The statues of Paul Manship (1885-1966) aren't monuments, they're ornaments. Once upon a time, they made the old seem new.

Manship's sinuosities helped to set a fashion. He streamlined the archaic. The style he perfected--and the stylish was his forte--ruled official art in the '20s and the '30s. The look of moderne movie sets with their smooth, white, fluteless columns, the sharp silk pleats of dresses designed by Fortuny and the little shining goddesses who rode the hoods of Packards owe his art a debt.

His subjects were not new. He sculpted fawns and sweet-limbed nymphs, Pegasus, Europa, demigods and dryads. Sculptors in America--Horatio Greenough, Hiram Powers--had long drawn themes from the antique, but Manship did so differently. His borrowings weren't worshipful. He cared less for undying truth than for decoration. His lithe, lighthearted statues, while acknowledging archaic Greece, suggest the age of speed.

Half a century ago, before abstraction's victory undercut his fame, Manship was a superstar. Every critic praised him, conservatives approved his skill, progressives his modernity. The public, too, adored his easily accessible, finely finished art. He decorated Central Park. He made the huge "Prometheus" at Rockefeller Center, and the gates of the Bronx Zoo.

A small show of his sculpture is now on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art. His craftsmanship seems wondrous still, and, in our eclectic age, his gracefulness and elegance no longer seem so frivolous. This well-timed show suggests that Manship's reputation may soon rise again.

His work has many virtues. His surfaces are splendid. The lines he draws in space--and outline rules his art--are sweeping, sure and strong. Although superb in many ways, Manship's finest pieces may nonetheless be charged with one clear deficiency: They do not stir the soul.

Soul-stirring has often seemed sculpture's major mission. The grand and serious statues of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) and those of his most gifted heir, Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), have nothing fey about them. Nor do the metal objects of the late David Smith. French's "Seated Lincoln" or the shrouded, enigmatic, figure by Saint-Gaudens that mourns in Rock Creek Cemetery at the tomb of Henry Adams' wife may not look very much like Smith's welded steel "Voltris," but there is a quality they share. They aim at the heroic. They glow with moral earnestness.

Manship's art is suave.

Avoiding heavy seriousness, it often merely entertains. The cunning fox, the foolish crow, and the city mouse with a top hat that appear on the gateway to the William Church Osborn Memorial Playground in Manhattan's Central Park are meant to evoke smiles. And Manship's superb animals--his roly-poly bears, his stern baboon, his storks and cranes and pelicans--don't threaten, they just charm. His nymphs are coy and sexy. His portraits are polite. A number of his larger works--for instance his now-damaged limestone "Theseus and Ariadne" (1928), a recent acquisition of the National Museum--seem the sort of objects one would come upon with pleasure beside a grassy path in some grandly landscaped park.

Manship forged his style between 1909 and 1912 while on a three-year fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. His timing was just right. Public taste was changing. The Beaux-Arts style that had ruled America's official art--and had reached its apogee at the great Chicago fair, the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893--had begun to seem stale, trite, old-fashioned. The time was ripe for something fresh, for something new but not too new. A number of Americans thought they'd found the answer in the free, dramatic modeling of the sculpture of Rodin. But Manship chose another path. He found what he was seeking while studying the statues of archaic Greece.

He found that he preferred the simple to the frilly, and the subtle harmonies of the first Greek statues to the lifelike art of Rome. He admired in archaic art, he said in 1912, "the simplicity of the flesh admirably contrasted by rich drapery, every line of which is drawn with precision. It is the decorative value of the line which is considered first. Nature is formalized to conform with the artist's idea of beauty . . . In these statues the artist has subordinated everything to his formal composition."

These phrases well describe the sculptures that he made himself.

Manship's nymphs and warriors have every curl in place. Their flawless flesh is rounded. Few details project. The arrow that has pierced his graceful "Pronghorn Antelope" (1917) does not stick out; it is drawn upon the polished bronze. While Rodin's rough-hewn modeling diminishes one's consciousness of outline, Manship at all times stresses linearity. Smoothed and well-considered lines--whether those of silhouette or those of inscribed detail--dominate his art.

The details he draws--the parallel and wavy hairs of his squat "Baboon" (1932), the feathers of his "Adjutant Stork" (1932), or the rather silly lion skin, a borrowing from Hercules, that lies across the thigh of his hunting "Indian" (1917) are as formal in their rhythms as a Greek-wave design.

Though Manship was capable of accurate, lifelike portraiture--look, for instance, at his sculpture of his infant daughter Sarah Janet (1929)--he rarely bothered. He preferred a kind of summary. One's eye is never troubled when looking at a Manship. His major motive always was to please the viewer's eye.

Manship was born on Christmas Eve, 1885, in St. Paul, Minn. He might have been a painter had he not discovered, while still in his teens, that he was partly colorblind. For a while he worked in advertising. He then moved to New York where, after studying briefly at the Art Students League, he took a job as an assistant to sculptor Solon Borglum. In the summer of 1907, Manship and a buddy, with $40 between them, bummed their way through Spain.

Early in this century Manship's influence was great. One feels it, for example, in the extraordinary nudes of sculptor Gaston Lachaise, who worked for Manship seven years and seems to have learned much from the older artist's graceful, rounded forms. Another Manship assistant, sculptor Reuben Nakian, still contentedly explores, in his craggy objects, his teacher's mythic themes.

Manship, a member of the Smithsonian's art commission from 1932 to 1964, and for many years its chairman, presented many examples of his work to the National Museum. The 72 pieces in the current show have all been drawn from its collection. The new Manship installation will remain on view through July 1984.