Modern sculptors and American folk art

"Do not bore. Do not be obvious." That was the advice given by painter, teacher, and critic Hamilton Easter Field (1873-1922) to his students in the Ogunquit (Maine) School of Paint­ing and Sculpture, which he opened in 1911 with his protégé, the French-born sculptor Robert Laurent.1 For Field, Laurent, and their colleagues who passed through Ogunquit and who shared similar sensibilities—including Marsden Hartley, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Niles Spencer, William and Marguerite Zorach, gallery owner Edith Gregor Halpert, curator Holger Cahill, and others—an engagement with traditional American "folk art" could insure artistic originality.2 Although the significance of folk art collecting for early modernist artists in general has been long recognized, its importance for sculptors was especially profound, since the "naïve" work of carvers outside the academic tradition was considered both immediate and vital. Moreover, the appropriation of the folk on the part of modernists went well beyond art: for immigrants or first-generation Americans who were active in modernist culture, adopting the attitudes and artistic practices they associated with the folk was a means of bringing themselves closer to the traditional culture of the United States at a moment of extreme political tension over immigration. To adapt the words of the writer and critic Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996), they engaged in "international folkfashioning."3

In the minds of artists and critics at the turn of the twentieth century, folk traditions were more likely to be preserved in the country than in the cities, which had experienced extraordinary growth over the previous half-century. The idea that rural settings were especially conducive to art-making had its roots in nineteenth-century Europe. Field made this point to his students when he counseled them: "Open your eyes wide, get the local tang. There's as much right here in Maine as there is in Monet's Normandy. But to get it you must live in touch with the native Ogunquit life, just as Monet wears the sabots and peasant dress of Giverny."4 Thus, Field constructed modest quarters for visiting artists around Perkins Cove in Ogunquit "out of parts of old barns which he picked up any and everywhere."5

The equivalence between rural France and rural New England articulated by and for New York-based artists like Field made it possible for them to see themselves in the mold of European modernists. Laurent insisted on this correspondence when he wrote of Perkins Cove: "I at once fell in love with its attractive fishing village which reminded me of Brittany where I was born. Fishermen going to sea in sailboats—dories—rowing when the wind failed them."6 Laurent's view of Brittany was undoubtedly informed by Paul Gauguin's (1848-1903) fascination with the region's traditional culture, and he, in turn, projected that conception onto rural Maine. Late in his life Laurent told an interviewer, "I am a peasant and create sculpture like one."7 No matter how modest his origins in Brittany may have been, by 1970 he was a retired Indiana University professor and renowned sculptor, but his identification with the folk persisted.

Laurent developed an approach to materials that was informed by the folk art he collected and studied.8 He perceived in folk carving a pleasurable and unmediated engagement with materials that he mirrored in his own work. Speaking about his collection of duck decoys, Laurent exclaimed to an interviewer, "Look at the way the wings are carved on this one. The fellow who did it enjoyed it, surely."9 Undoubtedly, Laurent was attributing to the folk carver some of the sensations he himself experienced when sculpting a form: "Cutting into a resistant material is to me the most satisfying way of working—I like to work with different materials such as wood—stone and marble."10 Direct carving presented an immediate encounter with the material that stood in contrast to the modeling and casting that characterized much nineteenth-century sculpture. In the United States between about 1910 and 1940 direct carving was the predominant mode for sculptors and was supported by the theoretical underpinnings of the English arts and crafts movement and by a simultaneous exploration by artists of non-Western—"primitive" in the parlance of the period—and folk carving traditions, both of which inspired Laurent.11 His ability to respond to the grain of the wood with which he was working is evidenced in Plant Form (Fig. 4), one of a number of similarly abstracted sculptures he made of naturalistic motifs in the 1910s and 1920s. He was also sensitive to the possibilities of alabaster as a material, noting that one had "to be very careful not to cut straight into the material, but more on the surface."12 Laurent's works in both wood and alabaster were exhibited in New York in the late 1920s, including The Wave (Fig. 6), in which he retained a sense of the block of stone while delicately working it to reveal the forms, as is typical of direct carving.

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

» View All