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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Who Gives a Hoot? Paul Manship’s Owls

This semester Christopher Morley, a recent graduate from the history program at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire, interned with us in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Photograph Archives. During the course of his internship, Chris helped research over 350 Paul Manship images in the Peter A. Juley & Son Collection to identify the titles, dates, medium, dimensions, and owners for each sculpture. The Manship collection is now cataloged, digitized, and available on SIRIS. As his internship comes to an end, Chris reflects on his favorite Manship sculptures- owls.

Manship at work in his studio

“I rejoice that there are owls.  Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men,” Henry David Thoreau eloquently wrote in his 1854 novel Walden.  “It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognized.  They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all [men] have.”  With their large eyes, neatly preened feathers and mysterious, haunting call, owls have held a place in human mythology that spans millennia and transcends national, geographical, and political boundaries.

The ancient Greeks revered owls for their wisdom and wise looking eyes.  The owl was linked with Athena, goddess of wisdom and patron protector of Athens.  While the Greeks might have respected and admired owls, in many cultures, the owl was (and still is) seen as a symbol of death; an omen of impending doom and misery.  In Africa, owls are associated with sorcerers and witches.  In Arabia, owls were reputed to carry off children in the night.  Whether as a symbol of protection or death, owls continue to fascinate us and are still represented in literature and the arts.

Sculptor Paul Manship (1885-1966) is perhaps best known for Prometheus in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. However, this Minnesota native also celebrated owls in his artwork. In his sculptures, Paul Manship accomplished the difficult task of melding beauty and elegance with a strong contemporary aesthetic.  Many of his pieces are the very essence of timelessness.  His animal sculptures are particularly interesting, at least to me, because not only did he manage to create beautiful art, he also created art that had a realistic, humorous albeit subtle quality.

Manship started sculpting at age sixteen, when he enrolled in a modeling class.  Sculpture was such a strong interest for Manship that at age seventeen he dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a professional sculptor.  Over the course of his career, Manship studied under various masters and in various locations.  It was however, one of his earliest tutors, Solon Borglum, who instilled in Manship the necessary skills and dexterity required to master the art of anatomy.  Borglum’s area of expertise was animal sculpture, something which in later years Manship himself was to cherish and finally master.

Owl, Juley Collection

When I was researching the Juley photos, I discovered that there are many Manship sculptures in the  American Art Museum’s permanent collection as well. Two owl sculptures on display in the Luce Foundation Center immediately caught my attention because they capture the essence and humor of Manship’s art. Aptly titled Owl (#1) and Owl (#2), these sculptures exhibit both the archaism and modernism which the sculptor was known for.  Owl (#1) appears to be from the same cast as the one depicted in Juley’s photo,  J0038981.

As described in Paul Manship by Harry Rand, Owl (#1) “places the bird in a quasi-landscape setting as replete as an Audubon study”, due to the fact that the owl is shown perched on a tree stump.  Rand continues with his assessment of the sculpture, stating that “a hint of archaism resounds in the bird’s plumage, which Manship treated as a repeated pattern whose regularity recalls classical imbrication (the overlapping of tiles or shingles).”  While I agree with both statements, I also have to add my own two cents.  

Owl (#1) reminds me very much of the archetypal owl we all think of when we think of an owl: majestic, with beautiful glossy feathers, crested “ears”, powerful talons, and large golden eyes.  This sculpture is a bronze embodiment of the Great Horned Owl.  Some people may think of “Archimedes” from the 1963 Disney movie The Sword and the Stone, or perhaps the owl from the “Tootsie Pop” commercial.  I however, have a different recollection.  I can vividly remember hearing the call of the Great Horned Owl many years ago. 

My grandparents lived in Minocqua, up in the north woods of Wisconsin.  As a child, every summer my family and I would pile into the car and drive to my grandparents house.  While on vacation, we would go on long walks through the woods.  If you have never experienced what it’s like to walk through the forest on a sunny July day, hear the crunch of acorns and twigs beneath your feet, listen to the lazy buzzing of insects, and look for raspberries to eat, then you’re missing out on something wonderful.  At twilight, we would hear the lonely, mournful cry of the Great Horned Owl.  Its call would reverberate through the woods; eerie yet beautiful.
Owl (#2)

According to Rand, Owl (#2), “demonstrates the liability Manship faced when he returned to the regalia of mythology with none of its faith . . . all of the mysterious self-containment of the earlier Owl seems exhausted by the later work, which altogether lacks the brilliant counterpoise of small decorative elements with a fresh overall conception.” While Owl (#2) might not be as “refined” as Owl (#1), I think that it’s no less artistic or entertaining. 

Whereas Owl (#1) is proud and haughty, with a stern gaze, Owl (#2) is light and comical, and seems to be almost smiling.  The fact that Owl (#2) is perched atop a sphere makes the illusion that much more whimsical, perhaps a nod to the seals of the old circuses who balanced precariously atop similar spheres.  In fact, he seems to be almost saying “Hey, look ma, one foot!”

If you find yourself intrigued by these owl sculptures, there are many more photos of Manship’s animal sculptures in the Juley Collection.  In addition to animals, the collection also features Manship’s sundials, portraits, medals, monuments, and many other interesting items.  A favorite sculpture of mine is Hercules Upholding the World –Armillary Sphere.  I am also fond of Model for John F. Kennedy Inaugural Medal; a simple, yet strikingly handsome portrait of the late president.  Whatever you choose to look at, have fun!  Who knows?  You might find yourself having a hoot!

1 comment:

  1. As a birder, I particularly enjoyed this blog post. Owl #1 reminds me a bit of the Maltese Falcon. I think Owl #2 is the real charmer, fluffing his wings and pausing just before he swoops down from his perch. Thanks for sharing these images of Manship's work.