the ideal busts of the Victorian parlor

LF_GOLBE_BUSTS_AP_001Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set:

The Victorian Age, by most accounts, was dirty and crowded and busy. It was an age in which nobility and refinement were greatly valued because they were so fragile. Ideal busts like those in the Corcoran Atrium were not made for museums or galleries. They were made for private homes, to be installed in the parlor. Sculptors like Hiram Powers could hardly keep up with the demand for ideal busts. Still, even as Powers churned them out, his ambitions for the busts were high. Powers called his sculptures “unveiled souls.” The ideal bust shed the body to reveal what was within.

Why did we create a form of sculpture that gives us only the head, neck, and shoulders? Perhaps it is because man is made of dust but pointed to the stars. Our heads drag our cumbersome bodies around town. We move hunched over, propelled by the weight of our thought-machines. We are mental locomotives. Only what rises above the shoulders is truly important. What lurks below the heart is dark and hidden. Our heads are the keepers of our brains and our eyes. Our bodies hold our inner stuff. Our motion may be in our legs but our dreams are in our skulls.

It seems natural that we would create a form of sculpture expressing this Cartesian inclination. A bust has just enough body to hold up the head. Nonetheless, a head alone will not suffice. A disembodied head evokes the guillotine and the sword. As a sculpted portrait, a simple head on a stick won’t do.

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