The sensational ‘Sower’

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on June 23, 2005.

A naked man extends his hands, casting seeds. Although it was inspired by a Bible verse, this 7-foot-tall bronze sculpture scandalized Chicago in 1916. After being hidden away in storage for decades, Albin Polásek’s statue has found a new home at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.

ALBIN POLÁSEK PACED HIS STUDIO, imagining that he was tossing seeds onto the floor.

It was 1912, and the 33-year-old artist, who was finishing up his sculptural training in Rome, was determined to create a statue capturing the essence of these lines from the gospel of Matthew:

“And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow.”

After he found the right pose, Polásek holed himself up in his studio for a long day of intense work. Using himself as a model, he switched between striking the pose and putting clay onto the large framework he had constructed.

Ruth Sherwood, a student and longtime friend of Polásek who married him in the later years of his life, described the scene in a biography, “Carving His Own Destiny: The Story of Albin Polásek,” based on interviews with the artist.

“By nightfall, he had what he sought,” Sherwood wrote. “The figure was all there, tense with life, sparkling with the spirit he wanted to express.”

Model search

But to capture all of the details, Polásek needed a model — “a man of heroic proportions.” He found his hunk at another artist’s studio. Sherwood’s book identifies the Italian model by one name only: Zochi.

Knowing that Zochi was in for a gruelingly long modeling session, Polásek promised to pay him double the normal rate for the first two weeks of work.

Everything went well until the third week, when Zochi didn’t like going back to lower wages.

“I will not accept such a contemptible sum,” he said, tearing up the lira notes and throwing them onto the floor.

Polásek clenched his fists and yelled, “Get out of my studio!”

The episode upset Polásek so much that he felt he never wanted to see the statue again. He wandered Rome despondently for the next two days.

As he was walking, he noticed Zochi lurking behind a tree. He thought Zochi was going to attack him, but instead the model apologized.

They soon resumed work on “The Sower.” In her book, Sherwood notes that Polásek and Zochi would “relax” during breaks by exercising and wrestling with each other.

After finishing the body of “The Sower,” Polásek struggled with the head.

At first, he wanted it to look like Christ, but the contrast between a “highly spiritualized” face and a “heroic torso” seemed too strange.

“Still,” Sherwood wrote, “he must make a head dominated by intellect and spiritual fire or he should have failed to deliver the message he intended to convey. Head followed head — he must have modeled at least 30 before he developed the strong yet spiritual head that dominates ‘The Sower.’”

Polásek’s was stunned when “The Sower” won an honorable mention at the Paris Spring Salon, the first of many honors it would receive.

Later, Lake Forest resident Arthur Aldis was impressed when he saw “The Sower” in an exhibit in Buffalo, N.Y.

In 1916, Aldis — a trustee with the Art Institute of Chicago — asked Polásek to become the head of the Art Institute’s sculpture department.

Polásek, a native of Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic) who had previously lived in the Midwest, accepted the job.

And on Nov. 2, 1916, “The Sower” went on display on the front steps of the Art Institute, part of a large exhibition of American painting and sculpture.

The bare facts

Although this realistic depiction of a bare man had not caused controversy anywhere else, it immediately prompted protests in Chicago.

“There’s a statue in front of the Art Institute that is awful,” a woman told the Chicago Journal. “The directors should be compelled to remove it.”

Chicago had its own official censor at the time — a police major named Metellus Lucullus Cicero Funkhouser, who lived in Evanston (at least at the time of his death in 1926).

Funkhouser took up the crusade to shield the naked “Sower” from the eyes of pedestrians and motorists on Michigan Avenue.

The controversy came at a time when Funkhouser oversaw the censoring of the cinema.

That same month, records show that the Film Review Board ordered certain scenes sliced out of the movie “Night Owls.” The offending scenes showed Charlie Chaplin “bumping a woman’s back.” Other movies that fall were banned altogether because they contained “exploits of bandits,” “details of a swindle,” “evil effects of sexual dissipation” and a bullfight.

Meanwhile, letter writers in the newspapers debated whether women’s skirt lines should be more than an inch above the ankle. So one can imagine the reaction to a statue of a man with exposed genitals standing along a busy street.

Some critics asked why a man sowing seeds in a field would be naked. Farmers wore clothes, didn’t they?

Chicago Tribune columnist Edward Goldbeck sarcastically replied, “The only answer to this question is a mass suicide of the sculptors if they don’t prefer to go into real estate.”

Goldbeck himself questioned Polásek’s artistic decision to depict the universal figure of the Biblical sower as nude, muscular man, but he dismissed the idea that the artwork was immoral.

“To the sculptor, the legs are the fact which is underlying the trousers,” he wrote. “If he is not allowed to examine, study and reproduce the human body, he will not be able to create even a dressed sower.”

