“George Anthonisen, Humanist Sculptor”

by John Zarobell,
Ph.D. Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture before 1900
The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum

Art history tells us that early in the twentieth century, abstract sculpture was born and since then sculpture has become more and more abstract as the notion of progress pushes the development of ever more radical considerations of sculptural form.  While this may be the central narrative of the history of twentieth century sculpture, it is not the only one.  The works George Antonisen emerge from another trajectory.  While he is knowledgeable about modernist sculpture, and even freely borrows from its repertoire, his roots are firmly planted in the figurative tradition.  More specifically, his works manifest another aspect of modern sculpture that has long been little valued or understood by historians of art, namely humanist sculpture.  I am not referring to neo-classicism in twentieth-century art per se, though humanism and an appreciation of the art of classical antiquity have often been linked over the last hundred years. 

As I will use the term here, humanism in twentieth-century sculpture refers to the pairing of a positive conception of the impact of human civilizations, and particularly European civilization, and a figurative tendency in sculpture that seeks to illuminate human life in all its beauty, fragility, and diversity.  There are many sources for Anthonisen’s work in the twentieth century even if these artists have not been celebrated as often as their more radical counterparts.  Aristide Maillol, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Käthe Kollwitz, Gustav Vigeland, Giacomo Manzù, José de Creeft and John Hovannes are but a few of the great examples of figurative sculptors working in the humanist tradition in the twentieth century who Anthonisen credits as having an impact on his work.  While all of these artists were formally innovative and aware of the concerns proper to abstract art, they maintained the human figure as a central and timeless element of the sculptural enterprise.  It is in this tradition that the sculptures of Anthonisen belong.

The twentieth century has provided enough tragedies and horrors to cause us seriously to question the viability of the notion of human enlightenment and historical progress.  At present such tragedies seem only to have accelerated.  In such a climate, it is not surprising that many artists turned away from figurative sculpture and the connotations of a philosophically unified human form.  How could the human body represent beauty and, at the same time, be responsible for the atrocities at hand?  How could the external form of humans predominate during the advent of psychology and the theory of relativity?  As Marx observed even in the nineteenth century, “All that is solid melts into air.”  Despite this prognosis, countless artists harbored hopes for the tradition of figurative sculpture and the potential to direct artistic energies towards a celebration of, even a recuperation of, the beauty of human existence.   After all, how could human death and destruction be so horrible if what had been lost was not somehow sanctified?

This duality is perceptible in many of Anthonisen’s works but none more clearly than Creation.  On the front of the sculpture, two figures converge—a man and a woman—above a swirling vortex.  The reference to the Book of Genesis seems clear though Eve does not spring from Adam’s rib here.  The figures seem to have been thrown from the void, yet they embrace as they hover together, weightlessly intertwined.  Their figures trace the form of an elaborate S-curve but the focus of the composition is the kiss at the center, the location where these two figures join.  It is impossible to know if they have just issued from the hand of God or if, in turn, their own kiss represents a human coupling leading to another form of creation.  Though the imagery is intentionally ambivalent, the emotion is clear: As humans embrace in the void, something beautiful emerges.  It could be a child, or a sculpture, but there is a promise of generation that is given form.

To walk around the sculpture and see it from the back is another image entirely.  From this view, the work is nothing more than a sphere spinning in an apparently vast void.  There is no promise, no aesthetic language, not even science fiction.  The obverse of creation, this beautiful and moving image of human possibility, is a stark image of a globe whirling through space with no apparent destination.  In this sculpture beauty and emptiness coexist.  Hope is paired with, even connected to, an interrogation of the potential meaning of such a gesture.  As a viewer moves around the sculpture, perceptions of the subject and the sculpture change.  The work of art demands that the viewer perceive the work from all sides, literally and figuratively.

