Towering Achievement 

Belmont University hosts major exhibit of works by master sculptor Frederick Hart

Belmont University hosts major exhibit of works by master sculptor Frederick Hart

The Creative Spirit: The Sculpture of Frederick Hart

Through May 28

Leu Art Gallery, Belmont University

"I was convinced I was destined to do this," master sculptor Frederick Hart (1943-1999) once said of his "Creation Sculptures," commonly held to be the most important commissioned religious sculptures in 20th century America. This body of work represents an extraordinary artistic achievement by any standard and forms the stunning centerpiece of a new exhibit at Belmont University's Leu Art Gallery. This is the largest showing of Hart's sculptures ever staged. The 50 bronze, marble, resin and acrylic pieces span the artist's career, offering insights into his creative and technical processes as well as the ideals that informed his work: beauty, meaning, substance, scholarship and craftsmanship.

Novelist and good friend Tom Wolfe suggested that Hart's life story would fit comfortably into Giorgio Vasari's marvelous Lives of the Artists, had the Renaissance biographer been around to chronicle his remarkable career. Hart, who is thought to be America's most significant and gifted sculptor since Daniel Chester French, was born in Atlanta in 1943 and spent his early years in South Carolina. He was a "typical genius," if such a thing can be said to exist. A high-school dropout and juvenile delinquent, he was admitted to the University of South Carolina at the age of 16 on the strength of his extraordinary SAT scores. Within six months, however, Hart was expelled when he became the lone white student to join 250 black students in a 1961 civil rights demonstration. Warned that the Ku Klux Klan was looking for him, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he enrolled to study art at the Corcoran School of Art and American University.

While at art school, Hart discovered his life's calling: sculpture. He apprenticed under Roger Morigi (b. 1907), a stone carver from Italy. By day, Morigi and Hart carved stone for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.; by night, Hart began to sculpt on his own. Morigi encouraged him to compete for an international commission to create sculptures for the entire western façade of the National Cathedral—perhaps the last great Gothic cathedral ever built. Hart worked on his designs for three years before submitting them. At the age of 31, he won what Wolfe described as "the most monumental commission for religious sculpture in the United States in the 20th century." Hart was given the Herculean task of creating three massive bas-reliefs to be set in the tympana above the great bronze doors of the cathedral; the work was crowned by "Ex Nihilo," a two-story-high, 21-foot-wide stone sculpture depicting the Creation. The commission would consume 13 years of his life.

The awe-inspiring "Ex Nihilo" depicts eight life-sized figures emerging from a swirling primordial cauldron in a "state of becoming." (Hart was heavily influenced by the evolutionary philosophy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.) A reproduction of the working model of "Ex Nihilo" is on permanent display in the Maddox Grand Atrium at Belmont University—a gift to the university by Barbara Massey Rogers. "The Creative Spirit" exhibition also features life-size resin reproductions of "Adam" and "St. Peter" from the western facade of the National Cathedral and numerous bronze casts of the lyrical human forms depicted in "Ex Nihilo."

Next to his "Creation Sculptures," Hart is perhaps best known for "Three Soldiers," created to complement the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Maya Lin, a 21-year-old Yale architecture student, won the original commission to design a monument for those who died in the Vietnam War. Her simple wall-of-names design was not without controversy, however. Veterans protested that the tombstone-like memorial made the fallen look more like victims than heroes, and so Hart was commissioned to create a figurative statue. The resulting piece was installed in 1984 and dedicated by then President Ronald Reagan. "Three Soldiers" is a genuinely moving tribute—the soldiers stand shoulder-to-shoulder, their gazes locked eternally on the names of their comrades. The original clay maquette of "Three Soldiers" is on display at Belmont and provides an interesting contrast to the completed work.

