Muse 308: Mad King of the Museum

In the mid-19th century, an American sculptor, living in Rome, creates a masterwork representing King Saul under the influence of an evil spirit. Bought immediately upon its release in 1865, the statue was settled into an aristocrat's country house, the house became a boarding school, & the statue eventually came to the attention & the collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art.

AIRED: March 26, 2020 | 0:20:00

[regal instrumental music, violin leads]

(reading from 1 Samuel 16:23)

And it came to pass when the evil spirit

from God was upon Saul that David took a harp

and played with his hand so Saul was refreshed

and was well and the evil spirit departed from him.

- [Announcer] This program is a production of UNC-TV

in association with the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Funding is provided by The Carlyle Adams Foundation

and by viewers like you. [peaceful instrumental music]

- I'm excited for visitors to see this work of art

because it represents so many aspects of human history,

of a very defining text, the Bible,

but also of defining figures throughout history,

the challenges that everybody faces

not only in their daily life but particularly

in positions of responsibility and also excited

from the artistic point of view.

What an incredible transformation

of a beautiful block of marble into

a almost living, breathing being.

He's really a new mascot

for the North Carolina Museum of Art

representing incredible artistry,

incredible scholarship,

and also just a great sense the wonder

that art can engender so I think it's going to be

a real opportunity for visitors

to feel and to see and to think.

- When I got here 30 plus years ago as a curator

and I was in charge of the American collection

and I was looking at the existing collection at the time

and noting its strengths and weaknesses,

one of its greatest weaknesses was sculpture.

And most notably, a major, monumental marble.

There was nothing in the collection

that would exemplify that sort of high point

of American sculpture in the mid-19th century.

It was marble sculpture primarily from Italy

of American artists working in Italy.

And what I was looking for was a marble sculpture

that had substance and would really challenge the viewer

and would set them back a little bit.

Something to hold the eye and to cause you to really think

or to walk around it to maybe marvel a little bit

at the virtuosity of the carving.

I just wanted a really sort of magnetic object.

In 2012 I was notified by a New York dealer

that there was the possibility of a major marble

by William Wetmore Story being available.

- William Wetmore Story, in addition to being

one of the most significant American sculptors

of the 19th century, he was a lawyer.

He was interested in poetry, theater.

He was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1819.

He moved to Rome permanently in 1856

and he was really keen to show his works

at a major exhibition, and that's really

when Story's reputation just escalated

and he became very well known in England.

He had great critical reviews of his work.

It just snowballed from there.

When the Met began displaying art in 1872

there were four Storys on view

right as a visitor would come to the museum.

And what did that say about Story

and his prominence as a world sculptor?

You know, these pieces really operated on multiple levels,

not only what was going on with the protagonists

but also there was just thought given

to the overall work of art, not only the subject matter

but also the carving and the presentation.

- Well, he had some of the best stone carvers in Rome

working for him. - For sure, yes, he did.

They're the unsung heroes of this whole process.

So Story was considered in his time an artist who'd focused

on feeling and bringing the audience along with him.

- But in one of the letters he was writing about King Saul

he says, the action is all interior,

that that was the really challenge is how you depict

in sculpture something that is really

just happening inside the head.

- [Thayer] But that was what he was so brilliant at

was making the viewer sympathize with just the ferment

that was brewing in these figures' heads.

- [John] The subject is Saul, the first Hebrew king

whose story is told in the Book of Samuel in the Bible.

Saul is virtually unique in Story's work

in that it's a depiction of the internal turmoil of a man.

And it's an interesting subject for an artist to select

because Saul is not a major figure in European art.

- Saul is a tragic character

and heroic character at the same time.

The Bible calls him taller by a foot maybe at least

and more handsome than anyone else.

And that and some of his military exploits

make him a natural leader.

He stands out literally above the crowd

in what he looks like and what he can do.

The story is part of a long set of narratives

in the second half of 1 Samuel

which we have to look at as a literary composition

rather than a straightforward history.

First of all, the verse that introduces this concept,

the beginning of the verse just says that the spirit

of the Lord came upon him, it doesn't say evil.

So by the end of that verse the editor,

the redactor has entered evil because it's part

of the overall scheme of the literary production

to show that Saul is no longer the charismatic leader

that he was at the beginning of the story.

