Thursday, March 29, 2007

Trophy monuments, trophy wives

You have to understand: once a philologist, always a philologist. I write on art, but curiosity about words has a very strong pull even two decades after I received my doctorate.

Last week's alluring appellation was "trophy." While researching the William Jenkins Worth Monument for an Amazon Short, I was reminded that "trophy" is the term for the assortment of weapons and flags on the Worth Monument. But where did the word come from? Why did it apply to weapons as well as to young and beautiful "trophy wives"?I spent several thoroughly enjoyable hours flipping through printed texts such as an 1897 handbook of classical antiquities, and digging up sound Internet resources - the sort that don't seem to have been written off the cuff at 2 a.m. and uploaded without editing. Now, to my immense satisfaction, I can tell you what the Worth Monument and Melania Trump have in common.

The essay on trophies is on the Forgotten Delights site, since formatting so many captioned illustrations in a blog seemed just too exhausting, after all that research.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Selectivity in Art

An upcoming walking tour has diverted my attention from collecting bibliographical material for Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan. So instead of writing something new, I present you with an excerpt on the importance of selectivity in art, taken from the draft of a forthcoming article for The Objective Standard). --- You - yes, you - are finishing a portrait of me. Another artist has executed most of it. The one and only detail you have to decide is the color of my complexion. It can be any color you choose, but you have to decide on some color. That paintbrush in your hand won't do it for you. In fact, my skin is pale with a few freckles. If you show the freckles I'll look like an outdoorsy type, perhaps a bit naive, since freckles are often associated with youth, innocence, and sun exposure. You might decide instead to show me by candlelight, in which case the light will add color to my skin and I'll look healthier. You might show me under florescent lights, and then I'll look so pale and ragged that any viewer of my portrait will think demons have been pursuing me for ten sleepless nights. How, then, will you decide on a color for my face? By figuring out which color best indicates the characteristics you consider typical of me. The same sort of decisions have to be made for every single detail of the portrait, from the style of my hair (a chignon? a Mohawk?) to the way I tilt my head or hold my jaw. An artist makes choices regarding what's important every moment that he's painting or sculpting, even if he doesn't take the time to explain his choices verbally. That's why a photograph of a person differs fundamentally from a painted or sculpted portrait. The two might appear almost identical, but the artist has to include each detail by choice, because he thinks it conveys something significant about the sitter. The camera, on the other hand, records every detail no matter how incidental or irrelevant it might be. --- The article in The Objective Standard will be a companion piece (on painting) to "Getting More Enjoyment from Art You Love," which discussed how to understand sculpture better and enjoy it more. For more on selectivity, see Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan Essay 37 (Shakespeare).

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Continents (OMOM Essay 4): Out-takes, Bibliography, Discussion Questions

Sorting through my notes on Daniel Chester French's Continents this past week, I found a massive amount of material that I regretted having to leave out of the book - mostly early descriptions and speculation about the meaning of the sculptures. That material is now available on the Forgotten Delights site, along with a dozen or so photos of details of the sculptures that simply wouldn't fit in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan.

The passages that most involved me all have to do with handling criticism. Here they are.

Daniel Chester French to his wife, explaining how he deals with committees: “But they don’t know what they like,” commented Dan. “Very few people do. They have to be educated up to it. When they’ve studied a little and seen a good deal, and listened and thought, then they may achieve a considered opinion, but certainly not before. … I never talk them down,” said Dan. “I know enough not to try. I simply suggest to them a better solution of their problem, and they usually have the wit to see it.” (from French's bio by his daughter, Margaret French Cresson)

From the New York Times, 1/14/1906; the reporter is responding to a criticism of the United States Customs House that appeared in a Boston paper. "It is frequently difficult to translate Bostonese. From the above one gathers that there is a transcendental something the matter with the new Custom House, although the building is at the same time thoroughly admirable and symmetrical - a consolatory kind of criticism that leaves one in a good humor and at the same time in a state of perplexity, 'restless,' as the building itself is said to be by this profound critic." ["A consolatory kind of criticism": I wish I'd thought of that phrase!]

