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Apr
25

Part 1: “The Primitive Chant to the Great Spirit” Hermon A. MacNeil~Sculptor of the American West

By

Hermon MacNeil’s  interest in Native American culture began in (of all places) Chicago.  Before he ever traveled to the Southwest in 1895 to visit the Hopi (Moqui), and Navajo people, Native culture visited him in Chicago.

"Primitive Chant to the Great Spirit" photo of plaster model from MacNeil's Studio. (Credit: Photo Archives Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The live Native model for “The Primitive Chant” (at left) was a Sioux warrior by the name of Black Pipe.    Hermon first saw Black Pipe in the ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show’ at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. That winter, MacNeil found Black Pipe cold and desolate on the sidewalks of Chicago. MacNeil said that he gave him food and work as a model and an assistant in MacNeil’s studio (shared with Charles F. Browne).

More than being a model called in to portray an idea of the sculptor, Black Pipe portrayed a Native ritual dance, an ecstatic religious experience. The full title “Primitive Chant to the Great Spirit,” implies a religious experience that the native was depicting.  Lorado Taft, in his criticisms below, seems to miss the probable point of how this image came to be.  This image is not MacNeil’s in the mind of the artist, rather it is in the ecstatic religious memory of the model, Black Pipe.  I wonder how Hermon MacNeil experienced this Sioux’s portrayal as the warrior was transported in an ecstatic dance offered to the Great Spirit. MacNeil said that Black Pipe worked for him for the next year and a half. The Sioux warrior is immortalized in this piece and in the facial portrait pictured below. (Both photos are part of the Smithsonian Achieveshttp://siris-juleyphoto.si.edu/ipac20/ipac.jsp?&profile=all&source=~!sijuleyphotos&uri=full=3100001~!128333~!0 )

 

MacNeil's bronze of Blackpipe, a Sioux warrior he befriended in 1893 (source Smithsonian Archives)

The urging and support of Edward Everett Ayers led MacNeil and two companions, Hamlin Garland and Charles F. Browne, to travel to the southwestern territories (four-corners of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah) in the summer of 1895.  Their goals were to witness the vanishing images of the Native people,  of the Southwest.

MacNeil made plaster models of native images and events and shipped them back to Chicago for later inspiration.   Many of the sculptures that he made in Rome to fulfill the Rinehart Scholarship requirements were based on these early studies from the Southwest. These would include the ‘Moqui Runner’, and the ‘Sun Vow’.  Returning to these themes three decades later, he crafted the Society of Medalists Issue #3 in 1931, after the “Moqui Runner” and the “Hopi Prayer for Rain.” His 106 foot long bas relief frieze on the North side of the Missouri Capitol contains a section that seems to be the basis for the SOM #3 Issue of 1931 called “Hopi Prayer for Rain.”

Lorado Taft ‘imagined’ MacNeil’s ‘days’ in Rome in very ‘idealistic’ terms.  He suggested that the Reinhart Rome Scholarship must have given MacNeil an ideal time for focused ‘days’ of study:

“Four years of them with three hundred and sixty-five days in each year! To live in the Villa dell’ Aurora, to work upon subjects of one’s own choice, with no care and all expenses paid — what better could an artist ask for.? The only requirements made by the trustees were “satisfying evidences of industry,” to be attested in the form of “a  life-size figure at the end of the second year, a relief containing two life-size figures before the close of the third year, and during the fourth year a life-size group of two or more figures in the round.” [Lorado Taft, The History of American Sculpture, 1903, p. 439].

In his, THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN SCULPTURE, published in 1903, Taft critiques several of MacNeils sculptures in very flattering terms.  He praises the ‘technical quality’ of this piece while questioning the artist choice of a dancer playing his armpit as a musical instrument.  His exact words are offered in the passage below:

The next figure, ” A Primitive Chant,” possesses every technical quality of good sculpture. While the idea of an Indian making strange noises by blowing or shouting in the crook of his arm awakens no responsive thrill of imagination, this is nevertheless a powerful work. Its triumph is all the more marked since our surrender is, in a sense, an unwilling one. We are not prejudiced in favor of this tuneful creature, who, unlike a Hector or an Achilles, brings to his aid no emotional backing of poetry, no prestige of three thousand years’ success upon the ” boards.” This is sculpture pure and simple, — beauty of form, strength with refinement of modelling, compactness, breadth. The figure kneels, taking hold of the earth with powerful limbs ; the hands are clasped, the right elbow tight across the body, the arm raised at a right angle, concealing largely the savage face. The expanded chest and powerful back have fascinated the sculptor ; he has shaped them superbly.

Larado Taft's words describe this kneeling pose of "The Primitive Chant." The 'upright-dancing-warrior' is a more commonly seen version of MacNeil's work.

That these are adequate reasons for the statue one is hardly prepared to say, though such beauty of modelling is almost a sufficient excuse. The trouble is that with nine persons out of ten, nay, with ninety-nine out of the hundred, beautiful modelling is not interesting nor a raison d’etre ; and with the more thoughtful the very fact of such costly elaboration enhances the perplexity. Why so much labor and so much time expended upon a thing unbeautiful in idea? With all its masterful workmanship, and even its sculptural pose, it remains but an illustration of an incident, a custom; curious it may be, and even to some persons moderately interesting, but possessing for none a deep significance. Where does the emotion come in — the poetic thrill which we are told is fundamental in the genesis of every great work of art, and which in turn a truly great work must convey in some fashion and some degree to men and women of taste? We are obliged to admit that in the lack of any supplementary hint at a deeper import — as of mourning or of love-making, of solitude, or of worship — the only response awakened by the action of the figure is a rather unsympathetic query regarding the nature of the “music” produced in so outlandish a fashion!” (pp. 437-439.)

According to the Smithsonian Institute:

Hermon A. MacNeil
A Primitive Chant to the Great Spirit
modeled by 1901
bronze
24 1/2 x 6 1/8 x 8 3/4 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum,

Gift of Maurice Kawashima in honor of Dr. Richard Wunder

http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/t2go/1lw/index-noframe.html?/exhibitions/online/t2go/1lw/1996.27.html

MacNeil has interpreted an Indian dancer as he chants into the crook of his upraised arm. The model for this sculpture was a Sioux Indian named Black Pipe, who was part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Black Pipe remained in Chicago after the fair closed and became a regular model and studio assistant for MacNeil. The artist maintained a studio in Chicago, but traveled many times to the Southwest to observe Indian rituals, costumes, crafts, and ceremonies firsthand. In Primitive Chant, MacNeil captures the physical beauty and grace of the Native American, which he compared to that of Greek warriors.

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