This is one of more than sixty narrations that I wrote for the Guides Who Know app on Central Park, now in production.
On February 17, 1913, at Lexington Avenue and 25th Street, a massive rift began to open up in the American art world. Paul Manship (1885-1966), who later sculpted Group of Bears, is one of the few artists whose work appealed to those on both sides of the rift.
The International Exhibition of Modern Art at the 69th Regiment Armory was the first public exhibition in America of Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and other recent European trends. The works on display were a shocking sight for eyes accustomed to the creations of John Quincy Adams Ward, Augustus Saint Gaudens, and Daniel Chester French.
Most New Yorkers found the Armory Show heavy on theory, light on technique, and bereft of beauty. But the sort of art they enjoyed was on display barely a mile away, at the prestigious annual exhibition sponsored by the Architectural League.
Like most American painters and sculptors, the artists exhibiting at the Architectural League considered the art of Greece and Rome a fountain of ideas and a touchstone of quality. But the works by 27-year-old Paul Manship stood apart. During 3 years of study in Europe, Manship had fallen in love with the little-known art of the Greek Archaic period. In the small bronzes he exhibited at the Architectural League in 1913, he incorporated elements from Archaic art into his own works : simple forms, strong silhouettes, highly stylized decoration.
Traditionalists at the Architectural League’s show admired Manship’s style. It combined innovation with meticulous craftsmanship and a lively sense of movement. And unlike the objects at the Armory Show, everything was identifiable! On the other hand – on the opposite side of the rift – Manship’s severe simplicity appealed to those who favored Modernism.
Orders and commissions soon flooded into Manship’s studio. The Metropolitan Museum began collecting his works – a rare honor for a 30-something artist.
In 1933, the Rockefellers hired Manship to create the sculptural centerpiece for Rockefeller Center. Although Abby Rockfeller adored the avant-garde, Rockefeller Center was a commercial venture that needed to attract people of conventional tastes. In the period between the two world wars, no American artist was more popular than Paul Manship. Prometheus, dedicated in 1934, remains his most famous work.
Manship’s pared-down style was particularly well suited to sculptures of animals. In the early 1930s, he created a pair of massive bronze gates for the Bronx Zoo that were topped by trios of bears and deer. He later worked the bears into the three-dimensional Group of Bears.
In Manhattan, you can do a Manship-Bear trifecta in six blocks on Fifth Avenue. A small version of the bears sits atop the left pillar of the Osborn Gate at 85th Street. (A trio of deer is on the right-hand pillar.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a full-size (over seven feet) cast of Group of Bears that’s usually on display in the American Wing. Their pic isn’t available for download … but the sculpture is exactly like the version that guards a small playground just south of the MMA. It was donated by Sam Friedman in memory of his wife.
- More Manship: Four Elements, Prometheus and flanking figures, New York Coliseum reliefs, Lehman Gate, Governor Alfred E. Smith flagpole,
- Teddy Roosevelt on the Armory Show:
It is true, as the champions of these extremists say, that there can be no life without change, no development without change, and that to be afraid of what is different or unfamiliar is to be afraid of life. It is no less true, however, that change may mean death and not life, and retrogression instead of development. Probably we err in treating most of these pictures seriously. It is likely that many of them represent in the painters the astute appreciation of the power to make folly lucrative which the late P.T. Barnum showed with his faked mermaid. (More here)
- For more on Manship and American sculpture ca. 1850-2000, see Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide.