The Mannerist Aesthetics of Umlauf's "The Torchbearers"
Charles Umlauf's "The Torchbearers" is informed by Renaissance art in its handling of the human form, but it is identifiably a modern work. Depicting two muscled athletes clad in loincloths as they run a race, with their bodies frozen in flight as one passes an Olympic-style torch to the other, "The Torchbearers" is installed as part of a fountain on the southern side of the Flawn Academic Center, a testament to Umlauf's forty-year career teaching sculpture at the University of Texas at Austin. As a depiction of athletes in motion, Umlauf's work alludes to Classical Greek and Roman sculpture quite as unapologetically as the sculptors of the Quattrocento did. Yet Classical statues depicting athletes, such as the Discobolus of Myron, seldom invite an allegorical or symbolic interpretation, while "The Torchbearers" quite clearly does. Installed outside a gymnasium "The Torchbearers" would seem purely decorative, with no particular deeper meaning intended -- but its actual installation outside a central academic building invites the viewer to understand the sculpture as Umlauf intended, as a metaphorical depiction of one generation of students replacing the next. (We could even think of the two figures as depicting the Senior Class and the Freshman Class.) In his use of classical models, though, Umlauf already demonstrates himself to be an heir to Renaissance sculpture. This paper will explore the Renaissance origins of Umlauf's representational style by comparison with the works by older artists such as Michelangelo and Donatello, and will argue that just as the Renaissance eventually produced Mannerism, so does Umlauf's status as post-Renaissance representational art mean his work ultimately is best understandable in terms of later Mannerist distortion of Renaissance aesthetic ideals.
The architectural placement of "The Torchbearers" is already a clue to Umlauf's indebtedness to Renaissance sculpture. The rediscovery of Classical learning in the Renaissance -- including the architectural works of Vitruvius and mathematical and geometric works attributed to Euclid, Pythagoras and Archimedes -- reintroduced the "golden ratio" of Greece and Rome to both architecture and sculpture in work like Michelozzo's design for the Palazzo Medici in Florence. The archways of the inner courtyard of the Palazzo Medici observe these classical proportions precisely: in each of Michelozzo's archways here, the ratio of the archway's height to its width is equivalent to the ratio of its combined height and width to the height itself. The same proportions can, of course, be mapped onto the human form as well, and Umlauf positions his figures in such a way that, due to their bent legs and leaning in either direction, when they are viewed from the front (as intended) they too appear to fit the same set of proportions. Looking at the sculpture from the front, the square ornamental window on the Flawn Academic Center which hovers behind and above the statue provides the eye with an easy geometric point of comparison, and invites us to see the figures as filling a rectangular space defined by an aesthetic formula that was inescapable in the Renaissance.
If the influence of the Renaissance is palpable in even the proportions observed by the figures in "The Torchbearers," its way of representing the human form is further indebted. Comparison with Donatello's early Renaissance freestanding nude statue of David shows a number of similarities with Umlauf's work. Donatello's David does not depict anything in motion as "The Torchbearers" does, yet Donatello sculpts David with his left elbow projecting jauntily above his hip, his right arm bent at the elbow too as it rests on the sword's pommel, his head and chin turned ever so slightly to gaze upon the ground. All these same techniques for enlarging the space occupied by a human form are also utilized in "The Torchbearers," to less subtle effect. The limbs of Umlauf's two runners are all similarly bent at the joints just as Donatello's David is. Yet Donatello uses these slight curves to make his figure seem more natural, slightly coy in its angle toward the viewer. The insouciance of the cocked elbow on Donatello's figure shows how the angular flying-buttress-like position of the limbs in Umlauf was anticipated much earlier. In Umlauf, the curves are used to accentuate the unnatural nature of the forms: viewed from the side, the limbs seem to take up a massive amount of space, and the left-hand figure (the one taking the torch and pushing ahead, which indicates he is the Freshman rather than the Senior) in particular traces a long s-shaped curve from the toes of his left foot followed up the side of the leg and extending out along the right arm, which curves in to reach across and grab the torch. The motion in particular of the arm is reflected in the ripples of musculature that run down the backs of the two figures.
Of course there is a term for the extension of the natural forms of bent limbs in Donatello, as they expand in Umlauf's figures: this is most typical of the Mannerist artists who followed the "high Renaissance" of Michelangelo, coming much later. The distortions visible in Mannerist works like Parmagianino's "Madonna with the Long Neck" are entirely visible here, where the upper torsos of the two men seem extended even as the legs seem shortened. This is partly the positioning of the figures as Umlauf manages it, but the resulting effect is far more distortional toward the actual figures. We can see the way in which Renaissance ideals are rendered slightly more grotesque or "mannered" in Umlauf than they were in Renaissance sculpture by comparing these figures to Michelangelo's "Pieta." The form of Michelangelo's "Pieta" represents the application of strictly classical and realistic standards of representation where they had not previously existed: before the Renaissance, depictions of the mater dolorosa in three dimensions usually shrank down the size of Jesus, so that he fit comfortably on Mary's lap. This enabled the sculptor to not worry too much as to whether the statue would be used on Christmas or Easter: to a certain degree, it refused realism in the name of proportionality, for the realistic depiction of a woman with a corpse across her lap would extend too far and seem disjunctive. The gentle curves that Michelangelo adds to the limbs of his figures instead cause it to fill the space upwards as well as outwards, and manages to balance the figures perfectly into a sort of stable triangular construction, in which Mary's head on the Pieta looms much higher than anything else. Umlauf similarly structures "The Torchbearers" so that the torch itself, referenced in the title of the work, thrusts up directly, inviting the viewer to see the rest of the sculpture as delineating, in some way, the base from which this apex reaches. Viewed from behind, however, it is possible to see the two figures as also carving out an inverted pyramid -- both figures, after all, are each supported by a single foot, and Umlauf has brought these two grounded feet (the left foot of the Freshman and the right of the Senior falling back) together as the supportive base for the statue. It is possible to see the way the statue carves out a space starting from these two feet but broadening to include the huge shoulder-spans of the two side-by-side men, so that it seems to grow up and out organically. In this fashion, the exterior leg of the left figure seems distorted to a vast size, as though it were swelling outward to fill the space more completely.
In each of these comparisons with Renaissance originals, we may see that Umlauf utilizes a certain degree of distortion. The distortion of limbs that is seen in Mannerist paintings by Parmagianino or El Greco seems to affect these figures, which indeed look…