadly. Until the Croton Aqueduct brought upstate water in the 1830s, drinking germ-free alcohol may have saved as many lives as cirrhosis of the liver took.

Above: The last sculpture in Tompkins Square is in the running for my least favorite outdoor sculpture in New York. The figure of Samuel Cox (1824-1889) looks as if he's been assembled from stove pipes; or perhaps he's the Tin Man turned human. Known as the "letter-carrier's friend," Cox sponsored legislation that led to a 40-hour work week and paid benefits for employees of the United States Postal Service. Postal workers across the country chipped in to pay for this sculpture by Louise Lawson, dedicated in 1891. New York Times art critic Layton Crippen derided it as early as 1899: "It has never been alleged, for instance, that the figure of Samuel S. Cox, in Astor Place, is a thing of beauty. But it is equally certain that it is not decorative, and if its surroundings were in harmony with it the City of New York would have to be deserted. To how many other New York statues cannot the same criticism be applied? It is possible that a thousand years or so from now they may be regarded as suitable for decorative purposes, in the same way as we now make use of Aztec grotesques or Easter Island idols. But at present that is out of the question."

As a marketing device for Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan, I recently wrote up a list of tips for taking photos of outdoor sculptures in New York. Read the list or print out copies (tips and images) for your favorite photo fanatics.

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