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See This Art: Into Charles Umlauf’s garden of good and evil

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Charles Umlauf's 1945 bronze, "Pietà," is among the sacred art at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum.

The three figures — one of them not immediately visible — come with some expected Charles Umlauf touches. Bony, elongated hands and feet; sinewy, twisted torsos; high cheekbones and lidded eyes on faces invested with powerful emotional or spiritual expressions.

The late Austin artist’s 1945 bronze “Pietà” is among a dozen or so examples of sacred art at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum. Other works might have been inspired by desire, romance or domestic life, by joy or despair regarding the state of human affairs, by the classical world, or simply by the natural world, which itself is in abundant display in this peaceful garden near Zilker Park, even during the winter.

Umlauf takes a particularly Catholic view of Christian subject matter. Indeed, Catholic churches commissioned several of his public sculptures. Here in the garden — and around the nearby hilltop family home and studio, not yet open to the public — we see angels and demons, saints and clerics, along with multiple visions of Christ’s death and its aftermath.

During the most recent phase of the pandemic, the public has been able to wander through the cherished garden after paying a small admission fee — up to $7 — at the doors of the closed interior galleries. This is no small blessing. The same goes for the Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria and other safe outdoor art in Austin.

At first glance, Umlauf’s early figurative style resembles that of the murals produced by artists working for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, also works by the French painter Georges Rouault. It was very much meant for the greatest possible exposure to the public and, in Austin, can be found around the University of Texas campus, where he taught, and in plazas, parks and public gathering places around town.

Like other midcentury American art, as well as architecture from that period, it fell out of fashion for a time before it came roaring back into favor in the 21st century.

Not immediately visible from the walkway through the Umlauf Sculpture Garden is a third figure in Charles Umlauf's "Pietà," Mary Magdalene with eyes and arms outstretched to the heavens.

To tell the truth, Umlauf tried all sorts of styles, tools, methods and material, as a slow walk around the garden demonstrates. A small though dramatic work near the entrance, for instance, reveals few of the standard Umlauf signatures, and, until one looks closely, could be mistaken for something made some 600 years ago. In this little outlier, St. Michael balances dramatically on one boot toe, sword high in the air above a twisted and prone Lucifer.

Other sacred art in the garden portrays Christ’s ascension into heaven, an imposing St. Francis overlooking birds at his feet, and a crucifixion rendered in aluminum, not one of Umlauf’s favored materials.

Katie Robinson Edwards, curator and interim director of the museum, wrote the crucial book on the period, “Midcentury Modern Art in Texas.” She detects a Christian echo in her current favorite piece, which portrays Prometheus tortured by Zeus in the form of an eagle. In a classically beautiful way, it shows the sacrificial fate of the Titan god of fire who is credited with creating humanity and civilization before being punished by Zeus and later rescued by Hercules.

Returning to the “Pietà,” which rises not far from the St. Michael and Lucifer: Much like Michelangelo’s famous marble version (1498-1499) of a grieving Mary gathering up her dead son, this scene is a human drama as well as a moment for supreme faith.

In Umlauf’s take, Jesus’ body is on his knees supported from behind by his mother. Their extremities appear, not just enlarged, but huge. One wonders if there is still life in this crumpled body; Mary appears to hope so, Edwards points out.

Take a stroll around the sculpture for a surprise: Mary Magdalene seated, with her arms and eyes lifted upward to the heavens. What seemed at first a dyad with a clear dramatic focus now becomes a triad that complicates a primarily maternal story with another kind of extreme grief.

Umlauf liked for people to touch his sculptures. Normally, that would be encouraged. Touch, when appropriate, changes the way we experience art.

During the pandemic, however, touch is less advisable. Here’s your chance, however, to spend all the time you want in this heavenly garden.

While the interior galleries are closed, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at 605 Azie Morton Road. Top ticket price is $7. Closed Dec. 24, 25 and 31 and Jan. 1. umlaufsculpture.org, 512-445-5582.

About this series

You Gotta See This is a recurring series about art around Austin that we think deserves a look.