Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Artists always dream of creating works of permanence. Perhaps they hope that "timeless" art will help them live on past their death.

Lorado Taft (1860-1936) was that kind of artist. A Chicago sculptor of monumental, heroic subjects, Taft worked from 1907 to 1922 on his life's masterpiece, a huge sculpture about mortality called The Fountain of Time. The sculpture was based on a line from Austin Dobson:

Time goes, you say? Alas, time stays; we go!
Taft created a 120 foot long parade of humanity with over 100 different figures symbolizing life's journey from birth to death.

This "march of the doomed" takes place in front of an imposing, 26 foot tall statue of Father Time.

Taft wanted his sculpture to have an eternal look, so he designed it in a classical "beaux-art" style. Unfortunately, by the time he finished, the beaux-art style was already unfashionable. It was replaced by abstract modernism. (Perhaps Time felt that Taft's ambition was impertinent and wanted to teach him a lesson.) In any event, the leading Chicago newspaper soon labeled the outdated sculpture one of the city's "pet atrocities." Resentful at the way styles had passed him by, Taft became a leading spokesperson for conservative sculpture and lectured against the evils of modernism (demonstrating that he had learned absolutely nothing about the inevitability of time).

Taft also tried to construct his sculpture using materials that would last a long time. After consulting with engineers, he decided on steel reinforced, hollow-cast concrete. Unfortunately, this choice was not well suited for Chicago winters. The concrete expanded and contracted, causing cracks in the surface. Details eroded and crumbled away forever. By the 1980s, the interior was crumbling due to moisture buildup, and the surface had become pitted and drab, assaulted by time, elements and pollution.

Even then, time was not done transforming Taft's work. Taft had envisioned his sculpture as the centerpiece of an elegant park in the style of the World's Columbian Exposition, where Taft first worked as a sculptor. However, the neighborhood changed with time. The surrounding city deteriorated even more than the sculpture. The sculpture became overgrown with weeds. There were no funds for sculpture repairs in a rough neighborhood on the south side of Chicago.

As a small boy in Chicago, I used to stand in that park and stare up at Taft's crumbling sculpture. Its subject was scary for a kid, but not nearly as scary as the changes wreaked by the passage of time.

I revisited that sculpture years later when I returned to Chicago as a law student. By then, time had transformed both me and the sculpture. I had grown to understand that, no matter how big or permanent we try to make art, it will not enable us to outwit time. No matter how grand or eternal the subject matter that we choose. No matter how wise the artist. No matter how much the artist got paid.

Taft had to learn the hard way that even art can't rescue us from the gaping maw of time; we just have to keep looking for our solace.

This happy happy love
Is sieged with crying sorrows,

Crushed beneath and above

Between todays and morrows;

A little paradise

Held in the world's vice.

This love a moment known

For what I do not know

And in a moment gone

Is like the happy doe

That keeps its perfect laws

Between the tiger's paws

And vindicates its cause.

. --Edwin Muir


Anonymous said...

brlliant!11very brilliant xD
and what do you think about Alan Moore sculpture's

Pinflux said...


Anonymous said...

ahem, i mean..." henry moore" the sculptor...excuse me...

Unknown said...

i live in chicago, only a long walk from this tableax (and Obama). i find it intriguing and eerie all at once.

from a distance or drive-by, it appears to be a wave from the sea sculpted in stone, with all the delicate curves and water swells "frozen in time" by the artist.

but stop and come closer and you discover this is actually a 'wave' of NUMEROUS finely chiseled people 'marching' through time. soldiers, peasants, probably whores, etc. -- a multitude of anguished and helpless figures trudging despite there troubles.

powerfully thought-provoking. i hate standing near it alone... they look too life-like. it's an overwhelming reminder of how finite our time here.

LOOKA said...

Wow, what a great work! And what a tough story it has.

Hey, I'm "speaking up" here for a guy who I think has a lot to give:

Werner Berg, austrian painter.

There actually is an online gallery with nearly all of his work (some hundred pieces from all periods) to view. His many artistic qualities are presented in such a clear way, I thought you might be interested in what he did:


David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Luana and Pinflux. Luana, I like the work of Henry Moore very much.

