Pinocchio 101

Love it or hate it, first you need to understand it.

The heroic statue Pinocchio (Emotional) has stood in front of the Cincinnati Art Museum for just over two years, and certainly by one measure—arguably the most important—it is a tremendous success. The public loves it. Families photograph themselves, their children, their friends standing beneath it, pretty much nonstop. To the point where even an educated observer who is not its biggest fan is able to say, “Good public sculpture has a lot to do with how people interact with it. And from that standpoint, it’s gratifying to see what’s going on here. I think it’s been very good for the museum.”

So do I. As a longtime volunteer for the museum’s Duveneck Association, one of its major support groups, I take interest in what the institution acquires and chooses to showcase. Pinocchio seems to me quite wonderful, not only because its scale is just right in the position it inhabits (in the center of the rotary facing all incoming traffic) but because it feels a bit like a sly joke, a lot like someone welcoming me—arms thrust up excitedly, head thrown back in mirth (if I choose to see it that way)—and utterly contemporary. Its references to Pop Art of the late 20th century are unmistakable.

But not everyone is buying it. More than once, I have heard informed art enthusiasts and collectors say that they think it just doesn’t belong where it is, if anywhere. One, a retired attorney who is thoughtful and open-minded about almost everything, told me that he just couldn’t wrap his head around “that Pinocchio in front of the museum.”

If the statue were put to a vote, I suspect the “ayes” would outnumber the “nays.” Even so, I was still sufficiently intrigued to wonder, quite apart from my own biases: Why is the statue there? Is it artistically significant? And if so, why?

First things first. The statue, cast in bronze (number two in an edition of three), is by Jim Dine, a Cincinnati native who is, in many critics’ view, the most important artist to come out of this city since World War II. His fame is worldwide. Now close to 80, Dine has been making cutting-edge paintings, prints, performance art, and sculptures since his graduation from Walnut Hills High School in 1953. Yet for most of the intervening decades, he had been largely ignored by his hometown art museum. Conservative local tastes, and a succession of conservative museum directors, provide some of the explanation.

When he came to Cincinnati as the museum’s director in 2006, Aaron Betsky, an unabashed promoter of contemporary art, felt the rift should be healed and lobbied anyone who would listen that Dine should be given the first-ever Cincinnati Art Award. Created by the museum “to honor a Cincinnatian who has had significant impact on our culture at a national and international level, through the making, collecting, or promoting of visual art,” the award broke the ice. A small exhibition of Dine’s work was displayed in conjunction with the bestowal of the award. About the same time, Betsky, along with Jessica Flores, then associate curator of contemporary art, was pushing for the acquisition of Pinocchio (Emotional).

“What I love about it,” Betsky told me recently, “is that it’s one of those works of art that at first seems to be about one thing, but later turns out to be about a number of others. In the first place, it’s civic art. It seems to be about the ability of art to glorify a person by increasing his scale to the heroic, then emphasizing whatever features the artist thinks make the person heroic.” Think of Marcus Aurelius on his horse or Michelangelo’s David, Betsky said. “What Dine has chosen to emphasize is Pinocchio’s woodenness, the upraised arms, and the nose.

“Second, it’s a monument to a cartoon character, with the meaning that in our culture cartoon heroes are a) either as worthy or more worthy than other heroes, or b) the artist is playing with the whole notion of heroic sculpture.”

Betsky pointed out that it’s an image that awakens feelings of innocence and playfulness, especially for adults who remember the Disney film. “The soft features evoke all the characteristics of the cuddly, rakish creature that the Disney studio imagined for us.” But, he added, if you stare at it for a long time you realize that there is something dark about it.

“The original Pinocchio in Carlo Collodi’s story is full of violence and brutality,” Betsky said. “It’s a place where the good people don’t necessarily win. The Disney version was airbrushed, but in Dine’s version, if you give it enough attention, you will see a lot of raw emotion working. The darkness comes through.”

Thus enlightened, I revisited the statue on a cold but sunny winter day. Two things stood out.

First, there is no red in Pinocchio (Emotional). The absence is striking. In the Disney version, red shorts and suspenders make happy reference to the primary colors we associate with childhood. Dine’s bronze is lichen green, dull gold, black, and white.  Second, the statue has no eyes. In Disney’s version, Pinocchio’s eyes are wide and ingenuous. As with all people, they are the most alive thing about him. With menace aforethought, Dine has given us blanks for eyes.

“In the end, I think it does what all good art does,” Betsky told me. “It provides a density and intensity that only this artist could give it. You hear people say sometimes that ‘My kid could do that.’ Well, maybe. But more likely it takes a great deal of skill, knowledge, and hard work to pull off something that may, to the casual or uninformed observer, look quite simple.”

In the winter of 2010, prior to his coming to Cincinnati to accept the art award, I interviewed Dine by phone. The subject was his early years here, and his memories weren’t fond. At age 12, he lost his mother to cancer. He lived with his father for a short time, but the relationship was not good, and he soon moved in with his grandparents. Nor was his tenure at Walnut Hills happy: “I had a learning disability, and they didn’t know what to do with it,” he told me. “I was dropped through the cracks, too hot to handle.”

At the same time, he was struggling to become an artist—drawing constantly, immersing himself in books and prints, studying with some of the best tutors in the city. Yet no one supported him in those efforts, he said, with the exception of one beloved aunt.

Knowing all this, can we begin to see the artist’s relationship with Pinocchio? The wooden puppet created by Geppetto, who wants nothing so much as to become a flesh-and-blood boy, but before that can happen must endure a succession of experiences both scary and anguishing? Dine’s own history is the source of Pinocchio’s darkness.

