"Art," wrote Hugo Robus (1885-1964) "is a game of work and wait." His patience was amazing. Though he gave himself to art when young, living and working in New York and in Paris, he was already 63 when he first displayed his sculptures in a one-man show in 1949.
His sculpture is so special -- so original in mood, so smoothly wrought, so so odd that Robus would be famous now, had he cared for fame. He preferred to tend his garden. The audience he sought to please was no one but himself.
His editing was rigorous: He would slowly make three works of art; study them for many years; and then destroy two. His little retrospective, which goes on view today at the National Collection of Fine Arts, appears incomplete. Yet it lingers in the memory. The art of Hugo Robus looks like no one else's.
Robus made his long-limbed, smooth-skinned beauties of ivory and silver, plaster, bronze and stone. Something in their presence is sacred and old -- he shows us muses and madonnas, the three fates and the graces, and nymphs washing their hair -- yet the goddesses he left us often make us giggle. His graceful "Water Carrier" bears aloft a jug where she ought to have a head. His lovely, arching marble of a "Girl Washing Her Hair" (1933) has the strangest sort of smile. Is her face an act of homage to the No masks of Japan, or has soap got in her eyes?
These statues, simultaneously classical and modern, tart and sentimental, are as goofy as they are gracious. "Their rhythms are so alluring yet refined, their surfaces so subtly modulated, that they first evoke only commendations on their formal beauty," writes Josuha Taylor, the National Collection's director. "Yet all manner of overtones -- sentiment, wit, and an often macabre humor -- keep threatening the serenity of their flawless technique."
"Be a follower of no school. Be yourself, wrote Robus, "even if it hurts."
He was born in Cleveland where his German-born father was a worker in the steel mills. Robus was a jeweler first. Between 1905 and 1914 he worked with precious metals in Horace Potter's shop for $25 a week.
Art consumed him early. In the spring of 1909 he walked from New York to Washington to visit the museums he would pass along the way. In 1912, aged 26, Robus went to France where he saw the new art of the cubists and the futurists and studied for a while with sculptor Emile Bourdelle. Robus was a painter first, and a number of his paintings, never shown before, are included in this show.
He thought of himself as a student, and worked in many styles; he learned from the impressionists, from Giancomo Balla and Gino Severini, from Cezanne and Van Gogh. Then in 1920, when he'd absorbed all that, Robus gave up painting.
"Painting has color; that's the one thing of painting I enjoy," he wrote, "but modeling has form and one uses a medium that can be gotten hold of with the hands . . . Well, we'll see."
"His free painting techniques no more carried over into his sculpture than his jewelry designs affected his painting," writes Taylor. "When he painted he painted, when he sculpted he sculpted; there was no confusion of language. In his sculpture he created beings; in his paintings he showed how things look."
Robus was no recluse: In New York in the 1920s he knew many famous folk -- Lytton Strachey, Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But he always worked alone. Occasionally his statues suggest other sculptors -- Jacques Lipchitz when they're craggy, Elie Nadelman when they're smooth -- but the spirit of his statues is closer to that found in the enigmatic paintings of Rene Magritte.
He improved as he grew older, began to make a little money and got a reputation. He made a number of his finest works in the last years of his life.
An illustrated catalogue by Roberta K. Tarbell was to accompany the Robus show, but it is still in press and won't be out until spring. The exhibit will be gone by then. It closes March 2.