Viqi French, I'm glad you've had a chance to experience this statue up close, and I share your reaction. The last time I was there, they had begun a massive refurbishment to save the statue, costing millions of dollars and taking several years to complete. They built a protective shed over most of the statue and were patching the holes in the concrete. I was glad they were doing it, but ultimately in all of these preservation efforts, time wins because it can outwait us.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Really great blog!

Anonymous said...

You know what I think?

I think a lot of great artists get bogged down in these kinds of huge projects to their detriment. I've seen a number of Tafts's sculptures, and this one doesn't really strike me as his best work.

You could say the same for Mucha and his "Slav Epic", and Sargent's Boston Library Murals. Ditto for a lot of Cornwell's murals too.

It seems that these "legacy making" projects aren't all that they are cracked up to be. Maybe God's trying to tell them something with that.

Taft is generally unrecognized, so good find on that score. He's got a number of good sculptures in Chicago.

Anonymous said...

I'm a long way off from this work but at leas tI can experience it in some way via the article, so muchos gracias David!

I feel the decay of it completes the sculpture somehow.

It's a parallel of how in his lifetime the artist had to struggle in vain against changing fashion; this same futility lives in the sculpture's decay I feel.

Kinda makes one feel so small, when you put things in the landscape of time and space.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Looka / Simon -- I appreciate the comment. And I'm always happy to hear about new artists. I checked out the Berg web site and he certainly has a strong, distinctive style. I didn't discover the English version until I had nearly struggled my way through. I have to go back and read the background material.

Hi, Luis, and welcome! Good to have you here.

Anonymous, you raise a very interesting point about those "legacy-making" projects. Some, such as Brangwyn's Empire Panels, do seem to work out well for the artist but a great many of them fall short. I guess a project doesn't count as a "make-or-break" project unless it has the potential to fail.

LOOKA said...

Thank you as well David.
I wanted to write a direct link to the portrait and animal section, but the site isn't built that way...
I also had a hard time finding the english version.

Today with all that is around, his way of seeing might seem a bit rough, but he was just straight in his approach. I often get the feeling his paintings intentionally direct your sight to different aspects.

Anonymous said...

Ah, David. Time. It is splendiforous. How many lazy afternoons did I spend on the midway, drowsily enjoying a spring or summer afternoon with a few friends? Luxurious. Delightful and perhaps decadent. Certainly not straight. Always flirting. And there at the end of the Midway, the Fountain of Time (I always thought it was the March of Time).

I loved it, so serious and glooming, or gloaming? Perhaps depressing. No, not really, more an image of what is "serious" to a angst filled time and teen.

Did you know they recently restored it? I went down to the Oriental Institute a few of years ago and it was covered with cloth. Went back last year and it looks wonderful!

Jack Ruttan said...

Leonardo and Michaelangelo (no, not the turtles... Gosh, I hate having to make that distinction!) had something of the same problem with their own big projects, but part of the issue was the megalomania of their patrons.

But some of these minds will not be content with "thinking small."

"Alan Moore" sculptures are also kind of funny to think about. But I'm getting a lot of grief as a writer when people mistake high culture names for pop culture near-equivalents.

Tried to explain something about Samuel Johnson, and my listener thought I was talking about Samuel Jackson.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the post. loved it thoroughly.

8370 said...

love your blog!

David Apatoff said...

Jack, it's a losing battle-- and yet worth it.

Bhanu and 8370, thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

This is a amazing story, I love your blog! Thanks!

David Apatoff said...

Thanks very much, VHS. I enjoyed visiting your blog as well (at least the one that I could access.)

Satish said...

Wow Great work and an impressive collection!

Lynn Allyn Young said...

I've just written a picture biography of Lorado Taft, BEAUTIFUL DREAMER: The Completed Works and Unfulfilled Plans of Sculptor Lorado Taft, (There's a blog on the site as well.) I love your photos and would like list a link to your site. Would you please give me permission? And please "like" me on Facebook, at Beautiful Dreamer. Lorado Taft! Lynn Allyn Young