Hanson brilliantly reﬂected the blank expressions, boredom and fatigue of everyday life
From the bulge of lumpy thighs to the shock of illegal abortions, DUANE HANSON captured the look of 20th century America in SD. But what was his motivation? Words: Helen Monaghan
middle-aged couple standing in the centre of the
gallery are in fact sculptures. not people. A portly. balding male in Hawaiian shirt, checked shorts and a camera draped around his neck is looking up at something. His partner. her right arm clutching her left. does the same. but you sense she’s getting tired of all this sightseeing; she’d give anything for a cup of coffee and a sit down.
But there they stand. stuck etemally in the same position. sightseers forever. Tourists (1970) is one of the most seminal works of the late American artist Duane Hanson and one that has been housed at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh since 1979. But what makes them so real? Why do we double-take?
Unlike Madame Tussauds — rooms full of celebrities immortalised in wax — Hanson chose to make casts of the ordinary man and woman. Working with polyester resin. fibreglass and sometimes in bronze, he made casts of real life models to create uncannily realistic life-sized sculptures. He was meticulous in his attention to detail from the age-stretched elbows to lumpy thighs bulging beneath tight~ﬁtting trousers. He used real hair, specially selected clothes and he painstakingly painted the skin to emulate real flesh.
But primarily, it’s the facial expressions that give his sculpture the appearance of being real. ‘The best sculptures should look unposed and appear totally unobserved,’ he said. And that’s what he did. capturing the blank expressions, the boredom, the fatigue and the resignation that everyday life brings.
The touring exhibition Sculpture of Life. which opens at the National Gallery of Modern Art this month. is the sole UK venue for Hanson’s ﬁrst ever British museum show. Featuring 31 sculptures dating from the 1960s until shortly before his death in 1996. it’s one of the must-see shows of the season.
Born in Minnesota. 1925. Hanson was interested in ﬁgurative sculpture from a startlingly early age. One of his first ever sculptures was based on Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy and was made when he was only 13. From that precocious start. he went on to study in Seattle and Minnesota. before enrolling at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Michigan and graduating in 1951 with a master of ﬁne arts. He spent time teaching in America and Germany, which was where he tried to ﬁnd his style. He made a stab at abstract expressionism. but as he said: ‘I would try and do abstract work but I always put a bit of an arm or nose in it. I never could do just non-ﬁgurative work.’
His artistic breakthrough came in 1965. Although he is best-known for his sculptures depicting middle America. his early works reflected a period of political upheaval, from the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement to brutal street violence and the debate about Iegalising abortion. In 1956 he made Abortion in response to the number of Cuban doctors performing illegal, often fatal, abortions on young girls. Inspired by the work of George Sega], his provocative sculpture of a young girl covered by a sheet caused much controversy. but it was a statement he wanted to make.
In the spirit of the protest movement. subsequent hard- hitting works included War, Motorcycle Accident, Policeman and Rioter and Gangland Victim. With a growing reputation, mainly in his Florida home. he was urged by friends to approach galleries in New York. His move to the Big Apple in
N 0 one forgets their ﬁrst time: the realisation that the
LONELINESS CAPT URES THE REALITY OF LIFE FOR
1969 coincided with both a shift away from socially critical works and international recognition. ‘There was a great buzz in New York,’ says Wesla Hanson, Duane’s widow. ‘We lived in a loft in SoHo. Artists weren’t allowed to live in them because they were factory buildings, but we did. We had the whole ﬂoor of the building. Duane had his studio on one end and we lived in the other.’
During the four years until 1973 that Hanson and his wife spent in New York, he produced over 25 sculptures. Using friends and family as models — his wife was the model for Bunny - he created a panorama of American culture, the people so often overlooked. The pop art movement certainly inspired him, but he chose to represent typical Americans. He would look for a certain type or a gesture, the way a person was standing or was dressed, ranging from supermarket shoppers. cleaning ladies and sunbathers to artists, businessmen and construction workers.
‘Hanson was wanting to say that these people are worthy of our consideration as much as the glamorous and the beautiful,’ says Keith Hartley whose first purchase for the Galleries was the Tourists in 1979. ‘You get this in American pop art where artists are showing the advertising, TV culture, Hollywood side of things and Hanson was saying that this is the airbrushed side of America. It’s not what you see if you live in most American towns.’
He was making a comment simply in the choice of the ﬁgures he cast. In the 603. there had been many pressing issues he felt strongly about, resulting in some of his most powerful works, but once the turmoil of the 60s was over, he felt the most urgent demand was to present a picture of America as he saw it. ‘The subject matter that I like best deals with the familiar lower and middle class American types of today,’ he said. ‘To me, the resignation, emptiness and loneliness of their existence captures the true reality of life for these people . . . I want to achieve a certain tough realism which speaks of the fascinating idiosyncrasies of our times.’
Wesla Hanson concurs. ‘He was trying to express his feelings for his fellow man,’ she says. ‘It’s a hard world and most people have hard lives and do boring jobs, but they are still people that are important, and most of our society is made up of people like that.’
Duane Hanson was a master of realism, inspiring a generation of artists to come. But tragically, after years of working unprotected with substances that have since been banned. he contracted cancer in 1971. He died of the illness at the age of 70 in 1996. What he left behind is a body of work that, quite apart from the incredible verisimilitude, enlists our sympathy and empathy. He portrayed such a broad cross section of society that there’s sure to be at least one aspect of the sculptures that you will recognise in yourself.
Duane Hanson: Sculptures of Life opens at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Sat 14 Dec-Sun 23 Feb.
12 Dec 2002-2 Jan 2003 TH. LIST 17