for the Faint of Heart
of Pomona alumna and artist Gretta Bader '53
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
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. Goethes 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
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 sitters
natural anxiety about how he or she will look. This is a far
cry from the lonely garret and unencumbered expressive catharsis of artistic
With over 30 portrait sculptures to her credit, Bader has recently completed
what she considers the most important and satisfying work of her careeran
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
Senators 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 Fulbrights 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 wouldnt have seen otherwise,
as he was very reserved about the whole procedure. Fulbrights
conversational intensity also presented occasional problems. If Bader
turned even for a moment to the sculpture, he would stop talking, assuming
she wasnt 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 remoteto 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 pocketsa
typical posture that also lent itself to sculptural design. Theres
nothing quite so stiff as a man in a suit, she says. The lines
are so straight. I needed the rumple of a sleeveas much rumple as
possible on a dignified manto 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 Fulbrights 5'10"
frame in a bronze figure that stands 7'3". Clearly, the balance in
Baders work between representation and artistry, between portrait
and sculpture, is delicate and crucial.
If the Fulbright commission is the most important and gratifying of Baders
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 assistanta
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, Baders
interim studies were nudes. It was only after the anatomy was in place
and the figure thoroughly understood that she could add clothing.
Baders 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 majorthe only one at the time. She
studied first with sculptor Charles Lawler from whom she learned basic
design, but it was Pomonas 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 environmentI think there were two Democrats in
the school, she saysit 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-taughttrained, 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
bustsgood, bad and indifferentper 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 doesnt work, so you dont have to reinvent
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 interrelatethe
front of the head tells you about the back. You should be compelled to
walk around it. That was the genius of Rodinyou have to walk
around his figures, you cant sit still. Thats the first jobto
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
Marjorie Harth is director of
the Pomona College
Museum of Art and professor of art history.
Photo by Fred Miller