Pretty Women in Sculpture

There are literally hundreds and hundreds of sculptures on display at the MIA, and it would take us days to explore them all. So, since we have just under an hour together, I thought I would concentrate on one particular sculptural subject, one that will nevertheless take us all over the museum, and even then we will be omitting dozens of wonderful examples. This is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart. I call it the Roy Orbison Tour, or Pretty Women.

Our first subject is, like you, a visitor to the MIA, and, since she’s made of terra-cotta, she waits for us in the Cargill Gallery, to our right. Her name is Septimanie Richelieu, but after her marriage we know her as the Comtesse d’Egmont Pignatelli. As you may surmise from this bust and that portrait, she was one of the famous beauties in the court of Louis XV in France. This bust of her, at age 27, is by Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne (the Younger), who was the official sculptor of Louis XV and is known primarily for the warmth and vitality of his portraits. What do you notice when look at her – or, just as accurately, when you let her look at you! Certainly the eyes. How do represent pupil and iris when you don’t have colors to work with? The artist has carved out indentations in the clay. The hair is spectacular, isn’t it? And if there is any doubt that she is supposed to be a beauty, it’s resolved by the garland of roses that cascade over her shoulder and adorn her hair. Look, finally, at her lips. I don’t know if anyone has lips so small and sweet, but they conform to a norm of beauty in 18th century France. And I want you to contrast them with a different norm of beauty we shall see in the next set of lips I show you.

[But first, compare this face with the painting of the same face, only four years younger, next to it. To me, this is a good illustration of the power of sculpture.]

We will go next to our Asian collection, and although China and Japan are two of the cultures represented most extensively at the MIA, there was, interestingly, never a tradition of sculpting women in either country. On the other hand, in Southeast Asia there are many statues of women – in the form of gods, to be sure, but still quite recognizable as women.

The Kingdom of the Khmer, centered at Angkor Wat in what is now Cambodia, lasted roughly from 800 A.D. to 1400, but its peak – and all civilizations have a peak – occurred in the reign of Jayavarman VII, around 1200, which is the date we’ve assigned to this gorgeous work. She is supposedly a representation of Queen Jayavarman VII, who died prematurely, as did the Comtesse Pignatelli. Her older sister, we believe, commissioned this statue of her – not the way she looked in life, but as Prajna Paramita, the Buddhist Perfection of Wisdom. Note the little statue of Buddha up there in her hairdo. I asked you to remember Septimanie’s rosebud lips: how do they compare to Prajnaparamita’s? You will see the same lips on almost every figure at Angkor Wat. A thick, widely curved mouth with upturned corners is not our ideal of beauty today, but you must admit it contributes to the serenity, the godlike omniscience of the pose.

What else do you notice? Certainly the exquisitely formed breasts, perhaps the best in the museum. And if you can debate me about the breasts, I will fall back on her navel, which is the sexiest we have, by far. There seems a formal symmetry to the statue, but then – and this is my favorite touch – look at her sarong. Notice the fold, and how it falls. It’s a touch of abstraction, of modern minimalism that, so far as I know, is a unique feature of Khmer sculpture. Lastly, look at her ribs, or where most people have ribs. The scythe-like line of this curve, which is symmetrical, sets off the fullness of the breasts, the curve of the mouth, the roundness of the hips and creates a form that, for my money, is perfection.

We will leave Asia now, but we won’t leave the study of rib cages, for that is the featured part of the Greek statue we will ogle next.

In my years here, this statue, which we call the Tiber Muse because it was dredged out of the Tiber River near Rome, has faced in different directions – most commonly facing out into the room. But recently the curator turned her sideways. This gives us a view of her chiton, the flimsy tunic that covers her back. Keep in mind how the sculptor has created a semi-transparent garment in marble, for we will see this again, almost 2,000 years later. But most remarkable is how this garment exposes her side. It barely covers her right breast, and would have been at home at the fashion shows in New York last week, where topless and see-through were the “latest thing.” In a short 200 years, the Greeks went from sculpting figures in ideal poses, like the Doryphoros over there, to the Hellenistic style of realistic movement, flowing robes, twisted bodies. We don’t have her head so can’t see her face. I suspect she would have been an idealized beauty. But if you look at her toes, her sandals, her size as well as her figure, she comes across as individual and real, if not quite accessible to the likes of you and me.

Now, if the Tiber Muse is a woman I couldn’t date, we can move down the corridor where we will find a Roman woman I can date, because, of all things, of her hairstyle.

If you look at a photo from the ‘70s, you can pretty easily say it’s from the ‘70s because of the men’s hair. Well, in Roman history we can pretty much date things the same way. The unique aspect of this bust is this hairstyle of waves. And look at the care with which her bun has been crafted, and the twists of hair that fall down her neck. Antoninus Pius’s wife Faustina made this style popular, so we date this bust to 138 A.D., when her husband became emperor. We probably don’t notice that the bust is carved of marble, because we are so accustomed to Greek and Roman marble sculpture, but, as we will see on the rest of our tour, sculptures of women can be made from many materials. Because of the authority of the Greek and Roman example, however, we will see Europeans returning to marble in later centuries to capture some of the aura of Classical times. Did you notice how the artist has represented the woman’s eyes – just like the Comtesse Pignatelli’s.

We will go next from one fantastic hair style to another continent and another sensational hairdo. We are now in Africa, in the area that is now Nigeria, and this shrine head of a woman is from the culture we call Ife, which reached its peak around the same time as the Khmer culture in Southeast Asia. These Ife heads were unknown in the West until early in the 20th century, and they are still rare. We know of only three in American museums, and this is the best one I have ever seen. Ours is terracotta, like Comtesse Pignatelli, but others are bronze – and we have a fabulous example of slightly later bronze casting in Nigeria in the head of a Benin oba in the case to my left. But if you look at the Benin bronze or any of the other heads or masks in this gallery, you will note how unusual the Ife head is, because it is not highly stylized: it looks like a real person you might run into on the street outside. Except, of course, for the hairdo of arcs, the vertical scars on the face, and the horizontal rings of fat on the neck. All these lines create abstract patterns that are tremendously appealing to our modern eyes. But look closely at her eyes, especially if you get below them, as they likely would have been seen in the shrine. Can you see the iris? The nose and mouth are slightly crooked, giving a hint of personality to this beautiful, regal face.

We are now going for a long walk, through space and time and through the museum, from 13th century Africa to 20th century Europe. We will necessarily pass many pretty women along the way, but we will stop with another sculptor who was working about the time the Ife head and other artifacts from Africa were being collected in Europe, and we will see how he was influenced by them.

We didn’t get to look at our collection of African masks, but maybe you’re familiar with them and can decide for yourself how this sculpture by Amedeo Modigliani resembles one, or doesn’t. Scholars have disagreed for years on the subject, but one thing seems clear: the attention given to African sculpture in Paris around 1910 liberated the minds of many European avant-garde artists: they saw a way out of Impressionism and sculpture by Rodin. Instead of naturalism, they could exaggerate features, like the nose here, or represent them almost symbolically, like this circle for a mouth. Modigliani also eschewed marble as a medium, or clay, for that matter. He wanted to attack stone directly, and leave it rough. Where is the woman’s left ear? Or did the artist simply leave the work unfinished, or broken? How did Modigliani portray the eyes? No pupil or iris. Does that make it less of a face? Note that Modigliani often did the same thing in his paintings – see the Little Servant Girl on the wall to my right.

Further on is another woman, a pregnant woman this time, by an artist working in Paris with Modigliani. It’s made of a stone for which the artist made up a name, flenite, and is another example of the range sculptors were exploring at the time. But what I want to show you is a more extreme departure even than Modigliani’s from the pretty women we have seen so far, and will to come. This is called Constructed Head No. 2, it’s from 1916, and it’s the creation of Naum Gabo, a Russian who made up his own name and studied engineering in Munich before becoming an artist. He may have been the first sculptor to incorporate space as a positive element, rather than displacing it or enclosing it. This is a brilliant example of that concept. As you can see, this lady’s cheeks and forehead are made of…air. Gabo was intrigued by the scientific discoveries of his day, and this face, denying the solidity of matter, fits into that exploration. Why is she on my Pretty Women tour? Her profile. From one side, it’s a mess. But if you see her from her left, the line down her nose is elegance itself.

