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Firescreen: Cocks and Crows

Photo: Paul Macapia

Firescreen: Cocks and Crows

ca. 1930

William Hunt Diederich

Born Szent-Grót, Hungary, 1884; died Tappan-on-Hudson, New York, 1953

Sculpture has been too long an affair of marble and bronze. It is too remote, too inaccessible. We must do everything possible to extend its scope and appeal, to insure for it a wider, more popular acceptance.

William Hunt Diederich, 1920

William Hunt Diederichknown simply as Hunt Diederichdefied the conventions of traditional sculpture. He made sculpture of common household objects and worked in utilitarian materials, such as sheet metal and wrought iron. His favorite subjects were not heroes of myth and history but animals, whose antics enchanted him. The techniques Diederich favored seem as simple as child's play, especially his cut silhouettes in both paper and sheet metal.

This firescreen by Diederich was one of the first objects purchased for the new Seattle Art Museum when it opened in 1933. It was acquired then not as a work of sculpture but as a functional objecta fireplace screen for the museum's trustees meeting rooma kind of object for which Diederich was then quite well known and admired. The Seattle Art Museum was among the first public institutions to purchase Diederich's work. Dr. Richard Fuller, the museum's founding director, recognized the value of having Diederich's artful objects in an art museum. Dr. Fuller's fondness for well-designed objects, in both Asian art and contemporary American architecture and design, was behind the acquisition of this and other Hunt Diederich sculptures for the museum in 1933.

Let's explore the life and work of this unconventional modern sculptor. Insofar as possible, we will let the artist's own words describe his motivations to create and express his artistic ideals.



Wrought iron, cut sheet metal, and brass
41 1/2 x 39 3/4 x 7 3/4 in. (105.5 x 101 x 19.5cm)
Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection
33.1883
Provenance: Purchased from [Grand Central Art Galleries, New York], 1933
Photo: Paul Macapia
location
Not currently on view

Extending the Appeal of Sculpture

Fighting Cocks Charger, 1930, William Hunt Diederich
The Cock Fight Firescreen, n.d., William Hunt Diederich
Rooster and Cat Charger, ca. 1918, William Hunt Diederich
Rooster Charger, 1930, William Hunt Diederich

A Modern Artist Looks To The Past

Black-figure Kylix, (cup) with Animals, 550-525 B.C., Greek, Attica, 59.100
The art of Hunt Diederich is both sophisticated and elemental, both patrician and primitive. Full of spontaneous creative joy, this child of the wide-sweeping Hungarian puszta has glanced backward across the ages. Impatient of academic impersonality, he has pursued line and form with fresh, unfettered enthusiasm. He has recaptured for us something of that spirited verity of eye and hand which characterizes the inimitable rock tracings in the caves of Altimira. For in any consideration of plastic achievement it must not be forgotten that there were artists before the symmetrical Greeks.

—Critic Christian Brinton, on Hunt Diederich, 1920
Kotyle (drinking cup), 600-575 B.C., Greek, Corinthian, 42.9
A devoted student of decoration, Diederich would have been especially interested in art forms in which pictorial design was perfectly integrated into functional objects. 
Engraving/painting of bison, from La caverne d'Altamire a Santillane tres Santander, Espagne, 1606, Abbé Henri Breuil
The sites of prehistoric cave paintings were just being discovered at the end of the nineteenth century. Seeing the first published images from these now famous excavations, Diederich and other modern artists found inspiration in the abstracted images of animals that populate these wall paintings, all executed in a highly intuitive manner, in an animated style so dramatically different from the studied forms of classical art that they were shocking.  The wall paintings at Altamira, the first to be discovered, are among the most beautiful of all the cave frescoes.  As the earliest record of functional art—wall painting—these works were undoubtedly of particular interest to Diederich.

What Is Artistic Achievement?

Pleasure in creation, in creative effort, is the touchstone of artistic achievement. A thing not done with pleasure is as dead as a thing done for mere duty.

—Hunt Diederich, 1920

Hunt Diederich is a man who, with ceaseless inventive zest, touches every phase of his profession and achieves results that seldom fail to attract or inspire. In his supple aristocratic figures, his slender candlesticks, or fanciful firescreens, he reveals a personality as rare as it is welcome. Pagan in spirit, this art is contemporary in accent and appeal.

—Critic Christian Brinton, on Hunt Diederich, 1920
Diederich's studio, n.d.
Image is courtesy of the William Hunt Diederich papers, 1900-1976, in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Art Should Be Useful

Hound and Hare Weathervane, ca. 1925, William Hunt Diederich
Light Fixture: Fighting Gazelles, 1925, William Hunt Diederich
Wolf and Goat Firescreen, ca. 1918, William Hunt Diederich
Chimney Pot and Weather Vane, ca. 1925, William Hunt Diederich
Horse Candelabrum, ca. 1925, William Hunt Diederich
Horse Lamp, n.d., William Hunt Diederich

In the Artist's Own Words

Before beginning a piece of work I make up my mind precisely what I want to do, and then endeavor to catch my impression on the wing, as it were. I try to execute it at the moment when I see it most clearly and most completely, no matter where I may happen to be at the time. I first make a rapid sketch in wax, which I carry about for emergencies and thus have ready at hand. This sketch is small, as small as possible, so as to entail no waste of time or energy. I execute a quantity of these quick sketches, which I leave around the studio and turn to as I feel inclined. Those that seem vital and interesting I work into more permanent form, the rest I forget.

—Hunt Diederich, 1920
Diederich with unidentified work, n.d.
Courtesy of Michael Diederich. Image is courtesy of the William Hunt Diederich papers, 1900-1976, in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Resources

Exhibition HistorySeattle, Seattle Art Museum, American Art Deco and the Seattle Art Museum, May 4, 2006-Jan. 22, 2007. No catalogue.
Published Referencescf. Catalogue of the First American Exhibition of Sculpture by Hunt Diederich. Introduction by Christian Brinton. New York: Kingore Galleries, 1920; n.p.

Annual Report of the Seattle Art Museum, formerly The Art Institute of Seattle, Twenty-eighth Year. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1933; p. 24.

Conner, Janis and Joel Rosenkranz. Rediscoveries in American Sculpture: Studio Works, 1893-1939. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1989; pp. 23-24.

W. Hunt Diederich, 1884-1953. New York: D. Wigmore Fine Art, Inc., [2005]; pp. 40-41.

Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures. London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007; pp. 20-21, reproduced p. 21.

The Seattle Art Museum acknowledges that we are located on the ancestral land of the Coast Salish people.