FREMIET’S BEAR AND GORILLA
Text by Robert G. LA FRANCE, Ph.D., curator of pre-modern art, Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, www.kam.illinois.edu
The French sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet (1824-1910) is best known as an animalier, a specialist in the subject of animals, and a professor of zoological drawings at the Jardin des Plantes, the natural history museum, zoo, and botanical gardens in Paris.
The bronze sculptures of a Bear Crushing a Stone Age Man and a Gorilla Carrying Off a Stone Age Woman display Fremiet's knowledge of animal anatomy and paleontology, as well as his preoccupations with struggles between animals and early humans. A plaster model for the Bear was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1885, and the plaster for the Gorilla won the Medal of Honor in the Salon of 1887.
These two bronzes have fascinated and disturbed viewers for more than a century. The human-like behavior of bears and apes, and folk beliefs concerning their affinity for humans, captivated audiences after the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man in 1871. Hollywood movies like King Kong (1933, 1976, 2005) and the debate over teaching the theory of evolution demonstrate that these subjects continue to preoccupate the public today.
Fremiet's sympathies clearly lie with the animals in these battles between primitive humans and their closest ancestors. Both the gorilla and the bear have been wronged and seek revenge or retaliation. At first glance, the male gorilla appears to have snatched an innocent cave woman. But a gash in the gorilla's left side, next to the broken-off shaft of an arrow, indicates that it is the gorilla that has been under attack. A closer look reveals that the woman has tied half of a gorilla jawbone in her hair, suggesting that she is a member of a clan of gorilla hunters. The jawbone enhances the viewer's understanding of the gorilla's actions.
In Fremiet's Bear, the prehistoric man's weapons, animal pelt, and bear-claw necklace identify him as a hunter. Fremiet also hung a bear cub from a noose tied to the man's waist and inscribed the base, "DENICHEUR D'OURSONS", literally "snatcher of bear cubs" or the Bear Cub Thief. Thus, the bear's rage is revenge for the murder of its young.
The small bronze of a Gorilla Carrying Off a Stone Age Woman is a reduced replica of the prize-winning plaster. The small version retains the arrow piercing the gorilla's shoulder and displays a black patina over the gorilla's coat, which add drama and make the figures more lifelike.
LORADO TAFT AND EMMANUEL FREMIET
Since its opening in 1988, the monumental glass entrance of the Kinkead Pavilion has housed The Blind, a colossal bronze cast from a plaster model by Lorado Taft (1860-1936), the most famous Midwestern sculptor of the early 20th century and a graduate of the University of Illinois (B.A. 1879, M.A. 1880). From 1925 until Taft's death, Fremiet's Gorilla and Bear flanked the entrance to Midway Studios, Taft's Chicago atelier. Today, they greet the visitor at the entrance to Krannert Art Museum.
Fremiet cast both bronzes in 1899-1900 for Congressman Benjamin T. Cable (1853-1923) of Rock Island, Illinois (Democrat 11th District, 1891-1893). Although Cable planned to give them to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, they were displayed instead at the American Museum of Natural History in New York until his widow, Maria Benton Cable, sent them to Lorado Taft in Chicago.
Mrs. Cable had heard Taft lecture and visited his studio, where artists and prominent Illinois art lovers met. Taft died , the University of Illinois purchased the entire contents of his studio and shipped them to Urbana. Even though the Fremiet's sculptures were not part of Taft's estate, they were included in the shipment. Soon afterward, Cable's son, Philander L. Cable, granted the university the extended loan. Around 1954 they joined the outdoor sculpture in Robert Allerton Park in Monticello.
In 1959, Martha Barcroft Cable Rankin, Philander's widow, formally donated the Fremiet bronzes to the university and in 1977, Krannert Art Museum became their official owner. In 1980 they toured the United States as part of the blockbuster exhibition The Romantics to Rodin, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Despite their national recognition as masterpieces, the bronzes were not displayed at Krannert Art Museum until eight years later. Following controversy in 1989 (see below), they returned to Allerton Park until 2006, when the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. included them in the exhibition, Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris. The museum plans to exhibit the bronzes until funds are raised for their permanent installation at Allerton Park.
SEXIST AND RACIST?
In February 1989, a group of four University of Illinois artists called CCx4 (Constructive Criticism Times Four) exhibited a work in the annual faculty art show that attacked the museum for privileging dead white male culture, declared Fremiet's Gorilla and Bear sexist and racist, and demanded the bronzes be melted down. While their charges were grounded in a history of reduced opportunities for women and minority artists, CCx4's radical call to destroy art triggered accusations of censorship in the local and national press. Others maintained that the high quality of the bronzes, their position within the context of the reception of Darwin's theory of evolution, and the sympathy Fremiet showed towards animals, justified their display.
The statues' defenders ultimately argued that the same freedom of artistic expression that protected CCx4's protest piece also applied to Fremiet's sculptures. Krannert Art Museum continues to perform its duty to protect, display, and interpret works of art, both those of Fremiet and CCx4.
Robert G. LA FRANCE, Ph.D.
Curator of pre-modern art
Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
1. Emmanuel Fremiet (1824-1910) (ph. Wikimedia, Nadar for Félix Potin Chocolate)
2. Emmanuel Fremiet, Bear Crushing a Stone Age Man, Champaign, Krannert Art Museum, 1960-3-1 (ph. Krannert Art Museum)
3. Emmanuel Fremiet, Gorilla Carrying Off a Stone Age Woman, Champaign, Krannert Art Museum, 1960-3-2 (ph. Krannert Art Museum)
4. Emmanuel Fremiet, Gorilla Carrying Off a Stone Age Woman, Champaign, Krannert Art Museum, 1995-6-1 (ph. Krannert Art Museum)
5. The American Museum of Natural History, New York (ph. Wikimedia, ingfbruno)
6. The sculptor Lorado Taft (1860-1936) (ph. Wikimedia, Library of Congress, ggbain.07250)
7. Lorado Taft's studio on the Midway in Chicago (ph. Wikimedia, Antonio Vernon/TonyTheTiger)