Bronze is not a material much found in contemporary art. A favorite of the ancient Chinese, Greeks, and Romans, and a mainstay of the Renaissance, bronze was common in casting sculptures until the early 20th century. But the copper-tin alloy was too permanent, too stable, too heroic to express the modernist angst of an age that suffered two World Wars in less than 50 years. Today, the earnestness of bronze seems almost alien—was there ever really a time when artists could express such nobleness without a trace of irony?
The answer is yes, and not that long ago, as witnessed by “Cast Images,” the current exhibit of American bronze sculpture at the New York State Museum in Albany. The exhibit, the latest installment of the museum’s “Great Art Series,” features artworks from the end of the 19th century until around World War I, many by artists whose names do not resonate with fame. The sculpture above, Girl Skating (1906), is by Abastenia St. Leger Eberle, who came to New York from Iowa, by way of Ohio and Puerto Rico, to study at the Art Students League from 1899 to 1902. From there, she began a series of sculptures of poor children on the Lower East Side. Working “with the eye of a photojournalist and without sentimentality,” to quote an Internet citation, Eberle was an early social realist, as evidenced in this girl in her ragged stockings and dress, who seems caught between ecstasy and abandon as she flies along on only one rollerskate. To modern viewers, though, the realism of the sculpture goes beyond the immigrant slums of old New York, to its uncanny similarity with the famous photograph from the Vietnam War of the naked girl fleeing a napalm attack. The way the two images rhyme is pure coincidence, of course, and yet one can’t help but marvel at how the human condition echoes through time.
“Cast Images: American Bronze Sculpture from the Metropolitan Museum of Art” continues at the New York State Museum through February 24, 2008. (518) 474-5877; www.nysm.nysed.gov.