- It was a very interesting topic for not just Story

but also one of his best friends, the poet Robert Browning

who wrote a dramatic monologue on Saul.

The depiction of Saul in the midst of his madness,

the story he came up with is probably a mixture

of the account in the Bible and also from Browning's own

reimagining of the story.

In the poem David is sent into the tent to calm the king.

All the courtiers are terrified to even go into the tent.

They send the boy David in with his harp.

David goes into the tent not sure

if he's going to come out of it alive.

In a sense we are put in the position of David

confronting the king who is not just on his throne

but elevated on this base.

In the same way David is confronting a terrible presence

and unsure what is going to happen

we also have the same ambivalence

as to what our relationship with this figure is.

Story was invited to send his sculpture

to the Dublin International Exhibition of 1865.

It was very prominently displayed in the exhibition.

It seems to have been bought

even before the exhibition opened by an English aristocrat.

He bought it and made it the centerpiece of Rendcomb Hall

which was his country estate.

Rendcomb Hall was eventually sold

and it went through a succession of owners.

By 1920 the house and a fairly large parcel of land

was sold to a man who wanted to create a private school

which he called Rendcomb College.

And Saul was sold with the house.

It was held by the school.

The school wanted to very quietly sell it.

So I flew over to England with the chief conservator here

to actually look at the sculpture and we saw Saul

for the first time, and it did not disappoint.

It was like everything I had been looking for.

It was clearly a major work of art.

And all we had to do was just clean it well

and restore it back to what it really did look like

in 1865 when it came out of Story's studio.

- This is all blue, you know. - Oh my god.

- And then there's tape up there, yeah.

[laughing] And even this is different.

[soft instrumental music]

Hello, I'm Corey Riley, I'm an objects conservator here

at the North Carolina Museum of Art

and we're currently conserving King Saul.

He lived in a school in England for 150 years

and so there's lots of grime on the surface of him

that we're cleaning off now before he goes on to exhibition.

We're using some cotton swabs to apply an ethanol

and water mixture here on an area that has not been cleaned.

So I moisten the surface and then we take

a white STAEDTLER eraser and then we're essentially

erasing the years of dirt.

One of the things that we are cleaning King Saul with

is actually saliva, so in order to use saliva

in the eraser there's enzymes in your spit

that take some of the dirt off the surface.

And so although your grandmother and mother

have been cleaning everything with spit for a long time

it also is very good for some of these artifacts.

It's gentle and it does not disturb the surface.

Since he was in a school since 1920 until now

when we purchased him last summer

I have some samples of bubble gum

that came out from underneath his foot.

We also found some of this blue chalk.

And what we kept saying is that it looked like pool chalk

and sure enough in one of the pictures

we've gotten from the school in the 1970s

it was right next to a snooker table which is like pool.

And they probably were using chalk on the end of their cues

and decorating Saul over time.

There's been glitter around him, a bunch of pine needles

and such even though he was never outside

because they would decorate him for Christmas

at the end of term.

He was Gandalf and Santa Claus and all kinds of things

for these events, and it's been really fun

to get some of the pictures from the students

showing their affection and love for him

when they were at the school.

[upbeat instrumental music]

Well, his toe broke off.

We actually know exactly what happened.

It went missing in the 1940s

and they didn't know what happened.

It just disappeared in the middle of the night.

The sandal broke off also but they had the sandal.

And then in the 1970s there's an alumni magazine

and a former student wrote to confessional.

He was very, very sorry and very guilty

for all these years because he and his friend

had been in the common room at the school

and they accidentally dropped a sledgehammer on the toe.

For all the years that it lived with students

there's so many places that could have been broken

that weren't so the toe really is an anomaly.

It was really the only area of Saul

that has had some serious damage.

- My name is Lawrence Heyda, and I was asked

to make the missing toe.

I wanted to get a record myself

of the feet before I started.

Now that I had the left toe I used that for a model to copy

to make the right one.

Once I had this to work from I made a toe

that would fit it out of clay and I began pouring

many different toes until I got the right one.

And then it was up to Corey Riley with her magic

to make it merge with the rest of the foot.

- [Corey] Everything in conservation, when we add toes,

this sort of thing, it's not a very common thing,

but it's all reversible so any material that I use

to attach his toe will be easily reversible in time.

