Learn about Life in the 1920s

A Pioneer in the Fantastic and the Grotesque

PIONEER in the fantastic and the grotesque, is what Henry McBride, the art critic, calls Renee Prahar, the sculptor.

And a New York gallery is showing so much of her work as to support the attribution. Of course we have had sculptors who have essayed the grotesque "in more or less clandestine fashion," as Mr. McBride admits; but from the amount of her product in this particular field—the result, we are told, of five years of work—Miss Prahar has taken a field all to herself. Leaving out of account a few portraits, which, by the way are far from conventional sculpture. "there is a strain of the fantastic in all her decorative work," and it is this, says Mr. McBride, "that makes me look with expectation upon her career." We need grotesques in America, asserts this critic in his introduction to the catalog: "we need the fantastic touch, we need the spirit of play in order to have an art." It is a thing, he thinks, that our war-ridden peoples are asking tor "and for God's sake quickly—a little play!" Something more he finds necessary to say in order to make clear this lack among us:

"Meredith was right in putting a high and intellectual value upon comedy and in judging society by the kind of comedy it inspired. Ruskin lived just long enough to have seen the grotesques that add a peculiar glory to his own epoch, those of Aubrey Beardsley, but there is no hint that upon his deathbed he reversed his opinion (which was a fear of the grotesque; a fear even of play)."

Mr. McBride is "not so surprized that Miss Prahar should do grotesques as that this form of expression should be so late in arriving in America," for—

"The conventional methods and restrictions of the usual sculptors are so foreign to her style that one might imagine she had never heard their language, but in reality she has been subjected, as they have, to the influence of the Paris art schools. The fact is she has an exploring mind as well as a quick one. A theme suggests itself instantly to her in some peculiarly individual material. Mrs. Cyril Hatch's portrait, a lead intaglio set in ebony, has such unexpected lights, due to its treatment and material, that the most Ruskinian observer is forced to take it with Latin playfulness. The Baroness de Meyer in fasceted red marble is possibly cubistic but certainly like the lady, and certainly amusing. Madame Nazimova appears twice in Miss Prahar's collection, and in the fantastic version appears her livid best. But the pewter, silver, black basalt, colored marbles and carved wood of Miss Prahar, that seem so original to her American contemporaries brought up upon Carrara pur et simple, pale beside a series of rooms that are now being shown tor the first time. These will he the true test of the capacity of New Yorkers for playfulness. Certainly they would have entertained Wagner's orginal friend, the late King Lndwig of Bavaria, who went far along the road to satirical expression, before his own little society blew up. The entrance hall. for instance, is a 'Monkey Room' in purple, blue and cerise with carved monkeys in control of all the flttings. The novel fireplace is arranged so that a thin curtain of water falls in front of the fire into a pool that, reflects the names. Startling? Don't be provincial! Remember that the war is over and we are at the beginning of a new period. The andirons it should be noted, are rusty iron monkeys, prodigiously clever, and worthy of the best traditions of the Japanese.
"The 'Breakfast Room,' which is ablaze with brilliant enamels, upon a, golden ground boasts also a 'new' fireplace, in which water descends over the surface of the side carvings of the mantel and again forms a pool before the fire. The decorations in this room are from bird motifs, reliefs of flamingoes, and other feathered creatures dear to the colorists. . . . The third is a 'Music Room' decorated with panels in relief, illustrating 'L'Apres-midi d' un Faune.' Miss Prahar was inspired by the famous production of the Ballet Russe, which, however, she has not followed literally—but then. neither did Debussy follow Mallarme's text, nor did Diaghilef stick literally to Debussy. Amer- icans, after they got safely over their first uncertainties in regard to the joyous paganism of this ballet, loved it; and the free in mind and pure at heart will again enjoy it in Miss Prahar's panels. It is intended ultimately that the panels be carved in wood—hence the amusing treatment of the trees; and the lighting which is dramatic, is doubtless a fruit of Miss Prahar's own experiences in the theater.
"Miss Prahar was on the stage nine years. For four years, she played leading ingenue parts with the late Richard Mansfield, taking that famous actor's last 'curtain' with him. Even during this stage of her career, however, she had sculpture in mind, and was constantly doing plastic sketches for the amusement of her fellow artists."


The idea of the monkey room is bizarre enough to make the ordinary person cling for safety to his Ruskin before he lets go and swings out on the branch with Miss Prahar's favorites. Perhaps Marion Storm, writing in the New York Evening Post, will be an added help to the timorous:

"Nothing could seem stranger in description—to prove so beautiful when seen—than the 'monkey room,' one of three interiors which will form part of an exhibition of her works, to take place soon. Miss Prahar is very fond of monkeys, and of all animals. She returns from Bronx Park with keen memories of their decorative possibilities, and thereupon preserves them in limewood, painted in brilliant cobalt, as the dominant theme of an entrance hall. Brooding blue monkeys on columns stand at the door. One crouches over to hold a gorgeous purple lamp-shade, gazing down on a simian brother below. The blue monkey motive rules a striking fireplace. The walls of the room are in cerise. Yet the effect is a peaceful one—slumberous, rich, tropical.
"Despite their cobalt complexions and lively nature, the monkeys are not at all intrusive. They provide the sidelights, the console table, the andirons, shovel, tongs and poker, but the most original members of the troupe are the twenty-seven little monkeys that edge the mantelpiece. They carry out a charming idea of Miss Prahar's own—the combination of water and fire in interior decoration. From their mouths pour little jets of water, which, crossing one another before the flames, produce tiny rainbows and fascinating play of colored lights as they drop into a blue trough that is placed in front of the hearth, where the fender would be.
"Water and fire are harmonized in different fashion in the 'bird room,' for here the fountain fireplace is done in glowing yellow, with strange birds that never dwelt on land or in air, standing on either side and looking as tho they were sleepily hoping for their prey to arrive in the veil of water that falls slowly down past these panels, to catch the firelight as it lies in the hearthstone pool. Birds and dragonflies in green, deep blue, vermilion, and orange, enjoy themselves on the window boxes. The golden and orange bird room is as vivid as the hall of monkeys is somnolent. . . .
"When, in war time, Miss Prahar was asked to do a statue to be sold for the soldiers, she did not choose a portrait or any theme profound and sad. She did a group of monkeys and they were greatly appreciated. She can remember tiger and monkey anatomy, and does not require the living models in her studio, which would be inconvenient.''

In her decorative ideas, says the New York Times art critic, Renee Prahar "belongs to the present moment, which means that she harks back to the eighteenth century for monkey and parrot themes and interprets them in color of Bohemian intensity." Adding:

"It might not be pleasant for a lady from Woollett, Mass., to breakfast daily in the little orange-and-yellow breakfast room with its fountain fireplace and bathing birds, or play even her Debussy in the music room with its galloping fauns, but Woollett, Mass., is a very small spot on the American map to-day; and the important thing about Miss Prahar's decorations is that she shows how an interior may be harmonized with architecture on the one side and fabrics on the other by means of polychrome sculpture. Also, her treatment of material is interesting. By her repeated polishings she has given a portrait in lead the moonlight glow of old pewter. And her marbles have variety due to the legitimate devices of cutting and polishing."

Source: Literary Digest - Februray 18, 1922