Teen Screens—Set in Stone

Take a look at American sculpture with Curator Thayer Tolles.

Narrator: What makes sculpture alive? What turns a block of stone into a living work of art? Much like people, sculptures become more dynamic when we know the stories behind them. In the Met's Engelhard Court in the American Wing, Curator Thayer Tolles shares three sculptures and their stories with us.

Thayer Tolles: This is Randolph Rogers's Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii. Rogers was actually basing the subject matter here on a phenomenally successful and popular book, and it had to do with this slave, Nydia, and her experiences trying to get out of Pompeii when Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79. Nydia was blind, and she's cupping her hand to her ear—which is a sign of her acute sense of hearing—so what she's doing is moving her way through the rubble-strewn streets. She was in love with her owner, but of course her owner loved someone else, and eventually she found them and she guided them to a waiting boat in the harbor, and they all got on the boat, and then eventually Nydia was so distraught about this love triangle that she threw herself overboard.

This is Hiram Powers's California. Powers intended this as a good-versus-evil allegory. His subject matter was—because this piece is called California—it's an allegory of place, so he intended this to represent the California gold rush, which started in 1849. So in her left hand she's holding a divining rod, which is a tool that miners used to find the gold. That not only serves a symbolic purpose, but it also crosses in front of her private regions, which is a good thing because people were very modest. It also leads the eye around the sculpture so you want to walk around it and look in the back, and what she's holding in her other hand is a bunch of thorns. So the moral here is that all that glitters is not gold.

This has always been a really enigmatic sculpture. It has to do with the physical nature of man versus the spiritual nature of man, and about how the figure that's lying on the ground is awakening—this is a spiritual figure—and has burst off this belt with a bat on it, and he's rising up and he's going to overtake the physical man. This is George Grey Barnard's Struggle of the Two Natures in Man.

Narrator: Engelhard Court is filled with stories like these that visitors can discover right from the Museum captions. Once only blocks of marble, these sculptures can tell us stories that bring them into life.

Written, directed, and edited by Valeria Crnjanski, Marisa Dolmatch, Seth Wolin, and Wendy Zhang as part of the 2010 Art and Film summer workshop for teens at the Museum.

This film was a collaboration between The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Film Academy.

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