Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I’ve spent the evening — well, what was left of it after dinner and baths and stories and the rosary and people wanting to keep their lights on after lights out and other people wanting to take showers upstairs at the same time that the dishes were being washed downstairs, which is problematic in an old house — scrolling through the website of the Jennmaur Gallery, which

specializes in antique bronze sculpture and paintings from 1880 -1939; including Art Deco, Art Nouveau, 19th Century Neoclassical and Vienna bronzes.

It’s a fascinating collection, and I thank my friend Michael Linton for sending me the link.

Here’s one highlight, an unsigned Eastern European bronze of the “Socialist Realism” school, circa 1940. According to the gallery’s notes, this is “a female form holding a torch, possibly depicting Liberty.” The male of the species, I can’t help noticing, comes in for better treatment under the Socialist Realists, though he does have to work, visibly, instead of just hoisting the old cuboid flame of freedom.

Neither of these proto-Iron-Curtain types, however, can compare with this impressive figure by the German sculptor Georg Grasegger, dating from roughly 1920. Note that despite the title, “Die Arbeit,” he’s not actually doing anything, just standing around in apron and clogs, holding a mallet, and looking full of brooding muscle-bound potential. Given the state Germany was in at the time, I suppose that’s not a surprising thing for an imaginary figure to be doing, though in hindsight it’s more than a little creepy.

Mike asked me whether I had any idea what this thing might be. Beyond the obvious fact that it’s a wood sculpture, the answer is no, I don’t have any idea. Big sad female figure: possibly Our Lady? She does look very dolorosa, whoever she is. And the bearded male figure who appears to be skulking away into a fold of her mantle, leaving behind a disarticulated skeleton under what might be the suggestion of a workbench? He appears to make a fist with his one visible hand, or perhaps it’s a zero. I can’t tell what he carries in the other hand: a gun? some kind of long blade? I don’t know. At any rate, it’s the work of German sculptor Karl Mader (1926-2004), and is dated 1952.

Naturally I was fascinated by the series of crucifixes currently on offer, all of which are unsigned, probably German, and estimated to date from the mid-1930s. My favorite of the lot features an odd Jack-Skellington-looking corpus on what appears to be a weathervane. Not knowing anything about its provenance, and also not being anything like an art critic with actual knowledge of this period in sculpture, I can’t hazard much of a guess at the theology behind this rendering, but somehow the stark, starved piteousness of the figure affects me more than, say, this, from 1950, does.

Add this 1930 bronze corpus to the others, arrange them in chronological order, and I imagine it would be possible to read any number of cultural narratives into them. Undoubtedly to do so would be to oversimplify, to treat the pieces reductively, as artifacts and not art. Still, it seems to me that there’s something . . . well, if there’s absolutely nothing transcendent about that Socialist Realist “Liberty” figure, there’s also something not entirely transcendent about these crucifixes, though I can’t put my finger on the reason. Maybe it’s that they’re located in a history that’s still within our reach, and they suggest that human history at least as strongly as they suggest the intrusion of God into another moment of human history at a greater remove from our own.

I don’t know. And I didn’t start out to be pensive about it all, but suddenly I find that I am.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles