Uris Historical Tour: Song of the Vowels

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Restored and revitalized, Song of the Vowels enjoys a newly-designed setting on the plaza between Olin and Uris libraries. Cornell University acquired the sculpture in 1962. Since that time, Song of the Vowels has been a fixture on the south end of Cornell’s Arts Quad, and a favorite gathering spot.

Sculptor Jacques Lipchitz created Song of the Vowels in 1931, and had it cast in a limited edition of seven copies, of which Cornell’s is the fifth. Other copies may now be found at Princeton University, UCLA, Stanford University, at Nelson Rockefeller’s Kykuit Gardens and at museums of modern art in Europe.

Born in Lithuania as Chaim Jacob Lipchitz, the artist spent much of his early career in Paris, working alongside Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque as a leader of the Cubist movement. The Cubistic attributes of his style are perhaps better displayed in the Bather, produced between 1923 and 1925, and also owned by the Cornell University Library.

Lipchitz’s Bather is a monumental study of geometric forms and intersecting planes that pivot around a central axis: the human bather’s torso. Bather was one of the last pieces Lipchitz created that can be considered strictly Cubist. Although his debt to Cubism is always apparent in his work, Lipchitz also drew inspiration from mythology, fantasy, and emotion to create expressive sculptural works. Song of the Vowels, created a few years later, represents a significantly different stage in Lipchitz’s oeuvre. While Bather is calm and carefully measured, Song of the Vowels is animated and energetic.

Lipchitz explained his inspiration for Song of the Vowels this way:

I had been commissioned to make a garden statue for Madame de Maudrot for her house at Le Pradet, in the south of France, designed by Le Corbusier. I was entranced by the location, a vineyard with mountains at the background, and since I was still obsessed with the idea of the harp, I decided to attempt a monument suggesting the power of man over nature. I had read somewhere about a papyrus discovered in Egypt having to do with a prayer that was a song composed only of vowels and designed to subdue the forces of nature . . . I cannot explain why the image of the harp and the Song of the Vowels should have come together except that both of them were in my mind at the same moment.

The design for Olin Library included a small sculpture court in an exterior alcove on the eastern side of the first floor, visible from the main reference area through a glass wall. As the building of Olin Library was nearing completion in 1961, a committee was charged with selecting sculpture for both the Olin Library sculpture court, and for the plaza between Olin and Uris libraries. The committee’s goal was to find modern sculpture of international renown. In January 1962, a major exhibition of Jacques Lipchitz sculpture came to Cornell’s Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art. With urging from art professor Jack Squier, the committee recommended the acquisition of Jacques Lipchitz’s work. Trustee Harold D. Uris, Class of 1925, and his brother, Percy, generously provided funds for both sculptures. Bather was installed in June of 1962, while Song of the Vowels came to its home at Cornell in October of the same year. Olin’s sculpture court has been replaced by a corridor that links Olin Library with the underground Carl A. Kroch Library, which opened in 1992.

After nearly 50 years as a landmark on the Cornell campus, concerns for the preservation and maintenance of Song of the Vowels led to an examination of the physical structure. Small holes had developed and were allowing moisture to penetrate the bronze and compromise the structure, so the sculpture was sent to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center for expert scientific analysis and conservation treatment. The planned return of Song of the Vowels provided an excellent opportunity to redesign the plaza between Uris and Olin Libraries, and landscape architect John Ullberg was hired to re-conceptualize the installation. He created a communal space that focuses attention on the sculpture, placed atop a limestone pedestal in a plaza that incorporates granite pavers, stone benches and new landscaping. The restored sculpture has now come back to its home, where it is appreciated by a new generation of Cornellians.

The Bather, too, has a new location. It now stands near the entrance to Olin Library, within sight of Song of the Vowels.