“[Dine] relates to Pinocchio,” wrote Jessica Flores in an article for the art museum magazine at the time the sculpture was installed. “During his [Cincinnati] Art Museum lecture in 2009, Dine discussed the difficult aspects of his childhood and adolescence. Coming of age requires transformation…demonstrates the process required to, in the words of Nietzsche, and in the world of fairy tales, ‘become what you are.’ Dine’s role as an artist also connects him with the woodcarver Geppetto, who creates an object that has a life of its own. For Dine and countless other contemporary artists, fairy tales offer a platform from which to explore psychological topics.”

Dine was fascinated by the tale of Pinocchio from the time he was 6 years old and saw the Disney film. In a 2010 interview with art critic Joseph Becherer, he recalled, “I identified with this lying boy and the things that were going to happen. I did not quite get the story, but I know that in 1964 I was buying some tools at a store, and the owner had a little figure of Pinocchio that had been made or franchised by Disney in 1941 at the time of the film. It was hand-painted, had a papier-mâché head, beautiful little clothes, and articulated limbs. I took it home and I kept it on my shelf for 25 years. I did not know what to do with it, but it was always with me.”

For the next two to three decades, Dine was making the beautiful images of hearts, robes, and tools that are synonymous with his name today. From time to time, he would take the statue of Pinocchio into his hands—“essentially to play with it,” he said—but no art came of it. Until: “In the middle to early 1990s, maybe 1994, a guy whom I knew and was a collector of mine, became an executive at Disney and asked me to do a painting for his new office. I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got a chance to make Pinocchio.’”

The painting Dine did was a diptych: One panel had Pinocchio in the woods and the other panel had Minnie and the Venus de Milo. Dine sent the painting to the Disney executive and heard nothing for a while. Then he got a call. “He said, ‘Geez, I can’t have this.’ I said, ‘Well, why?’ He replied, ‘Well, you know, it’s so dark.’ And I said, ‘Yeah…’ He continued, ‘Well, it is just…you know, I’ll pay for it….’ Finally, I said, ‘You know, I don’t go to parties I’m not invited to. You can just send the painting back, please.’

“I got the painting back and I was so thrilled with it that I made another panel. So now it is a big, huge, 20-foot-long, three-panel painting.”

After that, Dine did other Pinocchio images. “Trying to birth this puppet into life is a great story,” he explained to Becherer. “It is the story of how you make art. There are so many, many different emotions in the boy, and the journey he makes is our journey.”

To purchase a work of art above a certain dollar figure for the museum requires approval by the Acquisitions Committee, a sub-committee of the Board of Trustees made up of nine people. Once Betsky and Flores knew what they wanted, Flores made a presentation to the group. Ron Koetters, a member of the Acquisitions Committee, recalls that she talked about the importance of public sculpture throughout art history and made the case that Pinocchio (Emotional) would be a major asset for the museum. Although Koetters does not recall whether the decision to go ahead was unanimous, most members were in favor. “By the time we vote, it’s pretty well talked out,” he said. They agreed to take the purchase price, at least in part, from some of the museum endowments targeted for that purpose. And in exchange for buying the statue, Dine—who was not willing to donate it—did donate his oil painting The Red Bandana, which hangs in the modern gallery today.

Betsky and Dine, together, chose the site for the sculpture. Interestingly, it stands where, for 39 years, a large bust of Senator Robert Alphonso Taft, by the renowned sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, had greeted visitors from the top of a tall plinth. The bust, loaned to the museum by the Thomas J. Emery Memorial Foundation, was recalled by the donor in 2000 and given to the Taft Historic Site in Mt. Auburn. According to one curator trying to sound diplomatic, it may have been placed outside the museum for more than artistic reasons. In 1961, the city was only nine years past favorite son Robert A. Taft’s thwarted bid for the Republican Presidential nomination. The stewards of the museum at the time may have been politically sympathetic with Taft and his dashed ambitions. Whatever one might think of Pinocchio (Emotional) today, we can rest assured that its selection was on artistic merit only.

So why do some people resist it? And who are they? Perhaps surprisingly, I think they are some of the more sophisticated and intelligent visitors to the museum. They come to it with predetermined notions about what they are going to see—they’ve visited museums before, they see understandable images in homes and offices, they may even have taken an art history class or two—and they’ve made up their minds as to what art is. Or should be. So they can’t let Pinocchio in. On the contrary, the families with cameras taking snapshots of themselves are all about emotional response. They see this wondrous creature apparently welcoming them, and they cannot resist reciprocating. Dine sees his creation on multiple levels—heroic, ironic, creative, becoming. Few people with cameras are seeing all that. But—and this is the important thing—they’re feeling it.

Great art reaches people in ways they can’t quantify; it touches or awes or overwhelms them with the talent that so few possess. Sometimes it even changes them. But for any of that to happen, the viewer has to be willing to be moved. Closed minds are anathema to the power of art.

Flores, who left the museum in 2012 to pursue an advanced degree at Berkeley,  made this point in her piece for the museum magazine:

“Dine’s Pinocchio transcends both the classic tale and Disney’s revision. The fairy tale acts as a vehicle for Dine’s examination of psychological concerns with creativity and transformation. His bronze figure with arms thrust into the air in jubilation reflects not what art—be it a painting or prose—brings to us. It celebrates the magical transformation that occurs within us when we bring ourselves, our anxiety and aspirations, to art.”

With that kind of counsel, we cannot be surprised that the acquisitions committee voted as it did. But we can be glad.

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