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In November 1916 the Art Institute marked the appointment of an up-and-coming sculptor to its school’s faculty by placing one of his pieces on the city’s most prominent site–its own front steps. The statue, The Sower, by Czech immigrant Albin Polasek, already had an international reputation: Polasek had created the plaster model for it in Italy in 1912 as part of a prestigious Prix de Rome fellowship; in 1913 it had been cast in bronze and earned an honorable mention at the Paris Salon. It was a classical figure of a man caught in full stride as he scattered seed on the earth, a sort of Greek god Johnny Appleseed, seven feet tall, anatomically perfect, and totally nude.
There was an immediate uproar. According to the Chicago Journal of November 6, 1916, “A woman stopped in front of the Art Institute, took one look . . . and then rushed to a telephone” to call the newspaper, insisting that the “awful” statue be removed. Others fumed about its effect on innocent girls. Within days of its installation the newspapers were fielding letters and running editorial cartoons, noting that the controversy was attracting more local interest than the presidential election of that year.
The statue had its defenders–the art community stepped up to denounce the “prudery”–but the clout was on the other side, with deputy police superintendent Metellus Lucullus Cicero Funkhouser, head of the Chicago board of censors. Up to this time, Major Funkhouser (his rank was in the national guard) had busied himself bowdlerizing silent films and conducting raids on the city’s red-light district. Now–as recalled by Polasek’s wife Ruth Sherwood in her 1954 biography of him, Carving His Own Destiny–with local farmers objecting that they never worked without their pants, Funkhouser “ordered the trustees of the Art Institute either to supply the statue with the missing garment or some substitute, or to remove it from Michigan Avenue.” By December the statue had been moved inside, where it appeared briefly in an exhibit of Polasek’s work before disappearing into storage. An Art Institute spokesman says it was seen “infrequently” afterward, though it was taken out for the Century of Progress World’s Fair.
Polasek had a 34-year tenure at the School of the Art Insitute. His work was acquired by other major institutions, and three of his outdoor pieces can still be seen in Chicago: The Spirit of Music in Grant Park, the Masaryk Memorial Monument on Midway Plaisance, and a bronze bust of German critic Gotthold Lessing in Washington Park. He retired in 1950, following Sherwood, who’d been his student, assistant, and longtime companion, to Winter Park, Florida, where he built a home and studio, then suffered a stroke, and, at age 71, married her. (She died 18 months later.) In 1961, with his second wife, Emily Muska Kubat, he created a foundation, turning his home into a museum, and began buying back his work. He also ordered a second casting from the original plaster model of The Sower. The Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens now holds half of his lifetime output of 400 pieces, including the Chicago statue’s twin. Polasek died in ’65, Kubat in ’88. The Chicago Sower remained locked in a crate.
Then, about a year and a half ago, Roger Vandiver, the Botanic Garden’s sculpture curator, was talking over a business lunch with Stephanie D’Alessandro, a curator at the Art Institute. D’Alessandro had asked if the garden might be interested in a figurative sculpture. “We didn’t know of [The Sower’s] existence,” Vandiver says, and there were no precedents: the garden owns about 30 sculptures, but nothing like a classical nude. Still, he passed the query on to the garden’s sculpture committee, which was interested enough to take a look. In February 2004 its members gathered in a frigid warehouse where one side of The Sower’s crate had been removed, exposing enough of the figure–massive and black in the dim interior–to dispel any doubts. “It was overwhelming,” Vandiver says.
This summer The Sower will take up residence in the garden’s Esplanade, a formal area still under construction between the entrance and the soon-to-be-revamped Education Building. It’s a prominent location, and garden president Barbara Carr says that’s appropriate: “It takes us back to our origins” (the garden was founded at the Art Institute and originally housed there) and fits with the garden itself, “a 20th-century dream of nature perfected.” Carr says the old controversy over the sculpture’s nudity “was remarked upon, but nobody felt it would deter us from exhibiting it.” The gift was finalized in August; neither organization would say what the statue’s market value might be.
Last week Polasek museum
director Debbie Komanski rejoiced at the news that the Chicago Sower will soon be back on view. Like many small nonprofits, the Winter Park museum has been struggling financially. When three hurricanes hit it in a six-week period last fall, it seemed like too much, Komanski says: none of the sculptures on its three wooded acres were destroyed, but several were damaged, and there are repairs that still need to be done. In an effort to raise funds for that the museum was already in the process of creating its first collectible replica of a Polasek sculpture–an 18-inch version of The Sower. Now Komanski’s hoping they’ll stock it at the Botanic Garden’s gift shop.
The formal unveiling of The Sower in Glencoe is planned as part of the Esplanade’s grand opening in late June. But eager viewers can get an earlier look: the big boy, sprung from storage, has been wintering (along with some more familiar pieces of Chicago sculpture) with a conservator, where he’s getting a touch-up on his patina and a hot-wax treatment. He’ll still be there when the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio, at 900 S. Des Plaines in Forest Park, hosts an open house from 3 to 8 PM next Saturday, March 5.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen J. Serio, courtesy of the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens.