Sunday, November 18, 2012

Art Goes On During Wartime

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)
Ginger Rogers
National Portrait Gallery, Washington

Pink Georgia Marble
Dimensions Unknown


During the war, Ansel Adams had received permission from the U.S. Government to photograph the Japanese internment camp of Manzanar.

At the very same time, at another Japanese internment camp, the Japanese-American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, was working as a voluntary internee. Noguchi was the only voluntary internee of the entire war—but his voluntary status quickly became, on government orders, involuntary. He was declared “a suspicious person” and, in late 1942, the government actually attempted to deport him (Noguchi fought the deportation, and prevailed).

While in internment, Noguchi sculpted his famous bust of the film actress, Ginger Rogers, a close personal friend of Noguchi.

Upon receipt of the artwork, Rogers kept the bust on prominent display in her Hollywood home for the rest of her life; after her death, the bust was purchased from the Rogers estate by the National Portrait Gallery. It has been on display in Washington—unless on tour or on loan—ever since.

Noguchi was a close personal friend and admirer of German sculptor Arno Breker. The influence of Breker may be seen in the portrait bust of Rogers. During the Noguchi-Breker friendship, Breker was to sculpt a portrait bust of Noguchi.

Germany’s defeat resulted in the end, for practical purposes, of Breker’s career. Much of Breker’s work was destroyed by Allied occupiers, a stupid and vicious act of vengeance. Ever after, Breker found it near-impossible to reestablish his pre-war reputation and acquire new commissions, even within Germany.

In contrast, Noguchi’s career thrived after the war. He became one of the most prolific and popular sculptors of his time, not just in the U.S. but worldwide.

Anyone who has seen, in person, Noguchi’s portrait bust of Rogers knows it is an inspired work of art, striking and original and true. It instantly captures the viewer’s fascination—and holds it. It always draws a crowd.

Having seen the bust three or four times, I would estimate its height to be 22 inches (the National Portrait Gallery does not offer the bust’s dimensions on the NPG website, nor do other standard and reliable sources).

Not everyone appreciates Noguchi’s bust of Rogers.

Washington Post cultural writer Philip Kennicott called it “hauntingly blank” and “an impassive, dour mask”.

The bust is anything but blank, impassive or dour.

I must assume semi-abstraction has yet to make its way to Kennicott’s world—and that Kennicott would never appreciate Greek Cycladic art, which the Rogers bust greatly resembles.

During visits to Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, Noguchi surely studied Greek Cycladic busts at the Louvre. The influence of Greek Cycladic art is almost as apparent in the Rogers bust as the influence of Breker.

If I were Kennicott, I would have a second look.

The piece is unforgettable.

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