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Winter 2002
Volume 39, No. 2
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www.pomona.edu

PCMOnline Editor
Sarah Dolinar

 

Not for the Faint of Heart

Profile of Pomona alumna and artist Gretta Bader '53

Goethe’s remark that “No one is ever satisfied with the portrait of someone one knows” serves as fair warning: portraiture, especially the three-dimensional kind, is not a métier for the faint of heart. However, with more than 30 portrait sculptures to her credit, Gretta Lange Bader ’53 says the challenges and constraints are, in part, what drew her to this demanding genre.

Beyond Likeness

The popular notion of the “creative artist” today is more likely to evoke images of a lone figure isolated in a studio, lost in rapturous self-expression, than of a portraitist patiently engaged with a sitter. Implausibly romantic as that lone figure may be, the concept not only persists but also reinforces deeply ingrained hierarchies that accord highest rank to artists who appear to work free of external constraints and to works of art that represent what we imagine to be unfettered creativity. The irony implicit in giving pride of place to non-mimetic, ostensibly “free” expression is, perhaps, nowhere more apparent than in the case of the commissioned portrait sculpture.

Above and beyond the formidably complex demands of working in three dimensions, there is a likeness to be captured, a subject or patron to be satisfied, and, in many cases, the obligation to develop the work in full view of the sitter. Goethe’s remark that “No one is ever satisfied with the portrait of someone one knows” serves as fair warning: this is not a métier for the faint of heart.

Gretta Lange Bader '53 with former President Bill Clinton at the dedication of her sculpture of J. William Fulbright.

Gretta Lange Bader ’53 is a portrait sculptor who acknowledges that the challenges and constraints of the genre are, in part, what draw her to it. While the option of working only for herself (“with models I can boss around”) is tempting, she relishes the complex dynamics of the commission. Most crucial, she says, is establishing a relationship with the subject, whom she must both put at ease, in order to capture a true and telling likeness, and also involve in the process to the point that fascination with what the artist “sees” outweighs the sitter’s natural anxiety about how he or she will “look.” This is a far cry from the lonely garret and unencumbered expressive catharsis of artistic mythology.

With over 30 portrait sculptures to her credit, Bader has recently completed what she considers the most important and satisfying work of her career—an over-life-size, full-figure, bronze sculpture of J. William Fulbright (1905-95), dedicated at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville in October. The occasion marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the “Fulbright Agreement” between the United States and Germany that established the now-legendary educational exchange program. Such an initiative between two countries recently at war was unprecedented, and it launched a hugely successful program in which over 30,000 Germans and Americans would participate, helping to forge and strengthen mutual understanding and respect. In 1999, anticipating the anniversary, the University of Arkansas announced a competition for a sculptor to create a work commemorating Fulbright. Bader was selected from a field of 95 applicants. It would be her third portrait of the former senator from Arkansas, whose early and controversial opposition to the Vietnam War made him a household name in the 1960s.

Gretta Bader first met Fulbright in 1966 when he was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and her husband Bill ’53 was a junior member of his staff. In 1982, she was commissioned to create a portrait bust of the senator for the University of Arkansas at the time its College of Arts and Sciences was renamed in his honor. (In 1990, a reworked version was done for the Kennedy Center.) The bust was done from life, in the Senator’s office. This is the way Bader prefers to work, believing that effective portrait sculpture requires capturing not only anatomical structure but also characteristic facial expressions that can be understood only through direct observation. Although sculpture in the round is notoriously difficult, one advantage it enjoys over painting is that the artist can sit in almost any corner and watch the subject as he goes about his business. As Bader became a regular fixture in Fulbright’s office, he relaxed. “One of the things I learned while doing the portrait bust,” she says, “is that Fulbright was a very intense listener and conversationalist. Talking to him gave his face an animation I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, as he was very reserved about the whole procedure.” Fulbright’s conversational intensity also presented occasional problems. If Bader turned even for a moment to the sculpture, he would stop talking, assuming she wasn’t listening. Eventually, she learned to watch his face closely, let him finish his sentence, and then quickly return to work.

