Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Venus Anadyomene

With the Addison’s building project nearing completion, a combination of brand new and refurbished architectural details and artworks will soon adorn the spaces. Of striking interest will be the return of Paul Manship’s marble fountain, Venus Anadyomene, in the museum’s foyer. Originally commissioned by the museum’s architect Charles Platt, Manship’s fountain has had hydrological problems since the onset. Until now that is….

Art historian Harry Rand wrote about Manship’s objective for the sculpture in the Addison Gallery of American Art 65 Years catalogue (published in 1996):

“In the Roman revision of Greek myth, Venus—goddess of love and beauty—was the child of Dione and Uranus; the latter’s severed genitals mingled with the ocean and spawned Venus from the sea foam. Manship depicted the moment when, come from the surf and for the first time on land, Venus washes the generating ocean from her hair. The Greek anadyomene means ‘born of water,’ which suggests an apt motif for a fountain.”

Apt motif indeed. Unfortunately Manship’s desire to reference this myth was never fully realized. Intended to emit flowing water down into the basin as if trickling from the goddess’ wet hair, the figurine heads instead “dripped and spattered” water onto the floor, according to a review of the museum’s grand opening in the Boston Evening Transcript on the 16th May 1931.

Despite its failure to operate properly as a fountain, the sculpture itself is one of the Addison’s treasures. It is the first artwork people spy upon entering the building and the last thing seen upon leaving. As part of the Addison 75th anniversary, the museum asked Phillips Academy alumni to comment on their favorite pieces in the collection. Jeffrey Bush (PA class of 1946) shared this adolescent experience:

“What interested me most was the stone nymph kneeling in the entrance with no clothes on. Questions kept going through my mind. I pretended not to notice that she had no clothes on. Was this what I was supposed to do? Or was I supposed to really not notice? What about the adults who walked past her? Did they think I was really not noticing? Were they really not noticing? Or were they pretending, too? Was everyone pretending? It is many years later, and I’m an adult myself, but I still have no answers to any of these questions.”

Other alumni, clearly less bashful than Mr. Bush, joked that they patted her bottom upon leaving the museum. With or without flowing water, Venus Anadyomene continues to be a signature piece in the museum’s collection.

Fellow blogger James Sousa documented the de-installation of the fountain in a blog post on the 18th of July 2008. Such careful attention to moving the piece has been equally given to its conservation. Over the past year, conservators and engineers constructed and tested complex solutions to the fountain’s engineering, its water volume and pressure, and flow-rate, among many other details. A new plumbing/filtration system was developed to pump up to 3 gallons of water per minute through a concealed piping structure that will equally distribute water into the fountain’s surrounding marble basin and allow for better control of the flow rate. This sketch provides a detailed view of the invisible plumbing system. A water treatment system will calculate the water’s pH levels, keeping them at a constant level to limit any future deterioration of the new pipes. The new system will be a closed re-circulating system with timed controls to limit the amount of water flowing over the marble and conserve water. This detailed sketch, supplied by our engineers, reveals the elaborate internal system.

On December 16th, the Venus Anadyomene is scheduled to be re-installed in the Addison’s rotunda—reconstructing Paul Manship’s original design that dates back to 1927. Until then, we anxiously await the sound of trickling water in the Addison’s rotunda—not to mention reuniting with an exquisite work of art.

The Addison Gallery of American Art is forever grateful to the ingenuity, thoughtfulness, and patience of Phil Peterson and Dick Sullivan at Peterson Engineering P.C. as well as Adam Nesbit and his team at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center.

Posted by

Jaime DeSimone
Charles H. Sawyer Curatorial Fellow

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