And finally, a quote from Abraham Lincoln that was read by President Harding at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, whose seated Lincoln was the work of Daniel Chester French: "If I were trying to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the best I know how, the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing it to the end. If the end brings me out all right, that which is said against me will not amount to anything. If the end brings me out all wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference."

Friday, March 9, 2007

Manhattan Sculpture Quiz, part 2

How much do you know about Manhattan's sculptures and the people they represent? Click here for answers to the quiz. The questions are based on material in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide, Forgotten Delights: The Producers, and on material on . Questions 1-9 are in the previous blog entry. 10. Who are the three figures above the clock on the south façade of Grand Central Terminal?
A. Zeus, Athena, Hermes B. Hercules, Hermes, Athena C. Poseidon, Hermes, Venus D. Hercules, Hermes, Hera
11. Which sculpture was picketed on the grounds that it looked like Benito Mussolini?
A. Prometheus B. Edwin Booth C. Fiorello La Guardia D. Atlas
12. Which equestrian statue in Manhattan shows a rider in civilian clothes?
A. Jose Marti B. El Cid Campeador C. Washington at Union Square D. Joan of Arc
13. When did Shakespeare become high-brow entertainment in America?
A. Around the time of the Revolutionary War B. Around the time of the Civil War C. Around the time of the Spanish-American War D. Around the time of World War II
14. Which two figures are among the four figures represented on the base of the Verdi Monument?
A. Leonora and Falstaff B. Aida and Violetta C. Leonora and Macbeth D. Rigoletto and Otello
15. Which of the following is one of the four figures that appear above Theodore Roosevelt on the east façade of the American Museum of Natural History?
A. Zebulon Pike B. Sacajawea C. Daniel Boone D. Henry Hudson
16. Which Danish sculptor has a self-portrait in Central Park?
A. Karl Bitter B. Albert Bertel Thorvaldsen C. Wilhelm Freddie D. Claes Oldenburg
17. In what Manhattan park is there a statue of a bear attacking a faun who cowers in a grotto?
A. Morningside Park B. Central Park C. Riverside Park D. Inwood Hill Park
18. Who among the following has the most separate portrait sculptures outdoors in Manhattan?
A. Thomas Jefferson B. Alexander Hamilton C. Abraham Lincoln D. Christopher Columbus
Click here for answers to the quiz, here for questions 1-9.

Manhattan Sculpture Quiz, part 1

How much do you know about Manhattan's sculptures and the people they represent? Click here for answers to the quiz. The questions are based on material in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide, Forgotten Delights: The Producers, and on material on . Questions 10-18 follow in the next blog entry. 1. Which of the works below is NOT a memorial to someone who died on the Titanic?
A. Straus Memorial B. Stead Memorial C. Brisbane Memorial D. Titanic Memorial Lighthouse
2. Which of the following four are represented in Daniel Chester French's sculptures in front of the Customs House at Bowling Green?
A. Africa, America, Australia, Asia B. Africa, Europe, Asia, Antarctica C. Africa, Asia, Europe, England D. Africa, Asia, Europe, America
3. Which explorer was being honored city-wide in 1909, the year the Battery Park memorial to Giovanni da Verrazzano was dedicated?
A. Jacques Cartier B. Christopher Columbus C. John Cabot D. Henry Hudson
4. What allegorical figure stands at the center of the New York Stock Exchange pediment?
A. Integrity B. Justice C. Truth D. Wealth
5. Who used "The Sidewalks of New York" as a campaign song?
A. John F. Kennedy B. Theodore Roosevelt C. Alfred E. Smith D. Fiorello La Guardia
6. Who invented flavored gelatin (Jell-o)?
A. Peter Cooper B. Pietro Delmonico C. Abram S. Hewitt D. Thomas Nast
7. Name the noted New York politician who died of an illness brought on by the Blizzard of 1888, and was eulogized for his "eloquence and learning, his undaunted devotion to truth, his purity and courage, his uncompromising patriotism, his scorn of cant and deception" - but also condemned by his biographer as "one of the harshest, strictest, most narrow-minded of all political bosses. Possibly like Pooh Bah he was born sneering."
A. Roscoe Conkling B. Fiorello La Guardia C. Fernando Wood D. Chester A. Arthur
8. In "Full speed ahead, and damn the torpedoes!", what were the torpedoes?
A. Artillery shells B. Self-propelled underwater projectiles C. Floating barrels filled with gunpowder D. Pipe bombs
9. Who wrote the poem "Thanatopsis," which begins, "To him who, in the love of Nature, holds / Communion with her visible forms, she speaks / A various language"?