“The Sower” was moved indoors for an exhibit of Polásek’s work in January 1917, then it reappeared in front of the Art Institute in 1918 for an exhibit with on the theme of food and gardens.

Controversy returns

Funkhouser raised a fuss once again, demanding on April 15, 1918, that the sculpture be moved indoors.

“I would like to know what would happen if a statue like this one appeared in front of a saloon,” Funkhouser told the Chicago Journal. “There are only about 5 percent of the inhabitants of this city who really know what art is. The statue itself is supposed to depict a man sowing seeds, but it seems to me that its only object is to show what is a perfect man.”

While arguing that Funkhouser had no authority over “The Sower,” Art Institute Director George W. Eggers caved in to pressure from the censor.

In a letter, he acknowledged Funkhouser’s “earnest and efficient efforts … in behalf of the morality of the city.” And even if nothing about “The Sower” was immoral, Eggers conceded that some people might misinterpret the statue’s meaning.

“Such misinterpretations in themselves … constitute a serious menace to morality and injure the cause of great art,” Eggers wrote. “We, therefore, in a genuine desire to cooperate with your department, will withdraw the statue if you still request us to do so.”

Polásek himself seemed amused, if wearied, by the controversy. A Chicago Daily News reporter interviewed the sculptor in the Art Institute’s basement. As Polásek took a break from sculpting to speak with the journalist, his fingers were stained with clay.

“(It) may be a good thing if they back up a wagon and take ‘The Sower’ away,” Polásek said. “If they take it away, that will be picturesque. People will talk. Then they will think. And at last they may realize fully the meaning I intended the statue to have.

“The meaning I had is this — I wanted people to see a perfect man going forward, striding ahead, progressing, and all the while sowing good seeds. That is how other cities that do not cry for trousered art interpreted my statue.

“But here, there are those who see only bad in it. That depends on their own minds. Such people can often go to an immoral theatrical show and do not object at all to things they see there. Funny, isn’t it?”

An enterprising reporter for the Chicago American — a little too enterprising — claimed to have interviewed the statue itself.

“I guess I’m Art, and this is the Chicago headquarters of art, and I should worry about a movie censor,” the sculpture supposedly said, adding, “My head’s made of a comparatively resilient material.”

Over the most of the decades since then, “The Sower” has been in storage at the Art Institute.

“It’s less due to the sensational aspect of it being a male nude, than the fact that it’s 7 feet tall,” Art Institute spokesman John Hindman says, noting that only 3 to 5 percent of the museum’s 260,000 objects are on display at any given time.

The sculpture was displayed from time to time, including 1927, when a Chicago Herald & Examiner essay described it as standing in the museum.

The last notable appearance of “The Sower” was the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago in 1934. Another naked individual, Sally Rand, probably attracted more attention with her notorious fan dance.

After retiring and moving to Winter Park, Fla., Polásek had another bronze of “The Sower” made from the original plaster cast in 1961. That duplicate is on display at the Albin Polásek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, the site of the artist’s estate.

Garden home

Now, the Art Institute has donated the original “Sower” to the Chicago Botanic Garden, which is unveiling it this weekend as part of its new Esplanade area. After being cleaned up by a restorer, it was moved into place last week.

The powerful figure of “The Sower,” its bronze skin darkened with an almost black patina, appears to be staring out at an expanse of green lawn. His legs are poised midstride. His left hand is extended forward with its palm up. His right hand, filled with seeds, is at his side.

The anatomically correct bronze towers larger than life — and yet it’s not gigantic, so that it seems plausible such a superman might actually exist. The contours of his muscular body look as realistic as any classic Greek and Roman sculpture. They are rendered with smooth surfaces rather than rough details like hairs and veins.

Roger Vandiver, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s sculpture curator, says the concept of a sower fits perfectly with the setting of the garden. The garden’s public-relations manager, Sue Markgraf, also noted that an exhibition hall near the statue will be converted into an educational center next year — a place where the seeds of learning will be sowed.

The controversies of 1916 may seem distant, but Vandiver acknowledges some people will still probably joke about the exposed body of “The Sower.”

Debbie Komanski, executive director of the Polásek Museum, says, “If you put it out on Michigan Avenue today, I imagine some people wouldn’t like it. Things haven’t changed that much.”

Such nudity is hardly anything new, of course. “How many centuries has Michelangelo’s ‘David’ stood?” Vandiver asks.

Vandiver believes visitors will be struck by the beauty of Polásek’s artwork once they get over any initial giggles.

“It’s a pure, unadulterated expression of the human form,” he says, “a robust expression of life.”

Top photo by Ninniane/Flickr