Many public sculptures are mistakes, very few are really successful. Given that permanent public sculptures are expensive due to the cost of materials like bronze and marble. Given that a sculptor creating public sculpture has to learn from experience the question must be asked who should pay for these public mistakes?
This question came up when I was examining the recent sculpture The More We Know 2013 by Melbourne sculptor, Michael Meszaros. It is located out the front of the entrance to the Medical Building at Melbourne University, near the corner of Grattan Street and Royal Parade.
The More We Know is about the advance of medical knowledge and it commemorates Melbourne Medical School’s 150th anniversary. It is the idea of a group of nine Melbourne Medical School alumni from 1972 who last year commissioned the sculpture from Meszaros. The sculpture represents progress in the increasing complexity of the figure including the gaps in the figures; the more we know the more aware of we are of the gaps in our knowledge.
The statue is not only expresses how medical knowledge, practice and technology evolve but also the evolution of Meszaros’ sculpture. The linked group of figures is a development from his earlier sculpture, further down Grattan Street outside of main entrance of the Royal Women’s Hospital. The figures go towards and away from the hospital; there is doctor with a stethoscope, a pregnant woman, a woman holding a baby, a nun like nurse, a woman with a nametag.
The profile faces in The More We Know are a development from metal outline profiles in Meszaros’ Distant Conversation, 1992 that once was in the lobby of the Telstra building. All of this far more complex than Meszaros’ earliest public sculpture in Melbourne, his 1978 realist figure of John Pascoe Fawkner at 447 Collins Street.
In 1979 in The Age the critic, Robert Rooney described Meszaros’ John Pascoe Fawkner (and its companion, Stan Hammond’s John Batman) as a “miserable pair of bronze nonentities”. Former Age art critic Peter Timms was more forgiving saying that it “shows a need for social coherence which we all desire; a sense of hierarchy and order. But I guess we all acknowledge that that’s not the reality anymore – so is sculpture the way to achieve it? I don’t know.”
Michael Meszaros (b.1945) is the son of the Hungarian born sculptor and medalist Andor Mészáros (1900-1972). Michael Meszaros studied architecture at Melbourne University before turning to sculpture. He is still working in the same studio in Kew that his father built. He is a former member of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council and was also instrumental in the original push for legislation to recognize the artists’ moral rights. Meszaros’s niece, Anna Meszaros is also a sculptor, notable for her fourteen relief sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross outside several of Melbourne’s inner city churches.
There are many sculptures by Michael Meszaros in Melbourne. There is his memorial to William Guilfoyle, curator from 1873 to 1909, a cluster of bronze sprouting seeds with large acorns at the Royal Botanic Gardens. His copper birds at 350 St. Kilda Road and the others that I have mentioned in this post.
I started writing this post with some sympathy towards Meszaros, not because I admired any his sculptures but I did appreciate his development over his 43 years of working as a sculptor. However I lost what sympathy I had when I read his public submissions to the federal Minister for the Arts Review of Private Sector Support for the Arts 2011. Meszaros’ submission exposes his anti-intellectual, conservative position and demonstrates that while he might be good at getting sculptural commissions ranging from small medallions to public sculpture he lacks training in both diplomacy and a greater understanding of the art world outside his own studio.
In the submission Meszaros complains about ephemeral artists, performance ‘sculptors’, sound sculptors, etc. claiming that they alienate the public. This raises the question if Meszaros’ own sculptures engage or alienates the public? I’ve never seen the public interact with any of his sculptures aside from people using the plinth of his figure of Fawkner as a seat. No one touches the sculptures even though they are at street level and no one takes selfies with them. Meszaros’ Telstra figures Distant Conversation, 1992, have been alienated from Telstra’s lobby and ultimately the from Telstra; the sculpture was finally acquired by Grollo Australia. Café tables in the lobby of 565 Bourke Street now surround his Rainbow, 1990. After a while his sculptures just fade into the background of the city and are ignored.
Meszaros complains in his submission that: “In may (sic) circles, commissioned artists are looked on as a lower form of commercialised life. By that definition, Michelangelo was a commercial sculptor.” In cherry-picking evidence Meszaros disdain of education meant that he didn’t realize the irony of this comment as Michelangelo found many of his commissions annoying.
To prospective clients each commissions looks like a triumph because they are not an absolute disaster. A sculptor working on commissions doesn’t have to rely on repeat customers, he just moves on to the next commission. In this way organizations pay for his development as a sculpture and have to live with his mistakes. That said; Michael Meszaros has built a reputation through commissions involving Melbourne University, for decades, he received commissions for portrait medals of retiring Melbourne University academics.