Tag Archives: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Weathervanity

Some Ecclesiastes for the Days of Awe:

The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.

In last week’s post, “You Say Patina and I Say Patina,” I wrote about Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Diana the First, who was too big not to fail—as a weathervane, that is.*

Diana the Second, five feet shorter and hundreds of pounds lighter, turn, turn, turned. Saint-Gaudens sculpted her in the round. But why did he give her such a detailed beauty, impossible to appreciate from Madison Square, 347 feet below? (And from Brooklyn? Fuhgeddaboudit!)

Well, one could use opera glasses or binoculars or a telescope (“The Square is now thronged with clubmen armed with field glasses.”—New York World, 1891), and buildings of similar height could reasonably be expected to rise nearby.

In fact, Madison Square Garden’s 32-story tower was out-erected in 1909 by the 50-story, Sons-of-LeBrun-designed Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, soon to be an Edition Hotel (Ian Schrager plus Bill Marriott, what could go wrong?).

Better reasons: Diana was a labor of love. The Saint waived his fee for the Beaver, his fellow Tile Club member Stanford White, the Garden’s architect. And it’s no great leap to suppose that she was a shot at immortality—both for the sculptor and for his model, Saint-Gaudens’s handsome Swedish-American mistress Albertina Johnson Clark, with whom he had a son, Louis, nicknamed Novy.

Saint-Gaudens’s name for Albertina was Davida. She was his female David. He intended Diana—not sure if this is documented—to stand with the David and with the surviving masterpieces of the ancient world (also Michelangelo’s “competition”).

So in this sense it is appropriate for the Philadelphia Museum of Art to give Diana the place of honor in the niche (pronounced NEESH by the British art historians I studied with, who also said PAT-ina, not pa-TEE-na) at the top of the museum’s Great Stair Hall.

In my post “Busted! Ben’s Busted Bust on a Bus,” I offered a HOPE (as in Diamond) acronym to determine the drawing power of an object: Historical Significance, One-of-a-kindness, Provenance, Excellence.

Philadelphia’s Diana is well-endowed in all four categories. She is the one-and-only. Big sister is gone for good and the cast at the Metropolitan, though not Tinker Bell, is desk lamp-sized.

She was not surrounded by admirers earlier this month, when I went to see her new gold outfit. Perhaps it’s embarrassing to look too closely, as if you were checking her anatomical correctness (not 100%). Her body—Dudie’s?—is breathtaking.

Great care was taken in the surface treatment and lighting to arrive at a muted effect, a golden glow that the sculptor would have approved (as far as can be determined). Saint-Gaudens was particular about the appearance of his outdoor works, “Sick of seeing statues look like old stove pipes,” wrote his son Homer. He himself paid for the double gilding of his Sherman Monument, unveiled on Memorial Day in 1903 near the southeast corner of Central Park, opposite the Plaza Hotel (Henry Hardenbergh’s Plaza, the one we know today, followed four years later).

To learn about the “Saint-Gaudy” regilding of the Sherman Monument in 1990, which upset Frances Lear and others, and for which Donald Trump was unjustly blamed, read “Gilding the Sherman Memorial” by Mark Rabinowitz, a September 26, 2006, article on the website of Conservation Solutions, Inc. Conservation Solutions carried out the most recent regilding of the monument, in 2013.

I found the work on Diana, though tasteful and historically informed, somewhat off-putting if not indecent. Being this close to such a gorgeous naked woman…isn’t there a commandment about that? It felt as if I were standing before the Golden Calf, or had made Actaeon’s little blunder:

As soon as he reaches the cave mouth dampened by the fountain, the naked nymphs, seeing a man’s face, beat at their breasts and filling the whole wood with their sudden outcry, crowd round Diana to hide her with their bodies. But the goddess stood head and shoulders above all the others. Diana’s face, seen there, while she herself was naked, was the colour of clouds stained by the opposing shafts of sun, or Aurora’s brightness. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III, trans. Anthony S. Kline]

Being turned into a stag and ripped apart by your own hounds is not the way I want to go.

We were not meant to look upon Diana up-close—surely Madison Square Garden would last forever, just like Pennsylvania Station—but she is a masterpiece and it is rewarding to do so. For me, this experience was lessened by the regilding. Without getting into Marxist and Feminist theory (which have plenty to say about the Gilded Age), all that new gold seems to overemphasize the connection between Fornicatio and Avaritia.