So we want future generations of conservators

or art historians to be able to reverse what we're doing.

[peaceful classical music]

We are cleaning to a point at which we are happy.

We're just getting off everything that we can

with these simple measures.

We're gonna assess what we think at the end of this.

Mariana over here is working on some areas

where there's been abrasion on the surface.

So if you were sitting in Saul's lap

and your legs were hanging over that side

your feet would be kicking in this area

where there's lots of abrasion.

We wanted everyone to be able to appreciate Saul

as a whole and not have any of the areas

that have been damaged be distracting.

- I am Ren Waung, I am the chief exhibition designer

for the museum, and I work with curator

to site the object and decide on the appearance.

It started out fairly straightforward

because John knew he wanted it in the portrait gallery.

And we know most visitor comes through the Rodin Court.

So we know we want him to face the south entrance

from the Rodin galleries.

So ideally we'd like to have the sculpture

have a long view from the American gallery,

but at the same time place the sculpture in a way

that it does not block

one of the monumental portrait paintings

along the major wall in the portrait gallery.

- My name's Tom Lopez,

and I'm head art handler at the museum,

and my role with Saul started with overseeing

the transport of Saul and the crating of Saul,

the preinstallation and shoring of the building

and the actual installation.

A structural engineer came up with what we should do

to the floor under Saul.

There's about a 48-inch crawlspace area

that's open to the lower slab so we had to crawl in

under the ducting and place our way under there.

And I had a rigging company work under there

until we had that set.

That was done almost six months

before Saul was put in so the floor was ready to go.

The top side at the same time was dressed with a plate

of steel that was to spread the load of Saul on the floor.

And when I say spread the load,

even though it was the same size as Saul

we penetrated the oak flooring down to the slab

and put steel pins through that space

that hit the steel plate above so that all the pressure

from Saul's weight would be transferred

to the cement slab and not compress the wood.

We wanted to make sure we didn't crack and mess the wood up.

We had to have a plywood trail that was laid

on top of our floor so that the weight

of the wheels and casters wouldn't dent the oak

and that took a little while to get him here

and twist him into the gallery,

but that's what we did for the floor load.

So it was one of the,

probably the bigger installations we've done.

- [Ren] The first time I saw him finished I thought,

this is really a unique opportunity for our visitors

to see a sculpture made so long ago, I don't know the time,

that you actually can take a moment

and look at the sculpture as it was originally intended

and then it is dropped in a modern context.

I hope our visitors will recognize this is fairly unique

to have something that's in its original context

from so long ago and really see and enjoy.

It is a lot to take in.

- My name is Geoffrey Bye.

I'm a native of Gloucester, England

and my relationship to Saul's statue

is that I was a student at Rendcomb College

from 1940 till 1948.

I didn't expect to see him like that

right in the middle of the room, that's gorgeous.

That's amazing, isn't it?

It was a feeling of surprise that he looked so fantastic

sitting in his new quarters, and I was really,

really pleased to see him.

- [John] This statue appeared out of nowhere

and I think it's one of those pieces

that is so compelling and memorable.

It is meaningful, it punches you at times.

That to me is one of the great virtues of great art

is that it punches you, you remember it

because it pushes you a little bit off balance.

- I was really excited throughout the process

of the conservation of King Saul to watch his evolution

in the cleaning to keep coming to life

to keep looking at new details,

but it was really when I walked into the gallery

and saw him seated majestically in the middle

in his full glory on his pedestal that I understood

the full magnitude of what this acquisition meant

for the museum that he really commands the space.

So really the gallery is what made it so clear

that this was really a transformative opportunity

for the museum to share this treasure of American art.

- I've never worked on anything so hard as this acquisition

because I really did believe it was a major part

of the story of American art that we were not telling.

And it fills an enormous hole that existed

in our American collection.

This was carved in Rome by an American artist

who lived most of his creative life in Rome.

And it was sold to a British aristocrat.

It never was in America until it showed up here

two years ago, but it needs to be here.

And my tactics as a curator is if you find something

that is absolutely perfect, get it.

Get it because it will never come around again.

[inspirational instrumental music]

- [Announcer] This program is a production of UNC-TV

in association with the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Funding is provided by The Carlyle Adams Foundation

and by viewers like you.


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