Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Museum Monday: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Teaching Sculpture, & Vinnie Ream

Learning About Sculpture

Ten years ago, I was visiting my mother who had moved to Salt Lake City. One of the biggest art events of the year was a traveling exhibit of Rodin sculpture (The Hands of Rodin) and the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University in Provo was one of the stops.

As a native New Yorker whose mother took me to visit the great museums of New York City and eventually enrolled me in a Saturday art appreciation class at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I learned to regard the human form as an artistic expression. Rodin became one of my favorites and I remember well the iconic Thinker and The Kiss.

Unclothed or scantly clothed statues and bas-reliefs are everywhere in New York! Rockefeller Center is chock full of them! Even churches and civic centers display the nude. My first introduction to anatomically correct sculpture is the famous work by Frederick MacMonnies, Civic Virtue next to Queens Borough Hall in Kew Gardens across from where we often caught the bus or subway. (And across from the site of the hospital where I was born - now a shiny office building.)

Most people in New York walk by the public art and hardly notice it. (Interestingly enough attempts to cover up so-called offensive art can have the opposite effect as demonstrated in this article.)

My mother and I traveled to the exhibit and it was surprising to find out that the larger Rodin statues were not part of the exhibit at BYU. In fact, after visiting their museum, there wasn’t one ounce of art that had any nudity in it. When I inquired, I was told that such art was indecent. I wouldn’t have categorized The Thinker (which was not part of the exhibit) or the Monument to Balzac (which was to be part of the exhibit) as indecent or erotic. The Kiss, admittedly, could be interpreted in several ways, but I had only thought of its beauty.

While the Latter Day Saints, BYU policy, other religious groups, and families certainly have a right to their opinions, (and please understand that I am a modest dresser and I abhor some of the excesses in our society), I wondered how they, especially their children, reacted to the art that they have encountered in museums, parks, on buildings, in government offices, and courts throughout the country and around the world? How do they deal with them when they come across photos in textbooks and reference books? How do they prepare their children when they venture into the world?

Recently, one of my groups took a themed tour concerning mythological and allegorical illusions in art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The NGA had warned the teacher that there would be nudity. Although it was a Lutheran school, the Principal thought that by learning about the human form from elderly docents, it would take the ‘shock value’ out of it and lead to a greater understanding of art and the classical world.

I floated amongst the groups and the questions being asked by the students were respectful and considerate. There was no snickering or finger pointing; they were beginning to recognize the concepts and virtues depicted. The reaction of these students affirmed that through education a better understanding of art and the human body is possible and beneficial.

How can one study ancient, primitive, or contemporary history and culture without a study of this type of art?

What I think we need to do is to prepare our children by teaching appreciation, context, and discernment, rather than censorship.

Vinnie Ream Hoxie

The Museum Monday photo was taken by me during a recent visit to the new Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was looking down from the Etruscan gallery and noticed a young lady who was sketching. Her straight posture and intense expression gave dignity to her work. I doubt whether she regarded this statue as indecent; quite the opposite. It is obvious that she sees the beauty in anatomy and the skill of the ancient sculptor. (And it also seems that another statue is looking over her shoulder watching the progress of the drawing!) It was a reminder of my sketching days over forty years ago.

Watching this young woman also reminded me of the story of Vinnie Ream (Hoxie), a sculptress in the time when it was considered to be a scandalous and inappropriate profession for a woman. (after all, they had to learn to draw anatomy, the same rationale that kept women from the medical profession.). She was initially taught drawing by the Winnebago Indians, who didn't suffer from Victorian sensibilities, and apprenticed under Benjamin Paul Akers and Clark Mills. Undoubtedly, she had learned anatomy in preparation for sculpting statues. However, through her talent, support of sculptors, Congressmen, and Abraham Lincoln, she ended up being the first woman and youngest sculptor to be granted a commission by the government. President Lincoln had heard of her humble circumstances and had decided to allow the teenager to sketch him for a bust. Vinnie Ream spent a half hour per day for five months sketching the president and it was to change her life. After his assassination, the eighteen year old won the commission over better-known sculptors to produce a full-length statue of Abraham Lincoln. In order to complete the statue, she was given the clothes he was wearing that fateful night to measure. (What thoughts must have run through her mind!) That statue still stands in an honored position in the Capitol Rotunda.

Unfortunately, scandal did follow the petite, five-foot, ninety-pound beauty who was described as a charmer with a gleaming smile. She somehow was accused of influencing ( by using her feminine wiles) Senator Edmund Ross (R-Oklahoma), a boarder in her family’s house, to cast the deciding vote against the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. In fact, the teenager managed to detain the Republicans’ emissary, Dan Sickles, who had come to persuade Ross to cast his vote for the impeachment. According to accounts, she used tea and song (she sang well) to delay and confound Sickles! The rest, as the say, is history!

Vinnie Ream pioneered the way for other women sculptors such as Evelyn Beatrice Longman and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. (Tour Marm posting) and perhaps that young woman pictured sketching in the Met.

(You can read more Vinnie Ream in a recent biography and there is also a video for sale concerning her statue of Lincoln and a script of the video, so you can check the content before ordering.)


Jennie W said...

Tag! You're it!

I've chosen your site to be "it" in a virtual game of history blog tag.

For more information, please visit the American Presidents Blog.

Jennie W said...

Oh...on Vinnie Ream...the National First Ladies Library does a really nice skit with Vinnie Ream and Ida McKinley.

The Tour Marm said...

Are you and EHT a tag team?!

Thanks for the information on the skit, I'll look into it. Actually I though a Victorian melodrama/farce centering around Vinnie Ream, Ross and Sickles with the fate of the United States hanging in the balance might be an interesting post!