On Saturday, we were in the city for other reasons but decided to build in a jaunt to the Rodin Museum. There are still (after 5 years of living here) several Philadelphia museums I have yet to visit and the Rodin was among them so I was glad to have the opportunity to check it off the list. The building, which dates from the interwar period, is charming and its grounds are a little oasis of plants and water and calm in the city. There were people relaxing in the courtyard with a book and I can well imagine it being a superb space in which to wile away some time and unwind.
The basis of the museum is the collection of one man, apparently an avid fan of Auguste Rodin’s work. It houses many of the sculptor’s most famous works. Indeed, one of the dozen versions of his most celebrated work – The Thinker – greets visitors outside the museum. I have seen versions of The Thinker before – at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow and I think the National Gallery in Washington DC – but this was the best version I have seen. The thing I really appreciate about Rodin’s sculptures are the rough hewn textures, the sense of weight in the bodies, the torsion in the poses. Being able to see a large scale version of The Thinker up close I could really observe the grip of the toes on the pedestals, the pressure of the elbow on the thigh, the weight of the chin on the raised hand.
The interior space of the museum is compact but well lit and the contents are displayed thoughtfully. There were, of course, lots of smaller works by Rodin. I especially liked some busts. However, there were also some sculptures by other artists who were either inspired by Rodin or were competitors of Rodin. There was an excellent Picasso piece and a charming piece depicting an embrace between a sailor and a female figure that my 9 year old was especially drawn to. The boys, incidentally, were not especially enthused by this particular trip. Our 13 year old and our 9 year old were pretty engaged and enjoyed seeing the sculptures but the 16 and 12 year old’s were totally switched off. Thankfully the museum had some benches for them to plonk themselves on while the rest of us milled about.
In truth, the best pieces in the collection are all housed outside the museum and can, therefore, be accessed for free. We were, therefore, lucky that we had visited on a free entry day. The Gates of Hell is on a wall beside the building’s doors. It was fascinating seeing the miniature versions of various sculptures within the composition. The Burghers of Calais (one of a dozen castings) is in the grounds. It depicts a scene from The Hundred Years’ War and being able to get up close to the figures meant I could really see the way Rodin was conveying the sense of defeat, dejection, and humiliation in their faces and sagging bodies. My favourite of the pieces in the collection was also within the grounds. I love the composition of The Three Shades and the way the three male figures combine to form a single, almost organic shape and I also really like the rendering of the musculature in the poses, even if the angles of the necks are wholly unnatural.
Philly is actually a great city for public art generally, from transitory installations to diverse sculptures to the fantastic murals covering the sides of buildings and walls to monuments and memorials. We encountered a few of these on our wanderings on Saturday and really I should try to plan out a few walking tours so we can see a lot more of this public art. I am now also keen to return to the Philadelphia Art Museum.
This has been a horrible winter. It has not actually snowed much but instead we have had to contend with various pestilences and too many rainy, miserable weekends. While I do enjoy hibernating a bit over winter, cabin fever definitely set in. I desperately needed some fresh air and exploration for the sake of my mental wellbeing. This past weekend, therefore, we took advantage of a dry day to go and visit the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey. We had previously attempted a visit there but it was Labour Day weekend and all of the tickets for the day were gone by the time we arrived. This time we prebooked to be assured of entry, though in reality it was pretty quiet.
The Grounds for Sculpture is essentially an outdoor exhibition space for sculptures by a variety of artists. The museum was founded by artist Seward Johnson. I must confess that his was not a name I knew but it turned out I did know some of his sculptures. The one most people can probably recall to their mind’s eye is ‘Double Check’ which depicts a seated businessman looking through his briefcase. It was captured in an iconic photo of 9/11 as, covered in dust and debris, it looked no different from the real people making their way through the streets after the towers collapsed. A replica of that statue greeted us as we entered the Visitor Center.
The Visitor Center showcased some of Johnson’s other works too, such as his Marilyn Monroe based on the famous photo of her from ‘The Seven Year Itch’, a group of musicians, and a styrofoam sculpture of a reclining girl that was painted to look like it was made from marble and chrome. What was a big hit with the boys, however, was a room made to look like Van Gogh’s painting of his ‘Bedroom in Arles’. We all enjoyed the feeling of having stepped inside the painting and be seeing such a famous work from a different perspective.