A. William Wadsworth Longfellow B. William Blake C. William Cullen Bryant D. William Shakespeare

Click here for answers to the quiz.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Reflecting on "Reflecting Absence" (WTC memorial)

NOTE: This is an excerpt from an essay just uploaded to the Forgotten Delights website, which includes more photos.

... Reflecting Absence's main elements are two large reflecting pools, a couple dozen trees, and lists of victims' names. Landscape architecture such as trees and pools can create beautiful vistas, but it conveys no message about those who died on 9-11.

A list of names is also by its nature limited. Proper names are neither meaningful nor evocative for those who know nothing about the lives and characters of the people named. Broadcast the name "Derek Jeter" in Yankee Stadium and you'll get shouts of approving recognition. Broadcast it in the capital city of Kazakhstan and you'll get perplexed silence.

Representational art, on the other hand, is a universal language. If the actions and characters of human figures are competently portrayed, such art has an emotional impact that transcends space and time. Think of Leonardo's Mona Lisa or Munch's The Scream. Their impact remains strong despite the fact that both were produced by men who didn't speak English or know what a USB port is. Nearer to home, think of the Firemen's Memorial on Riverside Drive. Although the firefighting equipment and the costumes in the central relief are long out-dated, we can immediately grasp the message: the urgency and danger of firefighters' work.

If you doubt the efficacy of representational art as opposed to proper names and landscape architecture, take someone who's unfamiliar with New York memorials to see the Firemen's Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the New York Police Department Memorial. ...

Reflecting Absence isn't offensive - but why should we settle for a multi-million-dollar placeholder when we could have an expressive representational work of art?

What should the expressive artwork express? ...

The full essay on the Forgotten Delights site includes contact info for those concerned with the memorial, directions to the sculptures mentioned, and related readings.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Giovanni da Verrazzano (OMOM Essay 3): Bibliography, Discussion Questions

The New York Times account of the Verrazzano dedication (10/7/1909) is a fascinating reminder of how much technology has changed over the past century. Because no radio, TV or internet offered distractions or instant and continuous replays, the dedication of an outdoor sculpture in New York often drew tens of thousands of spectators. The Times reported that 25,000 marched in the parade to honor Verrazzano, another 200,000 lined the route, and 100,000 eagerly awaited the unveiling of the sculpture at Battery Park.

Italians and Russian Jews were the largest groups in the wave of immigration from 1880 to 1919. To the Italians' pride in their birthplace and in their new city we owe the Columbus at Columbus Circle, Garibaldi in Washington Square, Mazzini in Central Park, Dante near Lincoln Center, and the Verdi Monument at Broadway and 72nd St. (Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan Essay 41)

I love the bluntness of Deputy Mayor Curran's comments on the Henry Hudson sculpture, in progress in 1909 but delayed for years after the premature death of sculptor Karl Bitter, creator of the Carl Schurz Memorial (Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan Essay 51). Curran said, at about the time the sculpture was dedicated:
I took a good look yesterday at the statue of Henry Hudson at Spuyten Duyvil ... It is the ugliest statue in New York, and that is saying a whole lot. The shaft is ugly, the figure is ugly, the whole thing is ugly. A barber pole would be nicer. Now just forget your idea of lighting it up at night. If you could dig a hole at Spuyten Duyvil and let the statue drop into it some night, and then cover it nicely, that would be the best way to handle it. (Quoted by Jewell in the New York Times, 8/21/1938)

Click here for more bibliography on the Verrazzano.

The discusson questions for Verrazzano are on allegorical sculptures and on European explorers and colonization of the Americas.