Former Bristolian's Statue Made International History in 1955
By DANIEL GILBERT | BRISTOL HERALD COURIER | July 01, 2008*** This story was published June 28, 2008 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***
The sculpture issued from the hands of a leading Italian artist, was praised by Italy's president and labeled a "divine piece" in art circles.
But when it arrived in 1955 to be installed at Virginia High School, Bristolians panned it, dubbed it "Groping Boy" and it sent back to the dealer.
The city's rejection of the sculpture ? a bronze, two-meter-tall affair that depicts an anatomically nondescript nude boy reaching out toward a fawn ? stirred an international fracas, angering sculptor Pericle Fazzini, who reportedly snapped, "Where is Bristol?"
For a month in 1955, the Bristol newspaper and Fazzini traded editorial broadsides across the Atlantic, reported by wire correspondents in Bristol and Rome. The national media dug in to the clash of high and hillbilly artistic taste, and the Soviet Union's Ministry of Culture took a swipe at both parties as an example of another "bourgeois falling-out."
In the end, Bristol dealt out $2,600 for the artist's fees to be rid of "Groping Boy," whose original price was $8,500. A prominent Bristol businessman-cum-philanthropist purchased the spurned sculpture and planted it in his garden, where it slipped out of the spotlight ? until now.
The "Groping Boy" surfaced two weeks ago at the estate of Harry Macmillan Daniel Jr. ? one-time owner of the Paramount Theater ? in Borrego Springs, Calif., as appraisers went over the recently deceased Bristolian's art collection.
This particular work of Fazzini ? who is best known for his statue "The Resurrection" at the Vatican ? is far from the most valuable piece in Daniel's collection, an appraiser said. But the history ? told by clippings from far-flung newspapers ? may significantly enhance collector interest when it goes to auction in October.
"With this type of history, you never know where [the price] could go," said Joe Baratta, an appraiser for the Los Angeles-based A.N. Abell Auction Co.
A team of Abell appraisers found the "Groping Boy" "sitting in a foot and a half of water in a wading pool," Baratta said by phone. He expects it to fetch between $10,000 and $15,000.
"Monetary-wise, it's not the highest value" in the collection, Baratta said. "History-wise, it's definitely the highest. There is so much more to it that someone might admire."
The history is, well, rich.
In assessing the artistic merits of Fazzini's work, Roy Elkins, then managing editor of the Bristol Virginia-Tennessean, gave this description:
"We couldn't figure out just what it was he was trying to do unless it was to pull the little deer out of the mud," Elkins said, according to a Feb. 1, 1955, United Press International report.
"The little deer looks half-starved, and the little boy is in even worse shape," he said.
Despite his celebrated stature, the rejection evidently stung Fazzini, who responded by producing a photo of Italy's president admiring a reproduction of the sculpture, according to several press reports.
"If it is good enough for the president of Italy, it should be good enough for a Tennessee high school," a Feb. 11 UPI story quoted Fazzini as saying.
"Where is Bristol?" the artist demanded angrily.
The newspaper fired back, with what Time magazine described as a "homespun retort":
"His statue may be a 'divine piece,' and it may be worth $8,500, but we're sorta old fashioned hereabouts and kinda figure we could use the money better somewhere else," the Bristol newspaper editorialized.
By March 1955, an art gallery in New York City had contacted the dealer, Memphis, Tenn.- based architect A.L. Aydelott, wanting to know if Fazzini's sculpture was still available.
And in July of that year, the Soviet Union publication Pravda cited the Italian-Appalachia spat as serving to "illustrate graphically the blind alley in which the reactionary friends of modern bourgeois art have landed," according to another UPI report.
Aydelott, a close friend of Daniel who died earlier this month, designed Virginia High School and purchased Fazzini's sculpture while traveling in Italy, according to a relative of Daniel's who was enrolled at the school when "Groping Boy" was first unveiled.
"The city was so up in arms," recalled Barbara Oakley, then a 10th grade student whose father was on the City Council. Daniel was her uncle, her father's brother-in-law.
Oakley, a retired nursing instructor at East Tennessee State University, said her uncle bought Fazzini's sculpture after the city rejected it, and remembers it both in his Bristol Tennessee garden, and "gracing the headwaters of his indoor pool" in Borrego Springs ? where he relocated with his wife in 1970.
"They thought he looked like an emaciated little boy," Oakley said of the sculpture. "The city fathers, they just felt like tax dollars would be better spent elsewhere."
The sculpture, she believes, briefly adorned the high school's lawn.
Daniel, 95, died in March. His wife died in 2003. He was president of Enterprise Wheel and Car Corp., donated the Paramount Theater to the city, and had a hand in founding television station WCYB. He was cremated at the Glenwood Cemetery in Bristol Tennessee.
"Harry was very erudite and accomplished, with a keen eye for the arts, architecture and science," wrote his son, Joe Daniel, in an obituary e-mailed to family members.
Fazzini died in 1987, and there is no sign that he ever took up the Herald Courier's invitation to visit.
The newspaper, incensed by Fazzini's ignorance of the city's location, gave him a geography lesson via an editorial.
Bristol, the editorial staff explained, was "some several thousand miles east of your town of Rome," and approximately the same distance from Johnson City and Kingsport, Tenn. "But on the off chance that you don't know where Kingsport and Johnson City are, Mr. Fazzini," the staff pointed out the approximate global coordinates, and extended an invitation to visit.
"That'd give you a chance to look over our industry and educational facilities, and our culture ? which we got plenty of."