By Kevin Dunn
Only once have I been surprised by an exhibition at The High Museum of Modern Art that is entirely classical or neo classical, always cleverly swathed in its modern architecture. I usually venture into the High on the weekend to check out some of my favorite modern and contemporary artists such as Gerhard Richter or Agnes Martin, but this time, after wondering past these favorites and down two flights of stairs, I found myself face-to-face with the work of an artist who is famous for leaving no detail untouched by emotion.
Jean-Antoine Houdon was born on March 20, 1741. He was a French neoclassical sculptor. Some of Houdon’s subjects are the most important figures of the time. They are also very important people in our time as well. Houdon is an artist who has made a great impact on many of the sculptors since his time. He was a man who brought life back to the sculpture and grounded his subjects in an aura of reality. The method with which Houdon renders these men’s gaze is the most noteworthy aspect of Houdon’s work. He was famous for this at the time.
Two busts on exhibit are likeness of Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “Sabine Houdon at the Age of Ten Months,” the most exciting of Houdon’s pieces at The High, was inspired by his readings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The presence of the child that is portrayed is remarkably human despite its rendering in stone. After glancing into this child’s eyes I truly felt my inner child nod in recognition. I could also recognize the love of a father’s touch in the child’s locks of hair.
Houdon also replicated our founding fathers George Washington and Ben Franklin. Ben Franklin, one of the most radical of our governmental figure heads, is depicted in such a beautiful way that I felt shivers run down my back. Houdon’s masterful sculptural expression leaves out no trace from the detail of the clothing to the poise of Ben Franklin’s mouth. It seemed as if oration could pour forth.
George Washington’s shoulders are set in the most determined way and his gaze is piercing. Houdon has portrayed Washington as a man of progress but also a man of the past, around his shoulders one can observe a Greek toga. I could not resist the urge to look into his eyes and wonder what he might think about the current condition of our government. Surprisingly, I could feel him looking back. Houdon truly captures the essential character of this progressive individual.
Houdon is an artist who has made a great impact on many of the sculptors since his time. He was a man who brought life back to the sculpture and grounded his subjects in an aura of reality. His fame was due to the method with which Houdon renders these mens’ gazes. The most amazing part is that they have just as much meaning in his day as they do now.