Wadsworth Atheneum: Manship makes the old modern

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Paul Manship, “Indian”, 1914. Bronze, brown-black patina. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, bequest of Honora C. Robertson. © Estate of Paul Manship.

HARTFORD, CONN. – One of the most famous American sculptors of the early twentieth century, Paul Manship (1885-1966) mixed old patterns to suit modern sensibilities. After studying at the American Academy in Rome (1909-12), Manship returned to New York, where his dramatic and energetic bronze works reinterpreted forms, stories, and styles from the past to the modern American era. His clean Art Deco style and ability to portray his subjects at the most defining moments of the drama garnered critical acclaim, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s. Seen together in this exhibition, his signature bronzes and associated associated sketches to ancient artifacts illustrate how Manship became a master at sampling images and fusing disparate visual elements from multiple cultural traditions. “Today we call it a mash-up,” says Erin Monroe, Robert H. Schutz Jr, associate curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at Wadsworth. “It’s a practice that has permeated popular culture, in music, fashion and the visual arts, for example. “Paul Manship: Ancient Made Modern”, the first museum exhibition in 30 years and new in its examination of this aspect of the artist’s work, will be presented on July 3 at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

Organized into three themes, the exhibition examines the influence of past art on the modern twentieth century style of Manship. “Breaking Through in Bronze” looks at Manship’s founding years in Italy after winning a prestigious Rome Prize. His artistic career can be anchored in this important period of his life.

Several major loans from the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St Paul, Minnesota, the artist’s hometown, tell the story of his early mastery of bronze, a medium that would define his career. One of the borrowings, a 1912 sketch for a frieze from the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi, reveals an interest in motif and ornament evident in one of his first fully completed bronzes, the “Centaur and Dryad” de Wadsworth (1913). Manship’s earliest sculptures and drawings are interspersed with ancient artifacts representative of those he studied closely during his three years in Rome and on subsequent travels across the Mediterranean, Europe and Egypt. The shape of a Cypriot statue of a standing man, the narrative and ornamental details of Greek ships such as an oil flask (circa 475-460 BCE) and a style of bas-relief carving inspired by a fragment of Assyrian relief from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BCE), all found their way into the Manship sculptures.

Paul Manship, “Pronghorn Antelope”, 1914. Bronze, brown-black patina.  Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, purchased with a donation from Henry and Walter Keney and the Krieble Family Fund for American Art.  © Estate of Paul Manship.

Paul Manship, “Pronghorn Antelope”, 1914. Bronze, brown-black patina. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, purchased with a donation from Henry and Walter Keney and the Krieble Family Fund for American Art. © Estate of Paul Manship.

“Modernizing Mythology” explores Manship’s affinity for mythological subjects and his unique way of illuminating centuries-old histories. Examples of Manship’s captivating bronze sculptures are on display alongside large-scale architectural designs, representing his ability to work on projects of varying scale. Statuettes such as the beautifully silhouetted “Flight of Night” (1916) possess a sense of movement. A series of panels from the American Telephone and Telegraph Building in Lower Manhattan (commissioned 1914; installed 1921) feature voluptuous and muscular male and female figures that blend elements of Asian and ancient art. Floating in dreamlike realms, gold accents and sculpted ornaments merge a multicultural aesthetic into a modern, glittering Art Deco design.

“Art for the Public” presents works by Manship from the height of his career connecting them to today’s conversations about urban design and the beautification of public spaces. Widely known for two major projects of the 1930s – Prometheus at Rockefeller Center and the Paul Rainey Memorial Gates at the Bronx Zoo – this is the point in Manship’s career when he undertakes civic projects of great ambition. The legacy of the iconic sculpture of Prometheus is explored through archival photographs and a small 7-inch gilded model (1933), a rare surviving model for the work at heroic scale. The Wadsworth’s “Great Horned Owl” represents Manship’s more animal work, as seen in his design of the Rainey Memorial Doors.

Visitors will have the opportunity to learn about the artistic process and materials of Manship, through a drawing prompt highlighting how fundamental the act of drawing was in Manship’s training as a sculptor. Plaster casts such as Kore (maiden) of Euthydikos, circa 490 BCE (after the marble original in the Acropolis Museum in Athens) illustrate the works of Manship sketched in person, as shown his drawing of a similar archaic statue Peplos Kore, from the Acropolis, 1924. These sketches and studies also point to the influence of Manship’s travels to classical and ancient sites in Italy, Greece and Egypt. Additionally, archival views of Manship in his studio are on display alongside his carving tools borrowed from the Manship + Studios artist residency in Gloucester, Mass.

The Wadsworth Atheneum Art Museum is located at 600 Main Street. For information, 860-278-2670 or www.thewadsworth.org.

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