August 25, 2009


High and Low Relief: Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the Met (Peter Schjeldahl, 8/24/09 , The New Yorker)

“Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” a rather scholarly show of some four dozen works from the museum’s collection, augmented with loans, gives me a chance to comb out tangled thoughts about a very American, chronically underrated artist, who died in 1907, after suffering from cancer for several years, at the age of fifty-nine. I have taken the occasion to visit, at last, the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, the sculptor’s painstakingly preserved estate, on rambling hilltop grounds, in Cornish, New Hampshire. Among the abundant works to be seen there is a copy of his most powerful achievement, the Shaw Memorial (1884-97), on Boston Common. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw commanded the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, a corps of African-American soldiers which included two of Frederick Douglass’s sons, during the Civil War. In an audacious combination of high and low relief, the mounted officer leads his richly individualized troops, their ranks bristling with shouldered rifles, beneath a wafting, solemn angel. Shaw and much of the regiment were killed in an assault on Fort Wagner, in Charleston Harbor, in 1863. The shared expression of the many faces harrows. It strikes me as the courage, indistinguishable from indifference, of the already dead. Morbid and exalted in equal measure—an epic of sacrifice—the work has a European parallel in Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais” (1889), representing the legend of six men who, in 1347, volunteered to be executed in return for the lifting of an English siege of their city. Saint-Gaudens became friends with Rodin during a sojourn in Paris in the eighteen-nineties, and also with James McNeill Whistler. Like them—and like other superb contemporaries, including the muralist Puvis de Chavannes and the architect Stanford White—he was modern in spirit but retained conservative forms, consequently landing afoul of histories of modern art that venerate avant-gardism. Might we have reached a point of being allowed to praise Saint-Gaudens without apologizing to Picasso? It would amount to rekindling a long-lapsed wish for art that is both of the moment and genuinely public.

The wish lapsed among the intellectuals, not the public.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 25, 2009 7:43 AM
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