MORTON ROSENGARTEN & THE WORLD OF ANTIQUITY
by Edward Lucie-Smith, author of many books on art like the classic, Movements in Art since 1945 (1969), A Concise History of French Painting (1971), Art Today (1977), Sculpture Since 1945 (1987), 20th Century Latin American Art (1993), Frink: A Portrait (with Elisabeth Frink) (1994) and American Realism (1994).
Art now exists in a bewilderingly plural universe. Post-Duchamp, artists can make art simply by naming, rather than by shaping. They can resort to a kind of solipsism, and use their own bodies, their physical being, as their medium of expression, making ephemeral performance art. When they choose to make things anew, they have at their disposal a dizzying range of new technologies – products of the video-camera or the computer or else a hybrid of both. Measured against this situation Morton Rosengarten is a traditionalist – he makes sculptures, three-dimensional forms, in materials that have long been known to the artist – metal, wood and stone. He shapes these materials using familiar techniques.
Placing such an artist is becoming more than ever difficult, given the complication of the surrounding circumstances.
There are, however, clues that offer a certain amount of help. Some of these clues, perhaps the most important, are to be discovered in the work itself. Others can be found in the story of Rosengarten’s career, and also in the indications given by some of his chosen subject-matter. Indeed, the very fact that his sculptures have identifiable subjects already serves to orient the spectator in a particular direction.
The first things to look at are Rosengarten’s drawings. A number of these – nudes and portraits in severe outline – have a familiar look. They remind me, in particular, of the work, not so much of Wyndham Lewis, to which they have sometimes been compared, but to that of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Brzeska’s outlines are highly individual: they have none of the sweetness of Matisse, who also worked in pure outline. Instead, they combine a kind of Expressionism with classic purity and severity.
Even more obviously Expressionist are the drawings made using wooden combs that date from a later stage in the artist’s career. These rapid renderings of nude figures in movement are in a sense reminiscent of some of Rodin’s drawings, made from dancers moving in the studio, but they also, because of their sometimes multiple contours, offer links to simultaneous photography, while their exploitation of accident links them to the work of the Abstract Expressionists and even, sometimes, to drawings made by David Smith in the earlier part of his career.
What these various resemblances tell one is historically interesting. They place Rosengarten firmly in a line of artistic descent that is fundamentally Expressionist, though also with some links to Futurism and its British offshoot, Vorticism. It must be remembered that Vorticism itself has a strange underground link to Expressionism through the career of David Bomberg, who began as a leading Vorticist, a rival of the dictatorial Wyndham Lewis for control of the fledgling movement, but who evolved, in his later years, into an exponent of a peculiarly British style that has been labeled Slow Expressionism. Among Bomberg’s disciples were two of the chief members of the post-World War II School of London: Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff.
This is relevant because Rosengarten has a direct personal bond with the British mid-20th century art world because of his studies at St Martin’s School of Art in London from 1956 to 1958. St Martin’s was at that time a fountainhead of innovation in sculpture. Rosengarten’s teachers were Anthony Caro, Eduardo Paolozzi and Elisabeth Frink.
This trio takes on an emblematic significance when one looks at Rosengarten’s development. Caro, who began as an Expressionist figurative sculptor, then moved into a style that made use of welded industrial elements. This made him famous and established his reputation as a coeval of the American David Smith. Frink remained an Expressionist – her work has many similarities to that of Germaine Richier in France. Paolozzi used industrial elements in a very different way from Caro. The way in which he utilized them made him one of the British pioneers of Pop Art. However, he too has a distinctly Expressionist accent, especially in his earlier work, made just at the moment when Rosengarten studied with him.
I think one can discover elements that relate to all of these sculptors in works by Rosengarten. The one who most immediately comes to mind when one looks at his oeuvre, is undoubtedly Frink. The comparison is suggested most powerfully by Rosengarten’s series of bronze heads, not least because the human head was a major theme in Frink’s work. The rough surfaces of portraits such as Nancy and Kittie immediately suggest a comparison. Yet it is important not to be misled. All of Rosengarten’s heads are very specific portraits of named individuals. Frink only very occasionally made portraits, and undertook portrait commissions with marked lack of enthusiasm. Rosengarten, on the other hand, has clearly been fascinated by the personalities that he attempted to portray – their individual essence clearly has great meaning for him. I would like to suggest a comparison with a very different artist, the Italian Giacomo Manzù.
Manzù was perhaps the most distinguished maker of sculptural portraits of the mid-20th century. His work in this genre owes a great deal to Etruscan portraits in terracotta of the 4th and 3rd centuries b.c. What Rosengarten shares with him, in portraits such as Anne and Aviva, is a certain tenderness of surface, a feeling for the delicacy of flesh. This is in marked contrast to the portrait heads that Jacob Epstein turned out by the score, in the later phases of his career.
