Chicago's Public Sculptor
How Lorado Taft carved a future for himself
Probably the definitive work on the subject. Garvey's book about Taft, I mean. I also reviewed it for the Reader; that piece appears here.
Reviewed: Timothy J. Garvey. Public Sculptor: Lorado Taft and the Beautification of Chicago. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988
In 1910 Lorado Taft—then Chicago's preeminent sculptor as well as a critic and teacher of national note—derided the work of the Parisian painter Henri Matisse for what Taft called its ' 'pretence of naivete.'' Matisse's pretended innocence was esthetic; Taft's was social and quite genuine. Creator of such well-known works as Fountain of the Great Lakes and Fountain of Time and founder of a successful studio on Hyde Park's Midway, Taft is a fascinating case of the artist who is sincerely, eloquently, even admirably wrongheaded.
Taft's career is thus more interesting than his art, as Timothy Garvey makes clear in his study, Public Sculptor: Lorado Taft and the Beautification of Chicago. Part biography, part social history, part critical essay, the book recounts the years between 1893 and 1913 when Taft's vision of what Garvey calls "public sculpture as meaningful cultural record" coincided with Chicago's civic beautification campaign. Taft supported the Beaux Arts ideal as embodied in the World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893. He sought the universal in place of the merely local, timeless meaning in place of topical commemoration, classic unadorned figures in place of monuments to "modern tailoring."
Today it seems obvious that Taft, far from replacing one kind of art with another, merely replaced one kind of drapery with another. But the potential of public art to improve civic life seemed real enough then, and not only to Taft. Garvey considers Taft's career in the context of the larger Chicago artistic community of those days. Drawing from now-obscure novels as well as from more traditional documentary sources, he takes us to the salons and the drawing rooms where the city's artists—as busily on the make as any lumberman or coal merchant—courted potential clients and amused each other.
Taft was a key figure in such circles. Artists met in studios in the Fine Arts Building or gamboled on summer retreats at Eagle's Nest Camp on the Rock River. Chicago's well-to-do acquired their culture as they acquired everything else they displayed—they bought it—and Taft and his colleagues turned to each other for protection against the corruptions of the fashionable.
Taft resolved early to be a success in Chicago upon his return to the U.S. from Paris. He was good-looking and gregarious, with enough talent to make his claims to artistry credible. His ambition to do large-scale public works, Garvey hints, may have owed something to the unchallenging, even somewhat tawdry alternatives open to sculptors in the days before arts council grants and university faculty appointments; for years Taft survived by doing portrait busts of the rich, even butter sculptures for fairs.
The World's Columbian Exposition was the making of Taft. Louis Sullivan, the apostle of modernism, might have sneered at it, but for Taft it provided both commissions and a model for public adornments across the city. However, it was years before he received his first major public commission. Only in Chicago could such a backward-looking man have been considered ahead of his time, as Taft was before 1913, and by then the Beaux Arts ideal had become both socially and artistically passé. Garvey points out that Taft's remarks at the dedication of his controversial Fountain of Time in 1922 were practically a confession of failure to the critics who sneered at it.
Taft sought to make his art eternal by distancing it from the times, but this approach caused him personal as well as esthetic confusion. As a proto-feminist, Taft encouraged the careers of women sculptors who trained with him, such as Evelyn Beatrice Longman, yet his sculpted females remained firmly on their pedestals. "His sculpture was at times not only safely free from [contemporary complexities]," writes Garvey, "but unfortunately adrift from his own beliefs."
Taft's contributions as teacher, critic and proselytizer for public art are believed by some to be more significant than his art. Even so, his works deserve a better fate than that which has befallen most of them. His popular Blackhawk near Eagle's Nest is cracked, and the concrete Fountain of Time on the Midway is being eaten away by pollution. The Art Institute some years ago turned the back of Fountain of the Great Lakes toward its namesake; today its tarnished figures scarcely resemble the gleaming maidens who were unveiled (a little too unveiled in the view of local blue-noses) in 1913.
The real public art in those years, of course, was being designed by Chicago's commercial architects. Taft never was able, as Sandburg and Algren did in words, to express in stone or bronze the city's exuberant lowness. He wanted to make Chicago better than it was, while Chicago only wanted to make itself better-looking. ●