We’ve been speaking of eyes and noses and even breasts, but a pretty woman needs more than that; so next I’d like to show you a sculpture featuring…legs.

Degas in his lifetime was not known as a sculptor. In fact, most Degas sculptures you find in museums were executed after his death, from clay models he used to help himself compose his paintings, of ballerinas and horses. Where would you approach this view of a woman in a tub – walk around it; what’s the best view? Wherever you look, it’s hard to avoid her legs, one bent over the other, or this darling foot, curled over the lip of the tub. There’s a 360-degree aspect to this piece – an attribute of sculpture we haven’t really focused on in our survey to date. This was modeled in clay in 1889 and cast in bronze in 1920.

As we next go backward into the 19th century, we will find more traditional sculptors attached to the marble of the Greeks and Romans, but doing some pretty neat things with it.

The Veiled Lady by Raffaelle Monti is one of almost everyone’s favorite pieces at the MIA, and I maintain that she is so alluring partly because we cannot see her face. We think we can, and the fact that we are looking through a veil of opaque marble is part of the sculptor’s magic. But it is our imagination that sees any expression on that face, and she is as thoughtful, as prim, as beautiful as our imagination makes her. Does the fact that some of the morning glories in her hair have broken off add a delectable vulnerability to the hard stone?

Our next stop is a sculpture without the innovation or technical virtuosity we’ve seen, but it is different in two significant respects.

We are still in the world of white marble and in the classical tradition of Rome. In fact, the three busts you see in this gallery were all sculpted in Rome in the 19th century. But they are the work of American artists, each of whom went to Rome for this purpose, to learn the tradition of Roman sculpture. This bust of Medusa is doubly different because it is the work of a woman, the only female artist in our survey. Harriet Hosmer has a great feminist story. She was the first woman to study anatomy at Washington University in St. Louis – a course that was not available to women in the East, where she was from. For her subject matter, in addition to portraits of her patrons, she chose women in history whom Fate had not been kind to. We think of Medusa as a witch, with snakes for hair and a face so horrid it turned men to stone – Perseus, the hero, was able to slay her by the stratagem of looking at her in a mirror. Well, her backstory was a bit more sympathetic. Medusa was a beautiful priestess in Athena’s temple. Poseidon, in fact, found her so beautiful that he raped her. This made Athena jealous, so she turned poor Medusa into the horror that has come down in the popular imagination. Hosmer has shown Medusa still with her beauty. But you can see the snakes emerging in her hair. And these wings are an allusion to Pegasus, the winged horse that emerged from her neck after Perseus chopped off her head – a legacy of her unwanted liaison with Poseidon.

Our last stop will bring us full circle, to a pretty woman sculpted by an artist who was a student of Lemoyne, the man who crafted the bust of Comtesse Pignatelli.

Jean-Antoine Houdon was, by every measure, the most important portrait sculptor in Europe at the end of the 18th century. In 1785, at Thomas Jefferson’s suggestion, the state of Virginia commissioned him to come to America to make a bust of George Washington. A few years before that, he was commissioned, presumably by her new husband, to make this engaging work of Mme de Serilly. I will keep quiet, because I’ve told you all I know about sculpture, but you can look for yourself at some of the things we’ve seen before: the eyes, with their indentations, the fullness of her hair and this delicate curl on her chest. My favorite touch: look at the lace of her undergarment, how fine it is, how it contrasts with the smooth fabric of her dress or shawl. I have walked by this statue for years without giving it a second glance. But when it came time to prepare this tour I stopped and looked closely. I was enchanted. That’s what a pretty woman will do.

September 18, 2008

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *