Off the Cuff: Right Under Our Noses!

Charles Shepard, President & CEO

President & CEO Charles Shepard. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

My last two posts have focused on our growing collection of glass sculpture, but today I want to call attention to a particularly special bronze sculpture by the internationally renowned artist, Carl Milles, that has graced our Main Street entrance patio since our 2009 expansion. Our guests pass by this wonderful mid-20th century bronze, Man & Unicorn, daily –some sitting but a few feet away at one of our outdoor tables–but few know anything about the piece or its creator.

Born in Sweden, Carl was a precocious young artist who first studied sculpture at the Technical School in Stockholm, where he also trained in woodworking, cabinetmaking, carving, and modeling. His talent was rewarded with a scholarship to attend the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he studied with, and later assisted, the dramatic 20th century master Auguste Rodin. Carl worked diligently in Rodin’s studio for seven years while he developed his technical skills and personal style. In 1905, newly married to painter Olga Granner, he left Rodin’s atelier and, together with Olga, opened a studio where they could both pursue their artistic dreams.

Olga was sure of her path, and her paintings reflected her confidence. But Carl, having long worked in the shadow of Rodin’s bold, expressionistic style, had a difficult time finding his own voice. Over the next 12 years he struggled to “find his voice” with his work, becoming increasingly frustrated by the process of trying to unearth a style that fit with the kinds of things he wanted to say.  Finally, on a cold, grey spring day in 1917, Carl took stock of all that he had done and realized that none of his work to date satisfied him, personally or aesthetically. He boldly decided to destroy all his past work and begin again.

This “break with the past” was exactly what he needed.  Refreshed by the chance to start all over again in an empty studio, Carl focused on expressing himself without the slightest concern of how Rodin – or any other Modern sculptor – might approach the subjects that interested him. 

His work took new directions, ranging from whimsical to near religious, and almost overnight, the response of his colleagues and the public was overwhelmingly positive. Carl’s unique, and somewhat flamboyant, style was widely acclaimed. He was appointed to the faculty of the Royal Academy of Stockholm and soon thereafter recognized as Sweden’s leading sculptor.

Carl Emil Milles, American, 1875-1955. The Man and the Unicorn, Bronze with patina.
Gift of an Anonymous Donor, 2006.05. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Carl’s stature in the art world outside Sweden grew quickly and, in 1931, he was invited to become the Director of the Sculpture Program at the highly regarded Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Embracing the opportunity to move to America and teach at such a prestigious institution, as soon as he arrived he began creating a huge new fountain for the campus. The Cranbrook Fountain illustrates incidents from the story of Jonah and the Whale and features 80 individual streams of water spraying over the Whale. Modern in design but whimsical in spirit, the fountain was the first of many sculptures Carl created for the school.

In 1934, Milles completed two monumental works at Cranbrook — a great Orpheus fountain, featuring nine figures of bronze, and a 36-foot-tall alabaster Native American figure. Both pieces were created for international sites, but a copy of each was made for the campus. By 1938, Cranbrook’s collection of Carl’s sculptures numbered 70 works.  Architect Eli Saarinen, Academy President, announced to the Detroit Free Press that “… this collection of Carl Milles sculptures will make Cranbrook one of the great beauty spots in this country, and will add greatly to its importance as an art center.”

Carl’s beloved work occasionally provoked controversy. In 1938, he designed a fountain with 19 nude figures for the city of St. Louis that was supposed to represent the wedding of the Mississippi and the Missouri. A member of the city’s Municipal Art Commission, Alderman Hubert Hoeflinger, complained: “I’ve been to a lot of weddings, but I never saw one where everybody was naked.” In his own defense, Carl told reporters that he was very surprised at any complaints from St. Louis:  “They contracted for 10 figures in the fountain, and I gave them 19 [at no extra charge].  That’s how it goes — one simply gets carried away.”

Carl Emil Milles, American, 1875-1955. The Man and the Unicorn (Detail), Bronze with patina.
Gift of an Anonymous Donor, 2006.05. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

That said, Milles did have a back-up plan in mind: aware from the beginning that his work might startle the good folks of St. Louis, he already had a fig-leaf installer on call. To put the matter to rest, fig leaf expert Torvald Lundberg traveled all the way from Sweden to install modesty leaves on the figures in the fountain. And, after finishing work on Carl’s fountain in St. Louis, Lundberg made a side trip to Washington, D.C. to install a single, large leaf on a another of Carl’s male figures.

The last work completed by Milles at Cranbrook was a giant hand holding a 10-foot male figure who is standing on the thumb and forefinger. Carl meant it to symbolize the hand of God lifting man up to view the universe. One copy of this stunning sculpture was installed near Milles’ former home in Stockholm, and a second copy now stands in front of the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice near downtown Detroit.

Here in Fort Wayne, you can visit the Main Street patio of our Museum to see one of Carl’s most accomplished works, Man & Unicorn, a large, handsome bronze sculpture that was graciously donated to the Museum by longtime supporters David and Nancy Stewart. Carl Milles made important contributions to the development of Modern sculpture, both in Sweden and the United States. Shortly after his death, Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Sylvia flew to America specifically to visit the Cranbrook grounds and museum and admire the work of their countryman. I am very proud that we have an important work by such an esteemed Modern artist in our collection. I encourage you to visit soon and experience this great work in person!

Carl Emil Milles, American, 1875-1955. The Man and the Unicorn (Detail), Bronze with patina.
Gift of an Anonymous Donor, 2006.05. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

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