Monday, April 20, 2009

The Flight of Europa

Occasionally you see a work of art that is so stupendously odd that it takes your breath away. I had this experience last Thursday morning, when at the Denver Art Museum I came face to face with The Flight of Europa, a Deco-leaning confection devised in 1925 by the American sculptor Paul Howard Manship (1885–1966). This crazy group, consisting of leaping bull supported by leaping dolphins, the seated nude, and a confidential putto, somehow manages to convey the conflicting impressions of high speed and pertness. The bull skims over the waves like an 800-pound crested tern with horns. His massive forequarters, hind legs, miniature hooves, and primly uplifted tail might easily have been devised by Fritz Freleng for Warner Brothers. Europa, meanwhile, marcel-waved and flat-chested, faces the rear: legs crossed, back straight, in other words sitting in the attitude of stylish nonchalance one might associate with cinematic comedies of the 1930s. It is as if she were pausing to catch her breath on a powder-room settee at Bergdorfs. I suppose one can only go along with this roaring-twenties fusion of mythical rape and No, No, Nanette, but you do wonder what the artist thought he was doing.

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