The Wrestler by Dudley Talcott
Originally created in 1929 by Connecticut-born sculptor Dudley Talcott, The Wrestler is a testament to the power of the modern age. Nearly a century after its creation, its imposing presence is potent enough to earn itself the position as the symbol for the Florida International University Wolfsonian Art Museum. At nearly seven feet tall, the aluminum sculpture is oddly comforting.
Its blend of a few key human features and a featureless facade gives it a quality of quiet strength, softening its powerful bulk.
It seems only fitting that such an ominous figure of peaceful might would be displayed at the Olympic games in Los Angeles three years after its creation. This piece of art is one of subtle meaning, leaving it open to a variety of apt interpretations. Dudley Vail Talcott was born in 1899 into an artistic and encouraging family. He was supported in his artistic endeavors instead of being pushed to adopt a more commercial career. Talcott studied briefly at Yale University but never earned a degree.
He opted instead to travel, attending open classes at Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris before traveling to Norway. Alcott spent his time in Norway exploring Norwegian fjords by canoe and working on a North Sea fishing boat. He later published two books documenting his experiences replete with his own drawings and photographs. By 1927, Talcott was exhibiting his work in New York and Chicago. He quickly gained repute as America’s premier sculpture, creating works in his own distinct style but still showing signs of more traditional approaches.
By this point, Talcott was being commissioned for large-scale installations such as fountains while working on smaller pieces of a more personal nature. The Wrestler, one of his earlier works, already showed distinct signs of Talcott’s style. The 1920s saw American artists being presented with competing mediums in which to express visual modernity. Modern applied arts of French influence were the modes of choice for architects and interior designers. Many sculptors chose to create works based on pre-classical Greek figures; this refers to the rendition of the human form in expressionless poses and facial features.
Being born on the heels of the industrial revolution, Talcott was caught up with the rest of the country in the wave of awe and wonderment that came with experiencing such a radical change in the cultural and economic landscape. The advent of the automobile and the plane physically changed the American landscape. Jazz, considered to be one of the truly American art forms, was born shortly followed by the invention of the radio. Home refrigeration as well as penicillin, a cure-all antibiotic, was changing the way of life on the home front.
Modernism, an artistic philosophy founded on the breaking of traditions and the abandonment of convention, was increasingly becoming less of a philosophy and more of a reality. Modernist art is characterized by sleek, minimalist design. It forgoes extravagance and ostentatious splendor for subtle elegance. A bloom in popularity of science fiction, introduced by films such as Metropolis, had introduced robots into popular culture and fueled an already rampant wonder of new technology. Talcott fused all these modernist ideas into The Wrestler.
His faceless visage and geometric musculature are reminiscent of an automaton, yet the inclusion of ears, nipples, and male genitalia humanize what might have been an otherwise cold form. This humanization of his sculpture is evocative of nude Greek figures in the pre-classical eras. The use of aluminum as a medium allows Talcott to express a sense of futurism through material alone. Though it is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, it did not become commercially available until the early nineteenth century.
It was initially isolated in 1845 but until the early 1900s was only used for small applications, most notably jewelry. Once techniques were developed to produce aluminum in industrial quantities, it becomes something of a wonder material for engineers. Its durability, relatively low density, and resistance to corrosion made aluminum ideal for architectural and aviation applications. Its resistance to corrosion and ductility in particular made it apt for public sculptures and architectural ornaments.
Frank Lloyd Wright, acclaimed architect and modernist, is credited by some sources as being the first to use aluminum as a decorative medium in architecture in his design of the walkway of the Polk County Science Building of the Florida Southern College. The esplanade features tapered aluminum columns that give the appearance of mechanical function. Each column is divided into three sections that give the illusion that they can retract and extend. This esplanade reflects modernist appreciation for the aesthetic appeal of the machine.
Combined with its robotic form that is only vaguely human, The Wrestler is a tribute to the power of progress. Talcott entered The Wrestler in the Sculpture division in the arts portion of the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Arts competitions based on sports-themed works were a part of the Olympic games from 1912 to 1948. This portion of the Games was discontinued due to concerns about amateurism and professionalism. The competition had divisions for music, literature, painting, architecture, and sculpture. In context of the Olympic games, The Wrestler can take on meaning in addition to the modernist ideals it embodies.
It can be argued that in removing some of the distinguishing features of the form, this statue transcends humanity. In spirit with the Olympics, it is free from some of the unavoidable evils of the human experience such as political, religious, and racial prejudice. The choice of athletic event depicted also adds another layer of meaning. Wrestling is classically a sport of control, as opposed to outright dominance. This sense of control refers to more than just control over one’s opponent; it also refers to control oneself. An effective wrestler is equal parts brute and master strategist.
A match can be said to resemble a game of chess played with the limbs. Many eastern cultures and the predecessors of our own western culture, the Greeks, valued wrestling as a means of transcendence and self-discovery. The Greek philosopher Plato, a wrestler himself, saw the sport as a means to keep the balance between intellect and brawn while simultaneously experiencing a microcosm of human existence. American anthropologist Clifford James Geertz noted in his study of Indian culture that they view wrestling as “a story they tell themselves about themselves….
