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October 31, 2012 - 3:28 pm

The other day I visited The Oakland Museum, and while I wandered through one of its rooms this scene presented itself to me:

Immediately a thought struck me: This is it — the decline and fall of Western culture is encapsulated perfectly in this one scene.

Let me explain.


In the foreground we have a marble sculpture entitled “California Venus,” in a timeless neo-classical style.


It was carved in 1895 by sculptor Rupert Schmid.


In the background, just a few steps away, we have its companion piece, a sculpture entitled “Pink Lady.”


It was created in 1965 by artist Viola Frey.

In just 80 years, the state of sculpture in America went from beautiful and exquisitely refined to ugly, klutzy and incompetent.

I don’t know whether the curators at the Oakland Museum juxtaposed these two pieces intentionally, or if it was just an accident, but either way they deftly summarized everything that went wrong with 20th century art.

Striving for Beauty — or for Ugliness?

The very goal of art changed radically between 1885 and 1965. Back at the end of the 19th century no one yet questioned the assumption that art was an attempt to capture or create beauty. It had been that way for millennia. Little did anyone know that within just a few decades the very philosophy of art would move away from idealization first toward abstraction, then to realism, and finally to grotesquerie.

By the second half of the 20th century a new paradigm had emerged: art no longer existed to inspire the viewer, but instead its sole purpose was to make the viewer uncomfortable — to “challenge your worldview” or “take you out of your comfort zone.”

It’s not just that Rupert Schmid was a “better artist” than Viola Frey; it’s that his intent was to create something of eternal beauty. (“California Venus” was originally a plaster statue of the most perfectly beautiful woman in California, and was exhibited at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago; Schmid later spent an entire year rendering the plaster version into marble so that his creation would last forever.) Frey’s goal with “Pink Lady,” on the other hand, was not to create beauty, but to create ugliness — on purpose.

Entire books have been written as to why this disastrous paradigm shift happened in Western culture, so I won’t expend a lot of verbiage exploring the reasons for this change in cultural attitudes. All we need to know is that it happened, and these two sculptures are proof.

The Death of Skill

A side-effect of this artistic shift is that it opened the door to incompetents. Let’s just be frank: Rupert Schmid was simply a better artist Viola Frey. Even if they had worked during the same era and were both informed by the same cultural attitudes, whatever he created would always be superior to whatever she created.

But, you see, that could never have happened, because if someone like Viola Frey had crafted “Pink Lady” back in 1885 and tried to pass it off as art, she would have been laughed out of the gallery. And if someone like Rupert Schmid had created “California Venus” nowadays, he’d be pitied as a pathetic unoriginal throwback from the Unenlightened Ages.

Just look at the structure of each sculpture; you can practically feel the bones and the muscles of “California Venus,” which was self-evidently created by someone who grasped human anatomy and how to render it and honor it. Now look at “Pink Lady”: globular, cartoonish, oddly out of proportion (notice the size of her right hand, for example). The monkey she’s holding has no anatomical structure whatsoever; it’s just a lump of clay with a face. I understand that Viola Frey was trying to fashion something repulsive and grotesque, but I have the very strong suspicion that she couldn’t have created something like “California Venus” even if she had tried (a suspicion that is borne out by other examples of her work, which are equally kludgy).

Whatever Happened to the Model for “California Venus”?

Long after I took these photos I discovered that “California Venus” had a fascinating but tragic story associated with it. As revealed in this newspaper article from October 21, 1902 (almost 110 years ago to the day), the woman whom Schmid chose to represent perfection met a horrifying fate seemingly straight out of the tabloids:

California Venus Dies Most Terrible Death

Shot Down in Cold Blood by Ardent Lover Who Commits Suicide

In a tragedy as shocking as it was unexpected, the life chapter of a woman whose name is well known in this and other States, came to a violent close last night in San Francisco when Marion Nolan, the widely celebrated “California Venus,” was shot down in cold blood while on her way home at about 6 o’clock, by Edward Marschuts, who had long been an ardent admirer of the famous beauty, after a violent quarrel who crowned his crime by taking his own life….”

Real the original article for the full story. In short, a teenage Marion Nolan was chosen in a contest to be the model for a statue to represent California at the 1893 World’s Fair; she subsequently became famous, and was in demand as a “performer” in living tableaux; she parlayed her fame into a marriage with an older millionaire, but the relationship did not last, and she moved to San Francisco in an attempt to become an actress. As her career floundered, an obsessed stalker began harassing her, and eventually he gunned her down (and then himself) when she rebuffed his clumsy rape attempt.

Two statues in a room. So much to think about. So much to learn.

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