Rosengarten’s portrait heads are like the work of Manzù in a more general sense as well. They demonstrate clearly that he, like so many Modernist sculptors, has felt the fascination of antiquity – but has felt it in a very different way from Neo-classical artists such as Canova. What interests Rosengarten are not merely the models offered by ancient art, but the brutal action of time upon ancient creations.
The cult of the fragment can of course be traced back to the Renaissance. Michelangelo’s admiration for the Torso Belvedere in the Vatican, which he referred to as his “teacher” is well-known, and its impact on him can be seen in his figures of Ignudi on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He saw the Torso in three different ways: First as a fragment of a statue of Hercules (in fact, according to modern scholars, it more probably represents a suffering Marsyas). Second, as an independent form in its own right. Thirdly, as something which propelled Michelangelo towards an innovation of his own – sculptures that were more or less deliberately left unfinished.
In the Ancient World, fragments of this sort were not valued, as we can see from the way in which the Athenians failed to preserve the damaged sculptures on the Acropolis after the Persian sack of 480 bc. By clearing the broken statues away and burying them, the Athenians in fact preserved them for posterity. Since Michelangelo, each new generation of artists has tended to interpret the cult of the fragment to accord with its own sensibility and its own circumstances.
In the case of Rosengarten’s portrait heads this re-interpretation is particularly violent. A number of the portraits look as if they have survived some kind of catastrophe – the bombing of a city, perhaps, which has destroyed its monuments. In several cases, the skull is broken open. In one at least, the portrait called Mary II, the metal is patched, as if there have been two incidents in succession, the second more violent than the first.
The other ancient objects that some of these heads resemble are the violated mummies of pharaohs and Egyptian queens found in some of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings on the other side of the Nile from the city of Luxor. Some of the damage to the preserved bodies is due to the activities of ancient tomb robbers, but some is evidently due to political malice. This is true, for example, of the mummy recently identified as that of Akhenaten’s Queen Nefertiti, whose battered face bears a startling resemblance to some of Rosengarten’s portraits of modern women.
Rosengarten, however, sometimes contradicts these allusions to the past by the use of obviously industrial additions – the use of supports that seem to be bits of mechanical salvage. The result is a resonant dialogue between the past and the present.
Ancient art and ancient cultures are a recurring theme in Rosengarten’s work. The theme manifests itself in different ways in different series of sculptures, some very far removed in terms of style from the group of heads just discussed.
It is at this point that one has to say something about the way in which our whole cultural relationship to the idea of antiquity and ancient art has now shifted. In Michelangelo’s day the concept of ancient art was narrow. With the exception of a few Ancient Egyptian works, what the cultivated public knew, and what artists knew, were works of developed Classical style, represented almost without exception not by originals but by Roman copies.
The first major enlargement of sensibility was the result of Napoleon’s expedition of Egypt in 1798. The expedition was accompanied by a large group of French savants, under the leadership of Dominique-Vivant Denon (1747-1825). Originally a diplomat who served the Ancien Régime in St. Petersburg and later in Naples, Denon later became Director of the great and ephemeral Musée Napoléon created in the Louvre, as well as being the Emperor’s general Director of the Arts. The great Description of Egypt (1809-1828), published in twelve huge, superbly illustrated volumes by Denon and his team, was an attempt to explore every aspect of the country, but particularly its pharaonic antiquities. In the introductory essay, Egypt was presented as the true birthplace of the arts.
There was in fact some justification for this to be found in the surviving work of Ancient Greek and Roman commentators, but the publication nevertheless represented a significant opening up of European artistic perceptions, though the original impact was felt more in the decorative arts, with the rise of the so-called retour d’Egypte style of interior decoration, than it was in the fine arts.
This opening up continued throughout the 19th century. Europeans not only started to re-explore the heritage of the Middle Ages, but they also began to look at various aspects of Middle Eastern culture, and, later in the century, at the decorative arts of Japan, which had a profound impact of the art of the fin de siècle.
The most profound change, however, came with the discovery of the tribal arts of Africa and Oceania. African art, as is well known, was a major factor in the creation of Cubism, perhaps the most significant of all the Early Modern stylistic experiments. It was these primitive arts that opened the door to an appreciation of aspects of ancient art to which even professional artists had hitherto been blind.
