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Tour the Garden: The Walking Man embodies the sculpture garden’s historical, artistic context

(Katelyn Dang/Illustrations director) Photo credit: Katelyn Dang

By David Egan

Jan. 17, 2022 9:31 p.m.

This post was updated Jan. 31 at 10:47 p.m.

As chancellor from 1960 to 1968, Franklin D. Murphy conceived of and curated UCLA’s Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden. The bucolic hills and surrounding pathways, completed by architect Ralph Cornell in 1967, serve as a community hangout and the backdrop for some of the finest sculptures of the 20th century. Follow columnist David Egan as he explores the world of the sculpture garden and leads a tour of five artistic gems on North Campus.

(Maddie Rausa/Daily Bruin)
(Maddie Rausa/Daily Bruin)

72 sculptures, 5 acres of land and 101 years of art history.

Welcome to the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden.

The stars of the garden have shifted over the decades, said Cynthia Burlingham, the Hammer Museum deputy director of curatorial affairs. Sculptures by David Smith, Henri Matisse, Barbara Hepworth and Anna Mahler have gained popularity at various moments in the past five decades, she said. While the UCLA-owned collection was originally managed by the Wight Gallery, it is now overseen by the Hammer Museum. With its oldest work being Auguste Rodin’s The Walking Man, Burlingham said the sculpture garden is a historical collection.

“It’s a closed collection largely because of the limited space,” Burlingham said. “As far as the balance of landscape and art, it really works. … The last work that was added was the Deborah Butterfield sculpture, and that was added in the very early ’90s.”

[Related: Hammer Museum’s exhibits mesh contemporary art with politics, history]

The garden was specifically designed to display sculptures, and before the 1967 remodel, the area was a parking lot referred to as the Fair-weather Parking Lot because of how muddy it became after it rained, Burlingham said. The garden, she said, is arranged in a tripartite plan – the plaza in front of the Broad Art Center, the rolling hills and the north side’s long alley. Murphy and Cornell initially modeled the placement of sculptures with true-to-life cutouts, she said. One of Burlingham’s favorite moments in the sculpture garden, she said, is the way Rodin’s The Walking Man is poised over the stairs leading people onto the grass.

Rodin&squot;s headless "The Walking Man" lunges with its emphasis on the lower half of the body. (Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)
Auguste Rodin’s headless The Walking Man lunges with its emphasis on the lower half of the body. (Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)

For this sculpture, Rodin combined casts of a torso and legs he made for his 1878 sculpture “St. John the Baptist Preaching.” He turned that into a plaster model and then, in 1905, the enlarged and bronze-cast The Walking Man. Before its placement in the sculpture garden, the French embassy in Rome displayed the cast. In a 2020 Los Angeles Times piece on the sculpture garden, art critic Christopher Knight states the headless, armless male nude is reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. The work is almost abstract, sculpture professor Hirsch Perlman said.

“A lot of (Rodin’s) sculptures embodied a force or power that’s a little bit, almost submerged,” Perlman said. “That piece, by being headless, is taking the mind out of the mind-body equation, trying to represent all action.”

Without a head, there is no face broadcasting emotion, forcing viewers to focus on other details, said fourth-year art student Edward Salinas. The Walking Man is gendered, Perlman said, with a masculine, repressed power one could assess from a critical angle. It is the one male nude out of 11 nudes in the garden. As with Rodin, who has been considered a founder of modern sculpture, Perlman said the sculpture garden represents a different era of modernist or classical values. Salinas said the realism and physical definition of The Walking Man is less prevalent in contemporary sculpture, which tends to be more abstract.

“If you put today’s (sculpture) class, their sculptures, in that same garden, … the contrast would be incredible,” Salinas said. “It would be so different. It would be a whole new conversation of the sculpture garden.”

Since it is the oldest sculpture in the garden, Salinas said its emphasis on realistic anatomical details differs from more recent pieces that lean into the abstract. (Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)
Since it is the oldest sculpture in the garden, its emphasis on realistic anatomical details differs from more recent pieces that lean into the abstract, said fourth-year art student Edward Salinas. (Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)

[Related: Maker’s Medium: Nico Young uses sculpture to find significance in life’s mundanity]

Another difference between contemporary sculpture and older works like Rodin’s The Walking Man, which is made of bronze, is artists’ choice of material, Salinas said. Today, he said there is less use of bronze or metals, with artists opting for more fragile, malleable materials such as plaster, resin, wood and household materials. Despite the different artistic periods they represent, works in the sculpture garden can inspire present-day art students, Salinas said. For example, one student recently displayed their final project beside Richard Serra’s 2006 weathered-steel work “T.E.U.C.L.A.” in front of Broad Art Center after receiving permission from UCLA.

Comparing contemporary art with the sculpture garden in one class, Perlman said students placed a flagpole atop Broad Art Center with a giant yellow windsock hand-shaped flag. For Perlman, students today seem more interested in the political content of their work and questions of identity, and a flag could be used for such cultural and political discussions. Perlman said his discussions of the Broad Art Center and the sculpture garden with classes also center around the role of art in a university.

“(With) the sculpture garden being at the north end of campus, some students think of art and art majors as sort of fringe – the edge, so it’s appropriate it’s on the edge of campus,” Perlman said. “But you could also go with a metaphor that it’s some essential or important passageway to the rest of the humanities and even, ultimately, to science.”

Recent pieces, especially in the college environment, have become more political, Perlman said, as seen in his student's hand flag, placed on the top of the Sculpture Garden's neighbor, the Broad Art Center. (Courtesy of Hirsch Perlman)
Recent pieces, especially in the college environment, have become more political, sculpture professor Hirsch Perlman said, as seen in his student’s hand flag, placed on the top of the sculpture garden’s neighbor, the Broad Art Center. (Courtesy of Hirsch Perlman)

There are, in fact, five passageways to the sculpture garden, Burlingham said, with no gates or open and closed hours. She said the sculpture garden is on campus for people at UCLA and in Los Angeles, with no prescribed way to enjoy it. As for the future of the sculpture garden, Burlingham said she generally hopes there is always a space on campus that combines art and nature, as there has been since 1967.

“(The sculpture garden) could be very different,” Burlingham said. “You could change it all the time. But it represents a moment in time and the advantages and disadvantages of that moment.”

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