The vast outdoor space contained hundreds of sculptures. Every pathway brought us to a different art work and we enjoyed the almost “treasure hunt” aspect of finding some of the statues that were partially concealed behind bushes or were only accessible by following a small path. Some statues made the kids chortle, including one of a man urinating into bushes and a very phallic obelisk. I enjoyed the variety of art works on display, from the abstract to the kitsch, from the ones hewn from natural materials to the brightly coloured ones crafted from manmade materials. We all enjoyed the oversized, three dimensional versions of famous Impressionist paintings because of that feeling of being able to magically step inside a painting. We also enjoyed the celebration of kitsch and the fact that many of the statues could be touched and interacted with as adjacent signs specified that they could be respectfully touched or even climbed on. I believe one of the mission statements of the Grounds for Sculpture is to engage more people in public art so it was great to be able to let the kids feel the texture of a bronze sculpture or hang out with Renoir’s party-goers.
The grounds themselves were lovely, very peaceful, filled with trees and plants, and peacocks. There were also some nice buildings dotted around and bodies of water and arching bridges. I can imagine that the whole place looks even more appealing in other seasons when there is more colour and leaves on the trees. Since the Grounds are spread over 42 acres, we had lots of opportunity to wander and run around and explore. However, even though we were there for a few hours, we did not manage to see everything. We will absolutely have to go back some time.
Our next summer activity was to sculpt with air dry clay. Back in Scotland, we had used air dry clay several times during our summer projects – to make ancient Greek pots, for example, when learning about ancient civilizations – but this time I wanted to let the boys have complete and utter free rein. I thought it would be interesting to see what they came up with. I advised on technical issues but otherwise I was able to leave them to it.
My oldest son was over at a friend’s house so it was just the younger three for this activity. They spent quite some time sculpting – sometimes smooshing their creations up and starting over – and then we left them to dry for a couple of days. They dried out pretty quickly, perhaps because the hot and humid summer means the air conditioning has been on. Once they were dry, we got the acrylic craft paints out and they set about decorating their sculptures.
My 9 year old has been making comic books featuring a character from his imagination (who looks a lot like him, a resemblance he denies) so he decided to sculpt that character from clay so that he had his very own, one of a kind, comic book collectible. My 10 year old loves myths and legends so he made a red dragon. My 7 year old made a three-eyed slime monster but wanted to challenge himself to make some very tiny sculptures. He is one of those kids who loves to have tiny wee toys in his pocket so the idea of some small things appealed to him. In addition to the slime monster, therefore, he made a tropical fish, an apple, and a hot dog.
If you are of a squeamish disposition then you can be thankful that this cardboard sculpture activity replaced another. The other day, we found a recently deceased squirrel in our garden, still in full rigor mortis but otherwise looking fresh. I had this idea for CSI: Squirrel. There’s not enough science learning in the activities I do with my kids after all so running a rodent Body Farm would correct some of that imbalance. The idea was to return to the spot where the ex-squirrel lay and study the process of decomposition, the insect life responsible for the process, and eventually the skeleton. It would have been pretty cool. However, overnight some sort of scavenging critter made off with the plump carrion and that was the end of that project idea.
So cardboard sculptures it is.
The only rule was the sculptures had to be able to stand up somehow and had to be made of cardboard. We used old cereal boxes as it provides a nice balance between stiff and flexible.
My ten year old is a comic book nerd so he wanted to create Batman. He went into lots of detail creating two versions of Batman using the same silhouette but found it too challenging to connect them and make them stand up because he had worked on a small scale and it all got rather fiddly.
My seven year old created a derpy looking dog with a long, narrow nose, a floppy tongue and a crazy staring eye.
My 13 year old created a narwhal which was a challenge because of the long narrow horn and the need to find a way to make the whole thing balance out.
My 9 year old constructed an adorable Tyrannosaurus Rex with a fantastic overbite.
My effort was a rhino and I used an old cereal box I had been using as underpaper when painting for months so it was splattered with colour.
It was time to have a go at sculpture with our History of Art project as we turned our attention to Alexander Calder. We looked at his kinetic sculptures and at his massive stationary sculptures focusing in particular on the interaction between different shapes and the shapes created by the negative spaces between them. As our response to the lesson, we contemplated making mobiles but then we settled on building a sculpture as a group project. I write group but yet again my 9 year old opted out. I have had my boys sculpt with clay and found objects before but we took a different approach this time. They cut shapes out of coloured cardstock and then slotted them together. The boys cut up all the shapes so my only contribution to the creativity in this lesson was to help them slot the elements together.