Chicago is a big place — 234 square miles. Not only is the city big, but there’s a lot of stuff in it: buildings, parks, statues. So nobody can be faulted for missing any one particular thing. No shame there.
So I was driving aimlessly around Washington Park Saturday, and passed Lorado Taft’s Fountain of Time, a 126-foot long tableau of 100 people plodding along from birth to doom, located at the west end of the Midway Plaisance.
I pulled over and put on my flashers.
Maybe you live on the South Side. Maybe you have passed this sprawling display all your life. Maybe, to you, not knowing about Fountain of Time is like not knowing there is a ballpark at the corner of Addison and Clark. You feel like giving a “harrumph” in superiority — go ahead, get it out. A key pleasure of city life is mocking the newbies. That’s what the whole ketchup-on-hot-dogs thing is really about: the joy of belittlement, harder to exercise nowadays without consequences.
The sculpture is so big it’s hard to photograph. An enormous pool of water with one figure — Father Time, obviously — contemplating the human parade. Huge, yet strangely unimpressive. Maybe I saw it before and then forgot. Parts of its facade are cracked, missing, streaked.
Blame the Art Institute for it being there, which approved money for the work in 1913, through its administration of the Ferguson Fund.
“Undoubtedly the largest undertaking ever attempted in sculpture” Taft said. It was supposed to be part of an even larger beautification scheme, a companion Fountain of Creation, just as big, slated for the other end of the Midway.
The effort was mocked from the start.
The Tribune, noting the sculptor’s “courage exceeds his discretion,” shuddered in horror at the tableau. New York papers jeered.
“Chicago, with all her naive errors, deserves nothing like that,” a critic sniffed.
Harriet Monroe, a few years from founding Poetry magazine, at first supported Taft in her newspaper column, but quickly questioned his “sculptoresque values” and appealed to the public to back her up. Derision flowed.
One painter found the work “better suited to a cemetery than a public pleasure ground.”
Another wondered why Taft was selected over, say, Rodin, faulting the application of “local standards” to a matter that should be decided using “world standards.”
The sculpture was to be made of Georgian marble. But complaints about aesthetics led to questions about expense. Stone would cost $300,000 and deplete the Ferguson Fund for years. Concrete cost $45,000. So concrete it was, studded with Potomac River pebbles, declared to be as “imperishable as bronze or marble.”
Only it wasn’t. A quarter century of harsh Chicago winters, not to mention vandalism, had the thing falling apart in chunks — noses were especially prone to go. “If you want to see the famous fountain, you’d better do it soon,” the Daily News cautioned in 1958.
The work was based, Taft said, on lines from a poem by Henry Austin Dobson:
“Time goes, you say? Ah no, Alas, time stays, we go.”
A statue dedicated to impermanence might seem a contradiction. Perhaps it’s fitting the work insists on continually crumbling, despite expensive efforts to repair and restore it.
The past is a gift: Without the knowledge of our forebears, we’d be naked apes living in caves, lazing in the sun and eating berries. (Hmmmm ... doesn’t sound half bad, does it?) But the past also imposes a burden. I’ve just been gazing over Taft’s oeuvre, and while I’m not expert enough to declare him a mediocrity, and would never do that anyway, lest some grandson come raging out of the wings to defend his ancestor’s honor ... let’s just say that, to me, in my personal opinion, Loredo Taft is a master class in how good Augustus Saint-Gaudens truly was.
Maybe Taft offers a message to future artists: Better to concentrate on creating one finely wrought figure than toss off 100 so-so ones.
Taft, to his credit, sensed he had done a botch job.
“If I have failed, it is my own fault,” the sculptor admitted, at Fountain of Time’s dedication on Nov. 15, 1922. Well, his, and the Ferguson Fund’s. I contacted the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to see if a big centennial bash is planned. They remain silent, which I will take as a “No.”