Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I have never really been a big fan of sculpture. My biggest experience with it has been of the tacky sorts of things that you find in an antique junk store. The notable exception of my growing up was seeing some of the rather heroic statues around Temple Square in Salt Lake City. I got to see a variety of oldish greek-ish sculptures at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, but they didn't do anything for me except make me want to cover them up, maybe with a large fig leaf.

An interesting side-effect of my recent trip to Pittsburgh to interview with a couple grad schools was a sudden interest in the art of sculpture. In the city I saw many works in this 'public art' form. I am not interested in making sculptures, (I have no talent or inclination towards the visual arts) but in the concept and impact of this unique art form. It appeals to me on several levels. For one, there is an emphasis on the human form and all it can portray. There is something deep and divine in molding human images. The lack of coloring focuses attention on other details such as pose and expression. Best of all, to be experienced as an art, sculpture can be placed almost anywhere.

So it was I was walking rather aimlessly through downtown Pittsburgh, enjoying my first experience of skyscrapers, when I passed a church that had a sculpture in front of it, right by the sidewalk. It turned out to be Paul Granlund's "Resurrection" - I was captivated.
Unfortunately it was night time, so my picture of it didn't turn out very well. It portrays a man rising from an abstract block structure that seems as though it has opened to release him. I don't know whether this is meant to portray Christ's resurrection or just any man on the day of resurrection, but the image is nonetheless powerful. The inscription at the base of the stature quotes John 5 - "For the hour is coming, when all that are in the tomb will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life." You really do get the impression that the figure is floating, rising above the now powerless grave that has held him.

Though his head is hanging down, this seems to be only a temporary look down in wonder at the restoration of his body and its freedom from death. Somehow to me the figure seems about to lift his head upwards in supreme triumph over the last enemy, towards the voice that has called him forth. His arms are extended in a manner reminiscent of suffering on the cross, but hinting that they too will soon be raised in an act of praise. It was a neat experience to have suddenly, walking down the street.

Finding this sculpture and reviewing other works of art by this same sculptor (Paul T. Granlund) reminded me of a statue I had seen in a photograph last summer while researching (as part of my regular random research on Wikipedia (RRROW)) the Chernobyl disaster. I have been unable to discover who the sculptor is, but the sculpture itself is in a cemetery in Moscow, where some of the firefighters are buried who died as a result of attempting to contain the failed nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, Ukraine. This is really one of the most powerful images I have ever seen as a memorial.
Here again the figure of a man is contrasted with a shape, this time the not so abstract outline of a nuclear mushroom cloud. His legs appear to be melting and his arms are flung out against the explosion. This image suggests several things to my mind. The obvious interpretation is the struggle of the firefighters, sent in to face the world's worst nuclear accident without proper equipment or information. "We didn't know it was the reactor," said one of the first firefighters to arrive on the scene of the 'fire,' without gear to detect or protect from radiation, "no one had told us." Two men went up onto the roof of the reactor to put out the fire, they were never seen again. Over the next weeks thousands more people were exposed to lethal and life-threatening doses of radiation in an attempt to contain the disaster. To this end the statue portrays a man perhaps futilely throwing out his arms in defiance of a power that is already consuming him. The tragedy is awful.

I come from the school of thought, however, that a work of art cannot help but also be a product of its time, no matter the intent of the artist. This is especially true of works out of Soviet Union, such as the subversive or dual meanings in the compositions of Shostakovitch, Gubaidulina, Part, or Schnittke. I think much of Soviet propaganda art is in fairly poor taste -while in Russia I saw many memorials to WW II that were literally trash, such as the abstract sculpture shown above, made out of old artillery cannons jumbled together. However, I see something else in this sculpture from the end of the soviet regime, something honest and from the heart of nations about to be free - the symbol of a man fighting overwhelming powers of darkness and oppression. The nuclear cloud becomes a symbol of mankind's worst side, which the people of the Soviet Union had seen for decades. This statue conveys a similar sentiment as Winston Churchill's famous 'fight on the beaches' speech: "We shall never surrender." I pray that the people of Russia and other former soviet countries will never give up the freedoms which have come after such suffering.

Finally, the statue could even be a portrayal of a Christ figure, a statement that even all the evils of the modern world were paid for in that moment of infinite suffering in Gethsemane and on Calvary, that no power on earth or hell could destroy/consume the divine sacrifice. In this way, these two statues become paired together for me, Suffering and Resurrection.

I recently reread one of the books that has had a measured impact on my artistic views, "The Fountainhead." While I do not agree with a large part of Ayn Rand's philosophy, I can't help but enjoy the portrayal of man, "not as he is but as he might be" which, ironically enough, resounds with me more from a religious point of view than philosophical. The following quote from The Fountainhead describes the work of fictional sculptor Steven Mallory:

"...your figures are not what men are, but what men could be - and should be...your figures are the heroic in man."

The book in general is about uncompromising architect Howard Roark, who goes so far as to work in a quarry rather than design buildings in someone else's style, or blow up a building that is not being built as he designed it. My wife Qait teased me when I even hinted that my new job at a potato factory was a similar outlet. Anyways, the events surrounding the young sculptor are some of the most meaningful to me in the whole book. Unlike Roark, Mallory has struggled to keep his ideals and stooped to making mass-produced sculptures of ugly-cute little babies. His encounter with Roark is the first time that he finds someone who really understands him, and it is the first and one of the only times when Roark actually shows what we would call empathy. "...this boy was a comrade-in-arms, hurt in battle, and Roark stood over him, feeling a strange new thing, a desire to lift him in his arms and carry him to safety..."

Is it okay for this blog entry to come full circle from the topic of sculpture to me saying that I really hope that in grad school I can find a mentor or friend who can help make me the composer that I 'could be - and should be?' In this way a teacher is a sculptor, following in the footsteps of that great Creator, Himself a teacher who is a sculptor using that most difficult and rewarding of of malleable substances, human souls, to bring out the best, the 'heroic' and divine in man.

Have any of you ever found a sculpture that really spoke to you? I'd love to hear about it.


Megan said...

I think the only sculpture that comes to mind is one that I saw when we visited the once-concentration camp Dachau while in Germany. It was really interesting, because we happened to visit the camp on the Fourth of July- it was an interesting contrast to realize my family was half a world away celebrating freedoms that were so brutally taken from so many in that place. The sculpture is part of the International Monument they built on that site to remember all those people- you can see pictures of it here:

I just remember the feeling of being in the camp and reflecting on the lives that had been lost there- I really felt as if I had been standing on sacred ground. It was an experience I will never forget.

Qait said...

Sculpture, not really... I can't think of one right now...but a SCULPTOR, yes.
My teacher Mrs. Anderson sculpted me into an artist of the harp. Under her guidance, I created passionate music. Did you know when I started lessons with her at the age of 12 I was practically starting from the beginning after years of neglecting practice? And in one year with her, I had climbed mountains of skill. I felt like she knew just how to sculpt my talent.
Of course so much is up to me, but I, too, wish for a sculptor's help in discovering my deepest heroism.

Rae said...

What a post, Michael; so much food for thought. I don't know if I've seen a sculpture that has affected me as much as just the PICTURES of the ones you showed! If I have, the impression wasn't lasting enough for me to remember the name or place, I guess.

This makes me want to go and buy a book of sculpture photographs, and join a class. (I've actually considered doing that for a while--this strengthens that desire.)

jb said...


The Chernobyl cemetery statue is my favorite work ever. It is one of the most powerful images I have ever seen. I would like to see it one day close up.