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A Blissful Disregard of Drama

/ January 13, 2011
Some of you may have noticed a change in the American Galleries. Recently several paintings in the corner gallery dominated by Frederick Frieseke’s ever-popular The Garden Parasol were taken down, and in their place were set two bronze figures by the American sculptor Paul Manship.

Manship was the most successful American sculptor of the first half of the 20th century. He specialized in subjects inspired by classical mythology, which he treated in a sleek, graceful style, very linear, highly patterned, that echoed Art Deco design. He is best known as the sculptor of the gilded Prometheus at Rockefeller Center in New York.

However, Manship’s most accomplished sculptures are a pair depicting the Roman goddess Diana and the hapless mortal Actaeon. In classical mythology Diana(or Artemis in Greek) was bathing with her nymphs in a forest pool when Actaeon chanced upon them while hunting in the woods with his dogs. The fiercely chaste goddess was so incensed that she cast a spell on Actaeon, transforming him into a stag. The hunter thus became the hunted. Not recognizing their master, Actaeon’s own dogs attacked him, teeth bared.

It is this gruesome tale that Manship depicts in the pair of sculptures now on view in the American Galleries. He tells the story as if it were a ballet. Diana leaps into the air, at the same time twisting around to let fly a deadly arrow at the poor hunter. Actaeon, already sprouting horns, bounds away from the goddess as his confused hounds bring him down. I’m convinced that this athletic figure in dramatic extension was at least partly inspired by the great Russian dancer Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes.

Manship links the figures by the implied arc of Diana’s arrow. Note how Actaeon clutches his side—a direct hit! (You will note in the gallery how the pedestals are angled so that Diana aims straight at the man’s side.) Visitors might appreciate the startling differences between Manship’s figures and those of Auguste Rodin. Where Rodin is all about emotional turbulence, Manship is about grace and an almost blissful disregard of drama. Even the doomed Actaeon succumbs with magnificent aplomb.

Diana and Actaeon are promised gifts to the North Carolina Museum of Art.

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