Landmark cathedral sculpture again in the news


Frederick Hart, the late Virginia artist hailed as one of Americas leading sculptors, was recently honored with a ballet based on his most prestigious creation the same work he had to defend in the Alexandria courthouse in a headline-making tria


Ex Nihilo (out of nothingness in Latin), the huge frieze towering over the Washington Cathedral entrance, displays the heads and torsos of men and women, their eyes still closed, about to awaken into consciousness and creation as they emerge from a swirling void.

The ballet bringing the sculpture to life, Between Stillness, was created and performed at the University of Louisville  in an unusual collaboration of academic artists and university officials involving the whole town, that followed last years exhibit of more than 100 of Harts pieces, said University of Louisville President Dr. James Ramsey.

In a very different re-creation Ex Nihilo was also brought to life, but dishonorably, resulting in the 1998 lawsuit and great stress and unhappiness for Hart. Puzzled by messages from friends and strangers blaming him for debasing his reverential work and selling out to Hollywood, he discovered that the sculpture had been copied pirated as a wall decoration for a scene in the film, The Devils Advocate.

Playing Satan, Al Pacino tries to entice his son and daughter to commit incest  by animating the figures in the copy to fondle one another erotically.

Hart a deeply spiritual man, strongly influenced by writings of the theologian Teilhard de Chardin was disgusted and incensed.

It was David versus Goliath when the sculptor ill at the time, and who was to die a year later aged 55 took on a major corporation, Warner Brothers Studio, and ultimately prevailed. In contrast, the Louisville production was begun to honor both Ex Nihilo and its creator; but how to make a ballet from a limestone frieze? The solution was artistically impressive. The 23-minute ballet followed the sculptures meaning; the ensemble of 20 remained still in stop-motion whenever one of the dancers came alive at birth, moving into the spotlight for a joyous solo at this entrance to the world.

Members of the audience sprang from their chairs, applauding, Dr. Ramsey said, moved by the awesome power of the sculpture translated into the ballet: life from divine chaos.

It began as a suggestion from Chris Doane,  the universitys dean of music, to Steve Rouse, professor of music theory who had composed ballets. Rouse invited Graham Lustig, artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet and the Princeton Ballet School to join as choreographer. The universitys symphony orchestra performed the music.

The leadership of our provost, Shirley Willihnganz, was vital, Ramsey said. Lectures, symposia and discussions of Harts work focused the interest of the campus and the town, where Harts pieces were displayed in libraries, art galleries and studios as well as on our campus. The ballet, and the whole project involved the entire Louisville community.

Hart remains a controversial figure in the art world, as he championedrepresentational art that looked like its subject, contrasted to the abstract works popular today. No less astringent a social critic than Tom Wolfe took up Harts cause in articles and in his book The Painted Word.

A successful artist in his lifetime ($150 million of his work sold up to the time of trial, said his attorneys in the court fight, validating his status), Hart won fame for his Three Soldiers at the Vietnam Memorial.  His creations sell constantly, Especially the acrylic resin sculptures, which he pioneered said Madeline Kisting, director the company handling his work, Chesley, Inc.

All this is a fine tribute to that struggling Georgia-born boy in his twenties, a lowly apprentice to the cathedral stone carvers, sleeping and sculpting in a cold garage to burst through as the surprise winner, against famed sculptors of the prized commission to create a west faade for the cathedral.

He would have been touched by the ballet, and proud, said Lindy Lain Hart, mother of his three sons, and his muse.