You Say Patina and I Say Patina

Word association. Don’t think, just blurt out whatever comes into your mind when I say…GRIFFIN!

Did you say Merv (my mom would have) or Alice in Wonderland?

Lewis Carroll called his winged lion with an eagle’s head the Gryphon: ‘No, no! The adventures first,’ said the Gryphon in an impatient tone: ‘explanations take such a dreadful time.’ [Chapter 10]

Anyone say Philadelphia?

The griffin is hanging on by its talons as the symbol of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Guardian beasts, the Llasa Apsos of antiquity, griffins have been depicted in art for millennia and heraldry for centuries. Fittingly, there are big, bronze, horned ones at the corners of the museum’s roof.

But if you go looking for griffins in the Fall/Winter program guide, you won’t find any. The museum’s clean new visual identity, created by Pentagram (clean new visual identities are their thing, if you’ve got the gelt), comes with a name-only logo in which ‘Art’ is bigger than ‘Philadelphia Museum of.’ The ‘A’ in ‘Art’ is to be customized with various fonts and treatments, such as replacing it with thumbnails of artworks in the collection.

This rebranding coincided with the announcement in late June of the revival of Frank Gehry’s expansion plans. Though Gehry said, “The idea of not touching the exterior was part of my brief from Anne [d’Harnoncourt, former PMA director],” his design includes punching a window into the so-called Rocky Steps, at the bottom of which stands a 10-foot movie-prop statue (A. Thomas Schomberg, 1981) of the iconic Philadelphian created and played by New York-born, half-Italian Michael Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone.

The constant stream of visitors to the statue and up the steps, only some of whom trickle into the museum, must make George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer Timothy F. Rub twitch. You don’t even have to drive, taxi, bus, PHLASH, or aerobically propel yourself the length of Benjamin Franklin Parkway if you’re willing to accept the shorter, Tussaudish Rocky in Sweats at the Independence Visitor Center (and many tweeters are).

For those with longer attention spans, Visit Philadelphia has a brand-new Rocky Tour:

Recreate his famous run up the Art Museum steps; grab an authentic cheesesteak at Pat’s, the very place he stopped at in the original Rocky; walk through the Italian Market; and then stop by an old-school butcher shop, where — SPOILER — they’re probably not going to let you go in the back and use the meat as a punching bag.

The first Rocky (budget $1 million, box office $225 million) was released around Thanksgiving in 1976, when Stallone was 30. Sly is aging, but his character appears to be immortal. In Philadelphia, the Italian Stallion has his foot on the griffin’s neck.

National Electric Vehicle Sweden, the new Chinese owners of Saab Automobile, did not license the griffin (gripen in Swedish, still the name of a Saab Group fighter plane), but our furry feathered friend continues to appear on the logos of United Paper Mills (Finland) and Vauxhall Motors (U.K. but owned by G.M.); on the blazon of Trinity College, Oxford; on the seal of Purdue University; and as the mascot of several other colleges and universities, including William and Mary (Hark upon the gale!).

The map I picked up last week at the museum—still using the griffin-silhouette logo—has a color photo of one of the rooftop critters on the cover. And the color is verdigris.

Steel oxidizes to a beautiful Serra Orange and bronze to verdigris, literally “green of Greece.” This skin, or patina, becomes part of a work’s beauty and meaning. You don’t want your silver to tarnish or your chassis to rust, but if you expose your bronze to the elements the green is foreseen.

Is the patina Nature’s Paint Job or skin cancer? That depends. [Wikipedia: Typically bronze only oxidizes superficially; once a copper oxide (eventually becoming copper carbonate) layer is formed, the underlying metal is protected from further corrosion. However, if copper chlorides are formed, a corrosion-mode called “bronze disease” will eventually completely destroy it.]

It took about 30 years for the Statue of Liberty to fully patinize. She was Penny Pretty to the huddled masses who came over between 1886 and the early 1900s. The sea air did a number on her torch, which was replaced in 1986. The new, gilded “flame” reflects rather than radiates light.

In her new book, Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty, Elizabeth Mitchell recounts a tortuous (nyuk, nyuk) process. You will recall from elementary school that Emma Lazarus wrote: “I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” In fact, the Statue of Liberty was supposed to be a gold-plated, working lighthouse (ad campaign idea: “Two Ancient Wonders in One!”).

The completed torch section was brought to Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park for the Centennial Exhibition (also the impetus for the museum). It made such an impression and raised so much money that the Statue might have ended up in Philadelphia.

Philly lost that match, but the city’s a Survivor, “Rising up to the challenge of our rival.” Sing with me now…

(Okay, we’re back.)

The second Madison Square Garden, built in 1890 (and actually located on Madison Square, go figure), was torn down in 1925 to make way for Cass Gilbert’s New York Life Insurance Building. Perched on the pinnacle of the Garden’s Giralda-esque tower, then the highest point in New York, was the only nude female sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens: Diana the Huntress.

An Amazon, but more than that. The Goddess of the Moon. Eighteen feet tall with perfect golden skin. Balancing on the toes of one foot, her bow fully drawn, yet motionless.

Which is a problem for a weathervane.

Less then a year later, she was sent packing to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Her younger sister, just 13 feet in height, took her place high above Madison Square in 1893, remaining there, visible for miles in electric floodlights, until the end came. Her snaky scarf was blown away around 1905. And the following year, on location, architect Stanford White was blown away by Evelyn Nesbit’s jealous husband Harry Thaw.

In E. L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, Nesbit is said to have been the model for Diana, but she was too young at the time. According to Julia “Dudie” Baird, the model for the body was Julia “Dudie” Baird. The face of Diana was that of Albertina Johnson Clark, Saint-Gaudens’s mistress, to whom he gave the name Davida. (For more about Diana, Dudie, and Davida, read “Diana Of The Tower,” a May 28, 2013, post by Harry Kyriakodis on the blog Hidden City Philadelphia.)

It would have been nice to keep her in New York, but architect and preservationist Sidney Fiske Kimball, then director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, won out. In 1932, Diana landed on the landing of the museum’s Great Stair Hall (please, no more stairs!). She’s been there for 82 years and counting, far longer than her 32 as a glorified hood ornament.*

After those years in the open air, she was dark green, partially corroded, with just a few spots of the original gold leaf. No one seemed to mind. Then came what might be called Project Gilda. In July, she returned from a year of serious spa treatments. As her label (which takes a bit of hunting to locate) reads: “Diana gleams brilliantly once again through the support of Bank of America.”

Specifically, an elaborate and painstaking intervention—analysis, repair, restoration, and regilding—was made possible by $200,000 from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project. The metallurgically inclined will want to read more and watch the videos here:

So what do I think? I’ll describe my visit in next week’s post, as we go stalking the issues of authenticity and context.

* The model for the Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstacy was Eleanor Thornton, Lord Montagu’s secretary and secret love.


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