Getting Naked with Renoir, Rodin, and others

Before coming to Penn, Marsden-Atlass worked as senior curator of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and curator of American and Contemporary Art at the Chrysler Museum. Juggling her duties directing the Arthur Ross and as curator of Penn’s art collection has been smooth so far, she says, since both are “the same in a sense—it’s the love of the artwork.”

On this steamy morning in early July, she’s knee-deep in arrangements for her first exhibition as University curator—a show she says was inspired by the next stop on our campus art hunt: College Hall. About a year ago, well before she became curator, Marsden-Atlass stopped into the building to drop something off in the President’s Office. “I was admiring [Pierre-Auguste] Renoir’s Grande Venus,” she says as we enter the building, gesturing to where the sculpture sits to the left of the main staircase, “and then when I went into the president’s office, I was looking at the Standing Nana sculpture [by Niki de Saint Phalle]. I realized that these two great sculptures, both owned by the University, could make a wonderful exhibition, and that’s how the idea of the Naked show came about.”

To create Naked: The University Collection Unveiled, Marsden-Atlass has transported 35 depictions of unclothed subjects from their usual display cases, walls, and hooks around campus—inside College Hall, Van Pelt, and the Inn at Penn, among others—to the Arthur Ross Gallery, where they are on view until October 31. “My goal is to bring these pieces to light, some of which people may walk by on campus and not notice,” she says. “I want to present these in a new format so that people discover some of the University’s collection.”

The depth and breadth of Penn’s art holdings will be apparent in Naked, Marsden-Atlass adds. The show ranges from a statuette of Aphrodite from the first century BCE (a loan from the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) up through works by contemporary artists such as Marisol Escobar, three of whose lithographs are included in the show. “Our goal was to have a variety of media and a variety of subject matter,” Marsden-Atlass adds. “We tried to focus on the human body in all its forms—athletics, maternity, studies of movement and gesture. This exhibition is all about the body and how it’s been idealized or humanized over the years.”

For instance, there’s the Rodin piece in Steinberg-Dietrich mentioned earlier—Jean D’Aire, a figure study for the Burghers of Calais monument that the artist completed in 1889. The full-size sculpture serves as a historical monument of the Siege of Calais. “City heads were told to wrap the keys of the city around their necks and they would be sacrificed,” Marsden-Atlass says. “Rodin was trying to capture in each one of these individuals what goes on in a man or woman’s mind before they face their own death. I think that’s very interesting.”

After admiring Jean D’Aire’s posture and form, Marsden-Atlass is on the move again, across Locust Walk and Walnut Street to the Inn at Penn. “There’s a lot of Tait McKenzie work in the collection,” she’s saying as we climb the thickly carpeted stairs to the second floor. “His focus was on athletics and the human body, so if you go in the athletic building, you’ll see a lot of works by him as well, but there’s a treasure-trove of these works here in the Inn at Penn. He reminds me a lot of the gestures and study of [Edgar] Degas.”

There are a total of 178 McKenzie works throughout campus—including the young Benjamin Franklin sculpture outside Weightman Hall—and four of them will appear in Naked. These large numbers are perhaps unsurprising given the artist’s Penn connection. Robert Tait McKenzie was a physician, physical therapist and physical educator who served as the University’s first professor of physical education from 1904-1929, the J. William White Research Professor of Physical Education from 1931-37 and, after that, professor emeritus. He began creating sculptures to illustrate points in his anatomy lectures, and eventually devoted himself to the medium. He worked in a private studio at the top of Weightman Hall, and often used Penn athletes as models for his work. A fan of his “wonderful sense of movement and athleticism,” Marsden-Atlass will exhibit McKenzie’s sculptures Competitor (1906) and Flying Sphere (1920) along with his small studies for The Diver (1911) and Winner (1932).

Marsden-Atlass says the McKenzie and Rodin works are prime examples of her desire to “break away from the stereotype of the male artist” in Naked—that old belief that male artists are only interested in admiring and depicting the beauty of a woman’s body. To that end, the exhibition includes works by men of men, works by women of women, and men/women, women/men combinations, too. There are plenty of familiar names as well—artists whose works run the gamut in medium, time period, and subject matter: Amedeo Modigliani and Marc Chagall, Albrecht Dürer and Helmut Newton, Man Ray and Henry Moore.

The exhibition is “a great way for people to see all of these magnificent works,” she adds, “because not everyone comes into the director of the library’s office or Steinberg-Dietrich Hall or the Inn at Penn or the reception room of the vet school.”

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FEATURE: Art History Lessons by Molly Petrilla
Photography by Candace diCarlo

©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette

The statue of a young Ben Franklin arriving in Philadelphia is one of 178 works in the
University’s collection by sculptor and Penn faculty member R. Tait McKenzie,
whose studio was on the top floor of Weightman Hall.
Right: Mother and Child, by Henry Moore.

Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Grande Venus; Girl at Window, by Raphael Soyer;
Polyhedron Forms (Black Forest)
, by Robinson Fredenthal.

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©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 8/25/10