A large portion of gallery space is devoted to another of Hart's major works: "The Daughters of Odessa," depicting the four daughters of Russian Czar Nicholas II, who were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. This sculpture, which recalls the artistic styles of Botticelli, Raphael and Rodin, is part of a series of elegant and poignant allegorical works depicting the supposed loss of innocence in the 20th century. The original sculpture stands in the grounds of Highgrove, England, the home of Prince Charles. On show at Belmont are a bronze model of the statue, the original clay maquette and life-size bronze reproductions of the four figures. "Daughters of Odessa" is Hart's last bronze and is perhaps his most beautiful, with four young women joined in a circle representing the fragility of life. Other notable bronze pieces on show here include "The Source," a mysterious hooded figure that represents the unlocking of artistic inspiration; the towering and beautifully poised "Christ Rising"; and the understated classical studies in human beauty, "Celebration—Male and Female Heads."

Hart spent much of his life creating public art. In his more intimate private pieces, many of them on view at Belmont, he sought to "explore the subtleties of the human soul." To do this, he felt that he needed to find a new "transcendent" sculpting process to explore creative possibilities not afforded by stone, marble or bronze. Hart had recently converted to Roman Catholicism, and this spiritual shift drove him in his quest to find a medium through which he could communicate a sense of the ineffable and the spiritual. After many years of experimentation, he achieved his goal of "sculpting with light," becoming the first artist to create acrylic resin (or Lucite) sculptures—a technique he favored in his later career. This medium presents an immediate paradox to the viewer, who sees both the open transparency or translucency of the medium and the quasi-holographic mysteries of the subject "suspended" within a larger structure. The otherworldly and illusory appearance of Hart's Lucite pieces is particularly remarkable when they are exhibited on light-pedestals and lit from beneath—as they are, for the most part, in this show. Standouts include the mysterious and serenely beautiful "Mother and Child," the ghostly multi-perspectival "Echo of Silence" and "The Cross of the Millennium," which appears from some angles to be made of pure light.

"The Cross of the Millennium" utilizes light as a spiritual resource—similar to the way medieval artists employed light in the stained-glass windows of Gothic cathedrals. The sculpture is solid, but depending on the perspective from which one views the piece, the spectral Christ appears to be in a state of becoming, dying or resurrecting. The piece was presented to Pope John Paul II, who believed that it offered "a profound theological statement for our day." A reproduction of the original is on display, along with many other examples of Hart's acrylic work, in the Leu Center for the Visual Arts, a few steps from the Leu Gallery.

Hart rose to prominence during the 1970s, a time when his "neo-neo-classicism" was so alien to the prevailing aesthetic that his work was viewed, ironically, as avant-garde in its conception. But avant-garde Hart was not—he was a classicist, and his work is figurative, accessible and unabashedly idealistic. Looking back on a century of violence and nihilism, he wanted to create living myths in stone, marble, acrylic and bronze that reintroduced beauty, spirituality and core human values into the art-making process. To this end, he was successful to a limited degree. The "great rebirth of art" that Hart hoped for seems, at best, delayed. Today, a contemporary artist takes many risks working in a highly representational style—for instance, sentimentality and literalism. Hart almost always avoided these traps while also sidestepping the temptation to allow his breathtaking virtuosity to become an end in itself.

But there's something parochial and possibly even regressive about Hart's aesthetic appeals to the past. For one thing, his agenda seems to limit the ways in which a work of art (that is, contemporary art) may be legitimately termed "beautiful" or "spiritually uplifting." Hart and Tom Wolfe liked to think of themselves as the "derrière-garde," opposing the avant-garde and preserving the traditions of the past from the contemporary art movement, which, in Hart's view, had become corrupted and lost its way. "If art is to flourish in the 21st century," he said, "it must renew its moral authority by redirecting itself to life." Hart's genius is undeniable, and his technical abilities are jaw-dropping. Whatever one's feelings about the anachronism of his style, these are very powerful works that do indeed communicate a powerful and irresistible spirit of renewal. This perhaps is a function of the medium. As Hart observed, "The clay is the life, plaster the death, and stone the resurrection."

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