When in the competitive pit, a wrestler stands alone as the distilled essence of his way of life. He stands alone with his own background, his own unique history of success and failure, his own strength and skill, and his own style and technique. ” Indians collectively believed being a wrestler was as much a description as a title. They revere not only the competitor as a champion but as one who has “lived up to the ideals of a rigorous life,” implying that wrestling goes beyond the barrier of recreation and ventures into creed.
It can be said it is viewed as a religion without a formal doctrine, something existent in all cultures in some form or another. Dr. Jospeh S. Alter, sociocultural anthropologist and professor of medical anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, stated in a similar study focusing on the symbolic meaning of the body in the practice of North Indian wrestling, “When in the competitive pit, a wrestler stands alone as the distilled essence of his way of life. He stands alone with his own background, his own unique history of success and failure, his own strength and skill, and his own style and technique. We find the paradoxical nature of life mirrored in wrestling: despite requiring the presence of an opponent and being a custom that spans across every culture, wrestling is a solitary practice. In light of this new meaning, The Wrestler can be seen as representing humankind’s control over its future through the balance of intellectual progress and unbridled force. Furthermore, The Wrestler is an icon of the solidarity of the modernist movement. Without centuries of precedence and influence to rely on, a subculture of artists devoted to testing preconceptions had charged themselves with creating things that until then had never been.
One could argue that modernists influenced the establishment of existential philosophy for the very reason that they were the first to strip themselves of their preconceived notions and were completely free to create as they saw fit. The Wrestler can serve as an allegorical figure for the modernist movement as a whole. Modernists stand alone in the proverbial ring, alone with their opponent (convention and classical conformity) with nothing but their own skill, style, and technique. A similar ideal is embodied by the sculpture that took the silver that year.
Wrestling, by Hungarian sculptor Miltiades Manno, depicts two wrestlers in the heat of combat. While The Wrestler is more of a stoic figure of progress and strength, Wrestling is extremely detailed. Each facial feature is carved into an expression of exertion and each muscle is anatomically accurate. This sculpture is an example of a neo-classical Greek figure. Historically, these figures are more expressive and much more anatomically correct due to a better understanding of the human body; the increasing realism of the sculptures coincide with medical advancements of the era.
In contrast to Talcott’s piece, Manno’s statue is a more literal depiction of the sport it is based on. A portrayal that is more analogous in meaning to that of The Wrestler is the portrayal of Jacob’s wrestling match with God. In this rendering, the match is an allegory for the triumph of man (in this case) over a higher power. He is left permanently handicapped from the match implying that, though it is possible to prevail, there are severe consequences in wresting command from those above us; we are to allow ourselves to be controlled as opposed to taking control of our lives ourselves.
The sentiment behind The Wrestler is that humankind is in control of itself. Though similar in the use of wrestling as a metaphor for control, the two depictions differ in their ultimate meaning. Another work of Talcott’s, his monument to renaissance astronomer Copernicus, is also closely related in significance to The Wrestler. The monument features a modernist representation of the heliocentric model, the sun symbolized by three interlocking discs and the Earth’s orbit symbolized by a sixteen-foot ring. At its time, Copernicus’ heliocentric model was innovative.
It was a widely held belief that the Earth was the center of this solar system. It seems fitting that a modernist would be the one to commemorate Copernicus’ revolutionary concept. As with all things, ways of seeing The Wrestler have changed with time. Aluminum is no longer a new and futuristic material. Robots and advanced technology are now commonplace. Most people do not even leave their houses without a cell phone, a device that would have been more science fiction than nonfiction to people of the 1920s.
Without the novelty of a new material and style, this statue is still a poignant testament to the enduring character of the human spirit. The Wrestler stands proud and resolute; his broad shoulders and intimidating musculature are symbolic of the force of willpower. It is this willpower that fueled the scientific and cultural progress that was so idolized by early nineteenth century modernists and subsequent artistic movement such as post-modernism. In regards to my personal reaction to this piece, to say that I was moved by this piece is a severe understatement.
As a wrestler myself I have always found competition to be a exercise in both physical and mental faculties far surpassing the development of body and mind separately. In fact, I’m a firm believer that the most valuable gains from a life spent wrestling have nothing to do with athleticism. Once my body loses its ability to handle the demands of this sport, I will not miss it. When that day comes my mind will still retain its ability to strategize at the capacity I have trained it to do so.
I will still have the iron will to turn my goals and aspirations into inevitabilities. I will still be able to grapple with the foes of peace and tranquility in my life and overcome them with ease. I will still be a wrestler. This is a sentiment shared by anyone that has ever defined him or herself through this sport. The fact that this piece uses wrestling to convey such a complex and layered message stirred up these emotions in me; I have been on a hiatus from actively competing due to several orthopedic injuries so these feelings have lay dormant until recently.
Tascott’s use of wrestling to convey his point struck a chord in me, allowing me to relate to the concepts presented in his despite my birth being over sixty years after these ideas were relevant. I think it is his appeal to basic constituents of the human condition, though, that arrests the attention of what would be an otherwise oblivious passerby. I believe this is the reason it was selected to be the symbol of the Wolfsonian museum. It is intimidating yet approachable; it is simple yet alluring, cold yet inviting. To borrow a line form Winston Churchill, The Wrestler is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. ”