Fountain of Time

laredo-taft

Artists yearn to create works of permanence. Often, they start by selecting topics of permanence– those big, timeless subjects that might resonate with all people for all time.

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 based upon lines from Austin Dobson:

Time goes, you say?
Alas, time stays; we go!

Taft sculpted a 120 foot long parade of humanity with over 100 different figures symbolizing life’s journey from birth to death completing his masterpiece on November 15, 1922.

Unfortunately, he had worked on his sculpture so long that his classical “beaux-art” style, which he was certain would endure, had become unfashionable, replaced by modernism. Before long, the leading Chicago newspaper labeled it as one of the city’s “pet atrocities.” Resentful at the way styles had passed him by, Taft became a leading spokesperson for conservative sculpture, lecturing against the evils of modernism and abstraction in sculpture.

Taft also tried to construct his sculpture using materials that would last a long time. After long consultations 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.

And 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 of the south side of Chicago.

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

I revisited that sculpture years later when I returned to Chicago as a law student. By then, time had transformed me as well. For one thing, I was a lot taller. For another, I had grown to understand that art would not help us outwit time, no matter how big or permanent we tried to make it. No matter how grand or eternal the subject matter. No matter how much we got paid. Even art can’t rescue us from the gaping maw of time. We have to keep looking.

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

Special thanks to David Apatoff of Illustration Art (where more photographs are available) for this profoundly moving post.

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~ by eaesthete on 11/30/08.

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