A more subtle logic is at work in the monumental relief Give Us Grace.  According to the artist, this work is based on a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson, in which the speaker asks for grace to persevere and to forgive.  The sculptural relief is two-sided and is life-size, providing a direct connection between the image a viewer perceives and the space he or she inhabits.  The image is one of a slow dance in which loving couples glide across the floor.  The intimacy in their faces and the sense of compassion expressed in the representation of these figures demonstrate the artist’s deeply-felt humanistic feelings.  What we see is the dance of life, one in which anyone can participate and the scale of the work seems to invite us to do so, to cross the threshold into a space of representation that is too shallow in which to live but which will last an eternity.   This artistic idea, of visualizing oneself as part of the work of art at once frozen and timeless, is explored by the artist himself.  While the artist did not aim for self-portraiture, the couple on the left side resembles the artist taking a spin on the floor with his wife.  The idea that such fleeting and beautiful moments can be memorialized and made into the subjects of art is one of the animating characteristics of Anthonisen’s work.

However, it would be inaccurate to suggest that Anthonisen avoids the darker side of human existence.  In a work that intentionally harkens back the Auguste Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, Anthonisen took on some of horrors of the Holocaust in I Set Before You This Day.  In this work, a group of nine figures move through a space and appear to be divided in their responses to the horrors that surround them, underlining a sense of isolation and distress.  Some of the figures confront one another over a skeleton which is wrapped around the leg of a man.  It is the image of death in their midst that divides these figures and sets them against one another.  Meanwhile a father and daughter, both wearing torn clothes into which are inscribed Stars of David, leave no doubt about the historical nature of this sculpture.  The girl’s anxiety is met by a woman who kneels before her with open arms while the father looks away from the sculptural group to address the viewer directly.  Such literal confrontation is impossible in abstract art yet has been employed by figurative artists, perhaps most effectively by the Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera, Gabriel Orozco and David Siqueiros. In I Set Before You This Day, there is a nobility and a grace to the expressions of the figures and a rhythmic correlation of the group which provides an artistic harmony that unites these various tragedies into unified whole.  But the pain of the figures animates this piece and provides it with a meaning that is both direct and universal.

In other works, such as Murder and Game Over, Anthonisen employs fragments of figures to communicate the universality of individual tragedies.  In these two pieces, truncated human forms express the essence of his subjects.  Murder is the confrontation of two heads with a shoulder and arm connecting them, while in Game Over a single arm with a needle hanging out is enough to tell the story. These metonymic figures have a slender grace which belies their grave significance.  In message and in form, these works are more than they appear.  In Murder, the eye of the viewer is carried upward, from the head of the deceased to the face of the murderer.  The strength of the sculptural object is the arm which supports the grim head of the killer—it is the same arm which metaphorically takes the life from the victim.  In Game Over, killer and victim are one and the artist has not even provided a head with facial expression to illuminate the fate of this transitory being.  The grip loosens, the ball falls.  Game over.

In order to sum up, it will be useful to go back to the beginning.  Heroic Torso is the earliest work in this exhibition but it can stand as a measure of what Anthonisen has set out to achieve.  The fragmentary nature of this work brings out its classical associations, calling to mind fragmentary sculptures that have survived from antiquity such as the Belvedere Torso.  Needless to say, modeling a black woman as a Heroic Torso was a provocative gesture and it was perceived as controversial when the artist first exhibited it.  The heroic torso has been, throughout the history of European sculpture, one of the central figures in the canon of art and body has always been male and white. Yet here Anthonisen has produced a new kind of sculptural symbol, a work which at once draws from this sculptural tradition and from the modern interest in representing internal states of mind that was a central concern of Symbolist art. 

Heroic Torso is a novel attempt to create a new universal symbol through the techniques of figurative sculpture.  She is not idealized, nor whole, nor pure.  The artist was inspired by the Civil Rights movement to produce this historical figure, a new universal human who bears the weight of her own psyche and the imprint of history upon it.  This is an art that is not about art—it is about people and the striving of humans to create a better world for themselves.  Anthonisen has selected this figure to stand in, not only for his own ideas, but for the possibility of sculpture.  The artist seems to say that art exists to make the world more beautiful, that it tests our capacities for thinking and feeling but, most importantly, it challenges us to empathize with a world that exists around us, with people who have experienced sufferings and joys we will never know.  Anthonisen’s art is to make people look at each other and to see themselves.

Copyright © John Zarobell


© 2000 George Anthonisen All rights reserved