And what about the American antiques commandment, Thou Shalt Not Refinish? In Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them, Thatcher Freund writes about dealer Roger Bacon, who:

refused to refinish anything. He loved what he called a “crusty” thing. When he saw a thing with “good surface,” he’d say, “It’s right as rain.” Bacon developed a following—something like a cult—of dealers who saw the tragedy of refinishing. [Chapter 9]

In a July 24, 2012, post about weathervanes (remember: that’s what Diana is), Stephen Fletcher, executive vice president and Americana head at Skinner Auctioneers, notes:

We’ve sold weathervanes with fabulous surfaces that have had big bullet holes through them; they still brought a lot of money. Weathervanes were sometimes used for target practice, and as long as there aren’t too many bullet holes, it’s not necessarily going to matter too much—as long as the weathervane has great original surface.

Okay, enough of this superficiality, let’s go past the surface…

Poised in her lighted niche between two Ionic columns with painted capitals—ironically, the regilding makes her stand out less than when she was dark green—Diana has elevation, but not rotation. If the museum had wanted to suggest her original appearance and function, that would have been the way to go.

Unless you stumble across one of the two wall labels, you’d never guess that she’s a descendant of the Faneuil Hall grasshopper. She looks like she escaped from a French fountain. (Before the regilding, it’s true, she looked like some Greek fisherman pulled her up in a net.)

Her only sculptural company in the Great Stair Hall is the large Calder mobile Ghost (1964), the white panels of which block your view of Diana when you stand at the balcony window facing the Rocky Steps.

Ghost is there to make a point: you can look out the window straight down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philly’s Champs-Élysées, and see the Swann Memorial Fountain in Logan Circle, designed by Calder’s father, and, beyond it, the statue of William Penn on top of City Hall, designed by Calder’s grandfather.

(You can also look to your left, where there is a pediment at the end of the museum’s north wing, flanked by two of those green griffins I told you about, containing—speaking of ghosts—one of the most ghastly sculptural groups in America: 10 figures plus an owl, a lion, and a serpent in multicolor glazed terracotta designed by C. Paul Jennewein and John Gregory in 1932.)

Continuing up the stairs to the left of Diana will take you to European Art 1100-1500; passing her on the right will take you to European Art 1500-1850. Behind her is Arms and Armor. She looks stunning when the museum throws parties in the Great Stair Hall (see the inside front cover of the Fall/Winter program guide), but shouldn’t it be easier for visitors to do more than soak up her aura?

Where’s American Art, you ask? Go back down the stairs, make a right, walk through a corridor of prints and drawings, and there’s Davida again! Here she’s the Angel of Purity, a marble work of 1902 by Saint-Gaudens, commissioned as a memorial to 22-year-old diphtheria victim Maria Mitchell by her parents. (The Philadelphia church it was designed for sold it to the museum about 10 years ago.)

Same face, but everything else is different. For one thing, the only exposed parts of the winged figure, holding up a tablet, are her head, her neck, and the area just below her neck; her forearms from the elbows; and her toes. There is barely any sense of a female body under the gown. Bulging folds under the figure’s breasts obscure them.

Head deeper into American Art, now, until you reach Gallery 111, where several works from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition reside (including—when it’s not at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts—The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins, perhaps the greatest American painting of them all, which narrowly escaped the clutches of Alice Walton and the National Gallery in 2006).

Cousins of Diana, well worth comparing, include two marble sculptures, La Première Pose (1873-76) by Howard Roberts and The Lost Pleiad (c. 1874-82) by Randolph Rogers; and the stained-glass window Spring (1900-1902) by John La Farge.

So, to me, the isolation of Diana means that two important educational opportunities—not just art-historical but aesthetic—are less accessible to visitors: that of seeing and understanding her in the context of Saint-Gaudens’s oeuvre and that of seeing and understanding her in the context of the Gilded Age.

There are other directions in which Diana could point—no shortage of virgins and goddesses in world art of all periods—if she weren’t affixed to her pedestal and gilded into silence (figuratively speaking). These could be mapped in guided and self-guided tours or discussed in what the museum calls Spotlight Gallery Conversations. However, outside of the party photo I mentioned, our heroine is absent from the Fall/Winter program guide.

Right now she’s aiming her arrow at the warriors in the Sea Battle between the Fleets of Constantine and Licinius, part of The History of Constantine the Great, a set of 17th-century tapestries, some by Rubens and others (including this one) by Pietro da Cortona.

Constantine and Licinius were the two emperors who proclaimed the pro-Christian Edict of Milan in 313. If you were a Roman goddess, you’d want to put some holes in those guys too.

* After being farmed out to the Agriculture Building at the 1893 Columbian Exposition (the Women’s Christian Temperance Union objected to her placement on the Women’s Pavilion), she lost her lower half in a fire. Her upper half made a second Chicago appearance in 1909 at the Art Institute’s tribute to Saint-Gaudens, who died in 1907, then was scrapped.

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: http://www.philamuseum.org/conservation/21.html

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.