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The Spirit Whispers: Remembering the Woodstock Sculptor Alfeo Faggi, Pt. 2

By Bruce Weber


Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Scenes from the Life of St. Francis,

Modeled 1930, cast 1931

Bronze

Art Institute of Chicago

Donatello (1386-1466)

Madonna of the Cloud, c. 1425-1435

Stone and marble

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Man of Sorrows, 1936

Charles H. Hutchinson Monument,

Graceland Cemetery, Chicago

Ernst Barlach (1870-1938)

The Death, 1925

Bronze

Ernst Barlach House

 

Most of Alfeo Faggi’s sculptures are religious in subject and spiritual in nature. Many were created for churches and university chapels. The artist would only begin a new piece after he had fully worked out his idea or conception. Then he felt inwardly free to eliminate details that he considered unnecessary. He believed in the value or worth of the spiritual imagination. Faggi said “The spirit whispers, never shouts. The true artist wrests anew each day against the death of the spirit.”[1] In addition to Giotto, Faggi was strongly inspired by Etruscan art, the art of the middle ages, and the sculpture of Nicola Pisano, Donatello, Wilhelm Lehnbruck and Ernst Barlach.

Unknown Photographer

Frances Crane Lillie, n.d.

Gelatin silver print


Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Stations of the Cross, 1922

Bronze

Church of St. Thomas the Apostle

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Installlation of Three

Stations of the Cross,

Executed in 1922,

Installed in 1924

Church of St. Thomas the Apostle


During his first years in Woodstock, Faggi created most of his series of Stations of the Cross for the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle in Chicago. The series was commissioned by the local Illinois art patron Frances Crane Lillie, who was a major supporter of religious art. In addition to Faggi she commissioned religious work from among others the Frenchman Andre Derain, the Japanese Foujita, and the Woodstock painter William Emile Schumacher. Crane believed that “our religious ideals are the greatest gift we can offer the artist, after his daily bread. In return he will give us religious art, individual to him and to us, and perhaps fundamental to most simple communities.”[2] Lillie prized religious art’s goals of turning hearts and minds toward the spiritual, and of seeking to conger the beauty of heavenly ideals. Faggi and Lillie probably met at Hull House, which Lillie helped establish and where she was active for many years. Lillie was married to Dr. Frank R. Lillie, an eminent biologist who served as dean of biological sciences at the University of Chicago.

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Pieta, 1916

Plaster

Church of St. Thomas of the Aposte

 

In 1916, Lillie had commissioned Faggi to create a war monument for the Church of St. Thomas’s the Apostle. Faggi explained that his pieta was born of a vision that came to him upon remembering when a handsome cousin of his of about 10 became gravely ill and died following an operation, after which he witnessed the boy’s mother clutching his body as if she was trying to absorb her son into her being.[3] In this large and monumental work, the dead Christ lies in the arms of his mother, whose spirit remains unbroken. The sculpture is remarkable for its depth of feeling, striking architectural lines and unity of design and structure.

 

During his early years in Woodstock, Faggi created most of his work on his series of Stations of the Cross. His studio at this time was on top of Ohayo Mountain, an outgrowth of his belief that there was a natural connection between mountain air and creative inspiration. He struggled for three years in Woodstock to complete these masterpieces of modelling in closely carved planes in relief, which are marked by a gentle pathos and a Giotto-like simplicity of design and directness. Faggi’s method "was to steep my mind and spirit in the tragic theme sequence and extract from these an essential spiritual truth, simultaneously imagining and composing the plastic equivalents. . . with a simple, harmonious design, I tried to express the very heart of each of the Stations.”[4]

Interior, Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Chicago, 1924

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Stations of the Cross, 1922

Church of St. Thomas the Apostle

Installed in 1924

Alfonso Ianelli (1885-1965)

Music Relief,

Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, 1924

William Emile Schumacher (1870-1931)

Mary as Sorrowful Mother, 1925

Church of St. Thomas Apostle, Chicago

William Emile Schumacher (1870-1931)

Joseph on the Flight to Egypt, 1925

Church of St. Thomas Apostle, Chicago

 

Upon its installation in 1924, the series of 14 works was considered to be revolutionary in terms of modern religious art. Early observers did not know what to make of it, and the clergy of the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle was fearful of opening the church following the installation. This stunning building was designed by Francis Barry Byrne, whose architectural career began in 1902 when as a 19 year old he saw a photograph of a building by Frank Lloyd Wright in a magazine and marched into Wright’s studio – without any experience, or even a full high school education – and talked his way into a job. The exterior façade of the church is adorned with terra cotta by Alfonso Iannelli, and the interior features stained glass windows designed by Valentine d’Ogries. The Woodstock artist William Emile Schumacher’s paintings of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph are installed at the rear of the nave.

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

13th Station of the Cross, 1922

Bronze

Church of St. Thomas the Apostle

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Portrait of Ellen Gates Starr, c. 1920s

Bronze

Hull House Museum

 

Ellen Gates Starr of Hull House wrote an appreciation of the Stations of the Cross for a publication celebrating the dedication of the church. Starr was a friend of Faggi’s and the godmother of one of Frances Crane Lillie’s daughter’s. She was also the subject of a portrait by Faggi that remains at Hull House. Starr wrote eloquently about the series. In response to the 13th station, for example, she noted that “what the Christian sculptor has here felt, to the exclusion of other thoughts and feelings, is the universal motherhood of Christ’s mother. The mother of the world. She is conceived of sorrowing infinitely for her own Son, and sharing in the sorrow of all motherhood, and so she seems larger than human to symbolize the greatness of the world’s sorrow and hers.”[5] In addition to his set for the church, Faggi created smaller sized sets in plaster which were sold commercially.

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Scenes from the Life of St. Francis,

Modeled 1930, Cast 1931

Bronze

Art Institute of Chicago


In the 1930s. Lillie commissioned Faggi to create a door featuring scenes of the life of St. Francis, which she donated to the Art Institute of Chicago. The artist admired St. Francis for his philosophy of nature and love of flowers, birds, the ocean and sky. He composed the door according to a vision he had of St. Francis in which he imagined him resembling a tree with long branches shaken in the wind. As a source for the composition he turned to Giovanni Pascolo’s poem about Paolo Uccello, in which he describes his dream of St. Francis of Assisi with his arms raised in blessing to all creatures.  Lillie also commissioned Faggi to design doors with scenes from the life of St. Joseph for St. Joseph’s Church in Woods Hole, and of Dante for Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.

 

Faggi suffered through the years of the Great Depression. In the early 1930s financial difficulties led him to open his studio to private students. It was at this time that the young Woodstock sculptor Tomas Penning likely sought him out as an instructor. During this bleak period he continued, however, to be highly regarded. In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art acknowledged Faggi’s talent and importance by inviting him to be one of just 34 sculptors represented in an exhibition celebrating three centuries of American art held that summer at the Jeu de Paume in Paris.



In the ensuing years Faggi’s religious works were occasionally singled out for reproduction in the Liturgical Arts Quarterly. The magazine was published by the Liturgical Arts Society out of offices in Concord, New Hampshire and New York City. During its forty years existence the periodical was internationally respected among artists and scholars associated with the liturgical movement, and grew to become a dominant force in religious art and architecture. The magazine brought together artists, architects, theologians and liturgists to form new and creative options for contemporary religious expression. The writer John Douaire remarked that the society brought “to an end, by means of a direct achievement, the absurd divorce which for the past century had separated the Church from living art.’”[6]

Unknown Photographer

Alfeo Faggi, c. 1930

Gelatin silver print

 

Following his wife Beatrice’s death in 1943 of Parkinson’s Disease, Faggi became something of a recluse. Anita M. Smith wrote that after the death of his wife he “stripped living requirements to the minimum [and now led] a Spartan life with work and the inspiration of Dante.”[7] By 1950, Faggi had so completely retired to his studio that many people did not realize that he was still alive. That year he briefly emerged as the result of a show at Weyhe Gallery in New York City of a group of free-standing sculptures and bas reliefs in plaster and bronze. Faggi died in Woodstock in 1966 at the age of 81 - it is time for a renewed appreciation of his art.

 

[1] Anita M. Smith, Woodstock History and Hearsay (Woodstock, New York: WoodstockArts, 2006), p. 190. Originally published in 1959.

[2] Jane A. McLaughlin, “The Angeles Bell Tower, and Mary Garden in Woods Hole,” p. 3. No further information known about publication which appears to have been published by the Woods Hole Historical Museum. For a copy of the article see

[3] Richard Thibaut, Jr., “Faggi’s Pieta Inspires Blind Chicago Mother,” Kingston Daily Freeman, February 25, 1952, p. 11.

[4] Faggi is quoted in “Notes on the Life and Work of Alfeo Faggi,,” The Art of Alfeo Faggi (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University, 1953), n.p.

[5] Starr is quoted in McLaughlin, p. 6. The quote appeared in the booklet prepared for the dedication of the the Stations of the Cross at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in 1926.

[6] John Douaire, “Pilgrimage to Assy – An Appraisal (‘Note by Father Couturier’),” Liturgical Arts 19 (February 1951): 30.

[7] Smith, p. 190.

 

 


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