Given the overtone of the 19th century art at Met sculpture garden where five pieces of Saint-Garden’s works are permanently displayed, it is appropriate to give Augustus Saint-Gaudens the honor of being first featured in the temporary exhibition space of the New American Wing.
Coming from Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn where the thematic monuments are tour de force of Frederick William Macmonnie, a protege of Saint-Gardens, Geo and I were both touched by the tender personality in the statues and reliefs by Saint-Gaudens. Regardless of the status of the sitters or the scale of the works, Saint-Gardens captured men and women with their own characters, virtues and faults. If the neo-classical marble busts made in his early career presented more or less an idealized forms, his mature works of allegorical figures have none of the deep hollows of detached gods or goddesses typical of Italian Renaissance. When I looked at the bronze statue of the head of Victory which is a reduction from the Sherman Monument, I was captivated by the frankness of the face, the sagging eyelids and the solemn gaze. Her lips are slightly open at the moment, but I would never be able to hear the word. The rise of Saint-Garden coincided with the process of fading of bitter memory and the increase in demand of commemoration monuments, but was the victory of the north over the south all that glamorous and unequivocal to him?
Of different types of works, I was most impressed by the sketch bas reliefs, some in bronze or marble, some still in plaster. They reminded me of the sunken reliefs of Armana period from ancient Egypt in which the planes are slightly shifted so that additional depths of layers could be added to create volumes that otherwise would not be feasible in pure two dimension carving. The way that Armana artists created visually raised relief in the overall sunken relief design is similar to that Saint-Gauden “sank” and undulated some planes to enhance the illusion of raised volumes. But unlike the Egyptian artists who carved every line with clarity, Saint-Gaudens enables viewers to perceive the effect of natural light on the subject by losing some lines while strengthening others. The dexterity and his savor in drawing can be further evidenced by his replacement of details of subordinate objects with painterly suggestive touches.
Another interesting facts that I have learned is that Saint-Gaudens was the first American sculptor who mass-produced reduction works in different smaller scale to accommodate the demands of middle-class. However, the conundrum of these reduction works between the commemorative and didactic nature of the public sculptures and the yearns of expressiveness and individualism with respect to artworks could not have been solved if Saint-Gaudens’ works are just purely official and allegorical. In fact, I have found the smaller scale of the reduction work makes them easy to study and appreciate. For the first time, I can clearly see the weathered face of David Glasgow Farragut, whose original statue on Madison Square is too tall to be seen in great detail.
My favorite in the exhibition is four studies of the heads of black soldiers for the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial at Boston Common. In the 14 years of labors for this project, he must have done numerous studies and revisions. None of the four heads are polished or fully completed, yet each one is unique and characteristic. Certainly there are no movement depicted here, as Saint-Gaudens seldom used the kitsch of dynamics in his statues. Yet in such succinct modelings, not only the racial identify of the soldiers but also the somber atmosphere of marching along the Beacon Hills could be felt. It is on this monument that Charles Ives wrote “The ‘St. Gaudens’ in Boston Common”. And it is here that I could not explain simply why four head studies would move me deeply. I can only call it the wonder of humanity.