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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Emmanuel Viviano: Rare Works from a Chicago Master Sculptor

A self-made artist who received very little academic training, Emmanuel Viviano, in his boyhood, used old files and piston rods as his tools, old tree trunks, pieces of old tombstones, and native clay as his materials. From this organic education, Viviano developed his own particular “classical-primitive” style, mostly focusing on animal symbology and allegory. Viviano served as an instructor of sculpture and mosaic at Indiana University and Columbia, and served as member of the Byrdcliffe Art Colony, the Chicago Society of Artists, and the Woodstock Art Colony.

Sculptors such as Umberto Boccioni had redefined and opened up their art, and bestowed upon later sculptors a greater sense of freedom and personal expression. In a letter from 1912, Boccioni exclaimed, “I am obsessed these days by sculpture! I think I can perceive a complete renewal of this mummified art…” (Read 115). These previously established freedoms which loosened the sculptor’s tie to “aristocratic, ‘decadent’ Europeanized art” led, then, to a revival of the purity of form and a “rediscovery of primitive archaic art” (Bernstein 3, 5).

One can perceive the resonance of many artistic movements/styles within Viviano’s sculptures— the Dogu figurines of prehistoric Japan, the Arts and Crafts movement, the Modernist ideals, the Realists/Representationalists, and ancient Roman, but especially Greek, sculpture.

This sculpture, currently visible on the MIR Gallery web site (an online division of MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.), portrays a classical bacchanalian figure with a running boar at his feet. We witness the classical, purity of form reinterpreted in the modernist, rather minimalist style of the mid-twentieth century. It is compelling to witness a “grand theme” in small scale; the dimensions of the piece (10.5” X 7” X 3”) startle one’s sense of what Bachelard described as “intimate immensity” (Bachelard 183-4). One can read through the piece Viviano’s adept sense of space and subject matter—his sensitive treatment of the monumental subtlety of, particularly, the form of the animal—which can be witnessed in his small-scale sculptures and in his larger public art works. It is almost as if Viviano, though his invitation to totally visually encompass a small-scale model of a grand theme, strangely embodies Adolf von Hildebrand’s notion of “clarify[ing] things as if they were seen from a distance, to invest sculpture with a kind of fernsicht vision, that is, a kind of far, distant vision” (Varnedoe 157-8).

Viviano’s sculptures embody the grace of classical Greek art even further refined, such that his works are like living symbols—nearly mythical, ideal and spare.

Viviano was a key member in the league of artists enriched by the Illinois Sculpture Project of the 1930’s—a segment of President Roosevelt’s Federal Art Project. Barbara Bernstein relates the setting of this expansive development of American sculpture: “In a four-story studio building at 433 East Erie Street, sculptors from around the Chicago area joined painters, craftsmen, with various ‘assistants’ in the biggest experiment in state-subsidized art ever seen…” (Bernstein 1). For nearly a decade, Viviano and fellow artists were given a monthly allowance and space to cultivate their craft. Many works were exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, and many works, including those of Viviano, were put on permanent display in Chicago’s public spaces. The Federal Arts Project granted artists the opportunity to intensely develop stylistically and philosophically; Bernstein explains, “The Project made possible the creation of a vital and distinctive ‘native American’ art,” and artists used the “introspective national mood” of the Great Depression as a near-medium to shape and deepen their own works. Sadly, the Federal Art Project was eclipsed by the beginning of World War II, and many art works were buried in so-called “government surplus” in government warehouses; we owe much to Louis Cheskin, who salvaged over 150 works of art from these warehouses. The Cheskin Collection boasts many of Viviano’s works, including maquette (models) for grand monuments and fountains.

Art critic Mary Francis praised Viviano’s first one-man show in New York, writing, “Mr. Viviano has a true artist’s feeling for his medium. He knows wood and treats it with utmost skill and feeling. He is a natural experimentalist and in his combination of metal and stained glass he achieves unusually beautiful results. Architects and designers are very enthusiastic about his mosaics” (Bernstein 31).

How is it that Emmanuel Viviano, praised for his ‘true artist’s feeling’—a sculptor who exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago and created public works for Chicago’s City Hall (Protection), the popular Brookfield Zoo (Mountain Sheep and Tapir) and Jane Addams House (Animal Court), as well as various public schools and parks, has fallen into near-obscurity? Most internet searches aiming at finding images of his work only locate the tease of detailed archival lists or tidbits from journals from the mid-twentieth century; one must seek to envision configurations of, for example, his “brilliantly stained glass” which matched “the plumage of eagles and gamecocks” mentioned in a review of his work in Time magazine from 1955. I personally intend to take a field trip to visit and photograph the public art of Emmanuel Viviano in Chicago, and report back to you next week with my finds. Let’s celebrate once again this master sculptor.

Jessica Savitz

MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.

307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308

Chicago, IL 60601

Phone: (312) 814-8510

MIR Gallery, an online division of MIR Appraisal Services, Inc., is proud to showcase two original, sculptural works by Emmanuel Viviano, a Chicago-born sculptor, painter and printmaker. To view original Emmanuel Viviano sculptures in the MIR Gallery, please do email: or call (312) 814-8510.

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.

Bernstein, Barbara. Sculpture of the 1930’s Federal Art Project. Chicago: Rider Dickerson, 1979.

Read, Herbert. Modern Sculpture: A Concise History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1964.

Scheinman, Muriel. A Guide to Art at the University of Illinois. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1995.

Varnedoe, Kirk. Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

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    Welcome to our blog site! MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. is a fine art and personal property appraisal company dedicated to serving clients throughout the United States and abroad since our incorporation in Chicago in 1994. We specialize in the multi-faceted field of appraising fine art, jewelry, antiques, and decorative items. We also provide professional fine art restoration and conservation treatment for various media, including but not limited to, artworks on canvas, board, masonite, and paper. We offer professional and precise appraisal services carried out by our team of accredited appraisers for the purposes of insurance coverage and claims, charitable donations, estate planning and probate, equitable distribution and fair-market value. We started our art commentary blog site as a venue for colleagues and fellow art enthusiasts to share their experiences within the art community.