Non-European art of this type had in fact been known in Europe since the late 18th century, when Captain Cook made his three voyages to the South Seas between 1768 and 1780. The first exhibition of Maori art to be held in a European context took place in 1803, when the British Museum opened a South Seas room. Today 28 of the Maori objects in the Museum’s collection can still be traced to Cook. However, the public that flocked to see these things still had no framework of interpretation. The situation was a repeat of that which prevailed when specimens of Aztec and Inca art, sent to Europe by Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th century, were displayed in various princely wunderkammers.
A framework for understanding the visual arts of cultures that did not belong to the Greco-Roman was gradually built up during the first half of the 20th century, hand in hand with the fascination felt by leading Modernist artists for artifacts of this sort.
Sometimes the aims of the scholars and ethnographers seemed to be at variance with those of the artists who had led the way into this new aesthetic territory. Picasso, for example, preferred his sources to remain mysterious – to him as well as to others. He once remarked rather scornfully that Braque, his close collaborator in the Cubist experiment, did not understand art nègre because he “was not superstitious”. In general, however, intellectual understanding and aesthetic appreciation went hand in hand. The exploration of primitive tribal arts became linked to an exploration of forms of art that preceded the rise of Greek classicism – in the Ancient Near East as well as in territories that at one time or another became Greek or that were closely linked, like ancient Etruria, with Greek attitudes towards art-making.
This process began in the mid-19th century, with enterprises such as Layard’s excavations at Nimrud, but were greatly accelerated by the contacts between artists such as Picasso and a new generation of savants, among them Christian Zervos, whose pioneering study L’Art des Cyclades, published in 1957, seemed to put pre-classical Greek art on the same footing as Modernist formal experimentation. Zervos’s book appeared at almost the same moment as André Malraux’s monumental study in three volumes, Le Musée Imaginaire (1952-54). This was designed to put the arts of all cultures on the same footing, by creating a perception that “masterpieces” were by their nature trans-cultural. It also implied that Modernism spoke clearly across the centuries and found close parallels in some of the very earliest artistic products of humankind.
Essentially here is the context to which Morton Rosengarten’s sculpture belongs. This can be seen clearly in his rich and complex Asherah series. Asherah is the name of a Canaanite goddess worshiped in private by Jewish women, contrary to Biblical prescriptions. It is also the name given (here the word is of the masculine gender) to a simple pole that served simultaneously as the representation of a god and as an altar. Poles of this type occupied an ambiguous position in terms of Jewish religious law. Their use was proscribed in the reign of King Josiah (II Kings XXII.23).
Rosengarten has chosen to interpret Asherah as female, but has given these images of goddesses highly abstracted forms. Their identity remains clear nevertheless, since individual sculptures are sometimes given the name of the goddess in one of her many different cultural manifestations – she appears in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece as well as in Palestine.
The goddess figures are ambiguous in more ways than one. Though it is not hard to read the shapes as being both essentially human and essentially female, Rosengarten here, in complete contrast to the series of heads discussed previously, gives them slick industrial surfaces, using not only bronze and granite, but also lacquered wood and aluminum. The figures often look like large-scale utensils made for some unknown purpose. This is in line with some tribal African figures, which serve a dual function, as idols and as tools or even as domestic implements, such as heddle pulleys or spoons.
The Asherah series puts Rosengarten firmly in the main line of artistic descent from the classic Modernism of the early and mid-20th century.
This is equally true of another series of untitled sculptures, made of granite. Most of these exist only in maquette form, but when completed they will range between 15 feet 7 inches high and 30 feet high. Most take the form of three elements – two pillars supporting a lintel, rather like the trilithons at Stonehenge. Though the basic shapes are architectural, it also possible to read these images, too, as vestigially human. The floating blocks of colour in Mark Rothko’s canvases have sometimes been interpreted in the same way, and there is even some evidence that this is the way in which Rothko wanted them to be seen.
Making his career for the better part of his life in French-speaking Canada, Rosengarten has for much of the time been forced to make his way in near isolation. Yet his work offers evidence that he has, throughout his life, been very much part of the artistic mainstream. In particular, he has been part of that great exploration of past cultures and apparently alien or exotic cultures that has so much widened our collective understanding of human creative possibilities, and of the remote, complex and multiple roots of what we now choose to call “contemporary art”.
- Edward Lucie-Smith
Born in Kingston, Jamaica on 27th February 1933 and settled in Britain in 1946. He began his literary career as a poet, has published four collections of poetry with Oxford University Press and is currently a member of the Académie européenne de poésie. Among Edward Lucie-Smith’s books on art and related subjects can be included the classic Movements in Art since 1945 (1969), A Concise History of French Painting (1971), Art Today (1977), Sculpture Since 1945 (1987), 20th Century Latin American Art (1993), (with Elisabeth Frink) Frink: A Portrait (1994) and American Realism (1994).