From the time she was awarded the commission for the new Fulbright commemorative sculpture, Bader knew that she wanted to portray the Senator in his younger days. “What I tried to do here was to capture the intensity, the accessibility and the physical liveliness of the Fulbright of the tumultuous ’60s, his finished and most courageous moment.” Already familiar with his characteristic gestures and mannerisms, she set out to find a pose that would convey the essence of the man, particularly in conversation. “I wanted students not to be intimidated by the man, not to see him as remote—to know what a very intense human being he was and how much he liked students, how well he listened, how well he engaged them.” Unable to work from the subject this time (Fulbright had died in 1995), she reviewed hundreds of press photographs in the Fulbright archives, ultimately finding one that showed him standing with hands in pockets—a typical posture that also lent itself to sculptural design. “There’s nothing quite so stiff as a man in a suit,” she says. “The lines are so straight. I needed the rumple of a sleeve—as much rumple as possible on a dignified man—to find a way to break the line of the jacket.” It also was important to Bader that the bronze figure not be confined by its plinth on which it stands. To accomplish this, she extended one foot over its edge, breaking the hard line of the base and, in the process, giving the figure a quietly dynamic stance.

Bader knew from the outset that her figure would become part of a larger public installation at the University of Arkansas, placed in the center of a plaza with a backdrop of architecture and, nearby, a large abstract sculpture. The University had wanted a “life-size” work, but Bader was concerned that this would look diminutive (“like a cake-top figure”) on site. Ultimately, she represented Fulbright’s 5'10" frame in a bronze figure that stands 7'3". Clearly, the balance in Bader’s work between representation and artistry, between “portrait” and “sculpture,” is delicate and crucial.

If the Fulbright commission is the most important and gratifying of Bader’s career, it has also been the most challenging. The sheer scale of the piece required her to find a larger studio and to employ an assistant—a situation many artists find difficult, as it requires yielding a certain amount of control. Ultimately, she found a welder who helped her build the complex metal armature required, and together they worked in the studio of the artist who has, for years, made her molds. Beginning with a small clay maquette, which was submitted to the University for approval, she graduated to a half-size figure, also in clay, that was subsequently cast in plaster. Because the effectiveness of full-figure sculpture depends so heavily on conveying, “what the body is doing,” Bader’s interim studies were nudes. It was only after the anatomy was in place and the figure thoroughly understood that she could add clothing.

Bader’s approach is that of an artist trained in sculptural design. Her interest in art has been lifelong, and when she entered Pomona College in 1949, it was as a sculpture major—the only one at the time. She studied first with sculptor Charles Lawler from whom she learned basic design, but it was Pomona’s art historians, particularly Alois Schardt and Seymour Slive, who were most influential. “They opened a world of art to me. A really good art historian teaches you to see.” When she felt the need for broader studio experience, she built sets for the theatre. Although Bader describes Pomona in the late ’40s as an extremely conservative environment—“I think there were two Democrats in the school,” she says—it was, for her “remarkably liberating.”

After graduating from Pomona in 1953, Gretta Lang studied art first at the Akademie der Bildenden Künst in Munich (where she married William Bader ’53, a Fulbright fellow that year), and later at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. She emerged an abstract artist whose work was based only loosely on the human form, and it was only many years later, when she returned to art after a long interval raising four children, that she discovered a natural affinity for portraiture.

As a portrait sculptor Bader is self-taught—trained, she says, in the best schools in the world: the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, and, indeed, all of Washington, D.C., which “has more portrait busts—good, bad and indifferent—per square mile than any place in the world.” Although strongly influenced by contemporary portrait sculptor Jo Davidson, she admits to learning most from the “bad” portraits that she found stiff, unemotional and cold. “You learn what to avoid, what doesn’t work, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Close observation, in combination with her training as an artist, has led Bader to firm conclusions about what makes a good portrait. First, she says, “It has to work as a sculpture. All of its parts interrelate—the front of the head tells you about the back. You should be compelled to walk around it. That was the genius of Rodin—you have to walk around his figures, you can’t sit still. That’s the first job—to create a good sculpture. The likeness is almost the least of your problems. If the design is right, if the ‘bones are good,’ the likeness will come.”

—Marjorie Harth is director of the Pomona College
Museum of Art and professor of art history.

Photo by Fred Miller