Design and model for a Gothic pediment.
Size and material unknown
Many artists experience a creative block at some time in their careers. Fred Allen had just gone through what his wife described this way, “CRISIS After a trip to New York in 1928, selecting sculpture for the Concord Art Center show, he protested that he was sick of it all – the French clock stuff, the ‘dinky’ little figures (referring to many garden pieces and female figures in dancing poses we saw at Central Galleries, ‘only fit for old women to look at.’ He just could not bring himself to do that kind of work any more – wanted to kick over the traces somehow, and his work came to a standstill awhile as he was trying to find himself.”
Meanwhile, in New York and Boston, an artist named Jay Hambidge was researching and rediscovering the geometry of the Greek arts of architecture, sculpture and ceramics. The ideal of beauty was represented in the symmetry, the perfection in balance and proportion of forms in nature that was expressed by mathematics. The Golden Age of Greece had established a standard by which aesthetics have been measured ever since. In the pursuit of beauty, his studies of the Greek arts lead to the understanding of the principles of design called “dynamic symmetry,” the elements of which he published in 1920 in his book, Dynamic Symmetry: The Greek Vase. He presented the application of a mathematical sequence known as the Fibonacci Sequence and its geometry to composition in art. The book sparked discussions within the art centers of Boston and New York that inspired and influenced many artists, including Frederick Allen. The ideas percolated and developed within his subconscious until he produced “the first piece of work that he felt was a happy fulfillment of what he would like to do – a pediment with archers.” Agnes Allen tells the rest of the story,
“Knowing that the architect, Ralph Adams Cram, was coming to see a door Fred had made for him, he displayed an angel that he thought would interest Mr. Cram. It did not appeal, but Mr. Cram saw the Pediment of the Archers and went into ecstasies over it. He liked it so much that he wanted Fred to come to his office to see about panels he wanted done with the same crispness and life, but this did not eventuate.
When exhibiting this pediment at an Alumnae Show, he was called out of class one day to talk with a little woman who wanted to see him. She said she was the wife of the man who had created the theory of Dynamic Symmetry and that she was much impressed with the pediment because it carried out his principles so perfectly. Her husband had died but she was carrying on his work. Afterward she sent Fred a cordial letter with a copy of her husband’s book.”
No record or photograph of this pediment design had been found in spite of research through significant sources, but like a treasure, it was dug up in March 2019 when a relative found an old newspaper clipping in a box of some family records and mailed it to this author who has had it preserved, cleaned, restored and mounted on Japanese paper. It is hoped that someone will see this photograph and find the original work of art so it can be appreciated and analyzed in relationship to its important connection with Dynamic Symmetry and the oeuvre of Frederick W. Allen.
1930 was a time of change in America, a change which affected the styles favored in the art world. Modern Art had taken hold and was commanding attention so the Classical arts were taking a back seat. The Great Depression was imminent and World War II was threatening. Grand buildings with decorative sculpture were being commissioned less frequently. The heyday of the City Beautiful Movement had run its course, The White City in Chicago was gone except for the Fine Arts Building, which by 1926 had significantly deteriorated and lay in that condition until 1933. The Art Deco style which had begun in France after WWI dominated the visual arts, architecture and design until the outbreak of World War II.
So, in 1930 when Allen created the Pediment of Archers, there was a dying interest in what remained of the classical arts in architecture, of which this work was a fine expression. Even the subject of Archers was antiquated, so attention to this “big serious sculpture” (footnote Coburn article) was unremarkable and the market for future pediments was weak. Although the Pediment was created with the trendy Art Deco styling, even that style was about to give way to the functional and unadorned styles of the modern art and architecture. Nonetheless, Coburn noted in his review, it is “well worth close observation for its technical aspects. The impossible pediment – here it is effectively and interestingly filled with figures. They may look to have been cast in ancient Greek molds, a virtue a generation ago; a vice today. That is not what counts, or should be counted. One may evince previous study of the Aegina sculptures and still have an instructive and inspiring story of one’s own to tell. This one has for its especial merit the lilting rhythm of plane and line that starts from the corners and builds upward in an organization of well defined solids toward the spear-throwing figure in the centre.” Taking his subject matter from the graceful antiquity of the archer, he told his design story in the beauty of the bow and the human figure, in the rhythm of the repeating design elements and shapes of Art Deco and the unfolding geometry of ancient design principles as expressed in the Fibonacci sequence. Part of its importance is that Allen was successful in creating a coherent design of interlocking figures and design elements that effectively used the awkward space and the problem of scale presented by the shape of the pediment.
The second section is in bold caps “TOWARD THE PERFECT PEDIMENT”
“Most conspicuous and commanding of the exhibits in the sculpture and black and white exhibition at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, current this week, is Frederick W. Allen’s “Pediment of the Archers,” which holds the place of honor in the gallery.
The Fibonacci sequence expresses a form seen in nature in a Nautilus shell, the unfolding fiddlehead of a fern and the pattern of seeds in the head of a sunflower. By using a set of geometrical grids, the form can be repeated and illustrated when overlaid on paintings and sculpture to show excellent design. “The general ideas connected with this type of symmetry have been explained in The Elements, and their application to specific examples of Classic Greek design is rather exhaustively illustrated” in two volumes by Hambidge. (Dynamic Symmetry, The Greek Vase, and The Parthenon and other Greek Temples, Their Dynamic Symmetry, published by The Yale University Press New Haven, Connecticut and in Dynamic Symmetry in Composition, 1923