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Carl Milles, Cranbrook's favorite sculptor

The Orpheus Fountain by Carl Milles at Cranbrook is a replica of one he designed for Stockholm, Sweden.

When Swedish scuptor Carl Milles came to Cranbrook in 1931 to live, work and teach, the buildings and grounds were already among the most beautiful in the Detroit area. While there he enhanced that beauty by creating more than 70 works of art which grace the buildings of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, who had joined Cranbrook in 1924.

Milles joined the Cranbrook family in 1931 as director of the Sculpture Department and resident sculptor. Born Carl Emil Wilhelm Anderson on June 23, 1875, near Upsala, Sweden, Milles took early training in woodworking, cabinetmaking, carving and modeling. He lived in Paris from 1897 to 1904, living in privation until he finally received recognition for his work. He traveled to Holland, Belgium and Germany and in 1905 he married painter Olga Granner. He became ill and convalesced in Rome before returning to Stockholm.

Sculptor Carl Milles in 1946. He was director of Cranbrook’s Scupture Department from 1931-1951.

He struggled with his work for years, becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his style.

“One day in 1917,” Milles later said, “I looked around my studio and decided that nothing I had done satisfied me. I decided to destroy every bit of my work and start over again. So for three days my son and I worked at destroying my sculptures.”

His work took new directions, ranging from whimsical to almost religious, bringing him new acclaim as well as criticism. He visited the United States in 1929, and in 1931, at the age of 55, accepted the position at Cranbrook.

Among his legacy is the Cranbrook Fountain, which depicts incidents from the life of Jonah in high relief. Inside the bowl, innumerable small fishes send streams of water over the whale as it casts forth a rotund and laughing Jonah. In all, 80 streams of water flow through 80 small pipes in the fountain in comic delight.

“It was the first thing I made for Cranbrook. I wanted to make a joke for the children,” Milles said of the fountain.

A Detroit News article from 1932 headlined “Humor and Strength Mark New Fountain at Cranbrook.”

The fountain was modeled by Milles and cast in plaster in his Cranbrook studios, and was then sent to Stockholm where it was cast in bronze by the Royal Swedish Bronze Casting Co. Herman Bergman, president and founder of of the casting company, came to oversee the placing of the fountain. Bergman had cast almost all of Milles work for 30 years, and supervised construction of the great fountains which made Milles famous.

In 1934 Milles completed two mammoth works at Cranbrook — the great Orpheus fountain, a basin with nine figures of bronze that would go to Stockholm, and a 36-foot-tall Indian of alabaster meant for St. Paul’s Peace Memorial in Minnesota. A replica of the Orpheus fountain graces the Cranbrook grounds.

That same year Cranbrook Academy of Art acquired 66 Milles pieces, bringing the collection to 70. Eliel Saarinen, then president of the Cranbrook Art Academy and resident architect, said of the acquisition, “It will make Cranbrook one of the great beauty spots in this country and will add greatly to its importance as an art center.”

Milles expressed satisfaction at having so large a portion of his life work installed in this country. “The fact that the foundation had brought this collection of my work to Cranbrook gives me a feeling of permanency here,” he said

Wallace Mitchell compares a model of Milles’ Jonah with the real thing at Cranbrook.

The collection included the four tritons, replicas of which are also at the Chigago Art Institute, a large bronze mermaid on a dolphin, two large dancing figures in bronze, the famous equestrian group from the Folke-Filbuter Fountain, two mounuental sitting boars, a red marble Buddha of the sea, various fountain and garden pieces which include a fine group of running dogs, a mermaid with a triton, sleeping fawns, gazelles, and a bronze Diana.

In 1935 Cranbrook received a bronze replica of Milles’ most famous piece, Europa and the Bull which overlooks the formal gardens. In 1938 he carved a stylized fantasy, Man and Unicorn, a replica of which graces the Time-Life Building in New York’s Rockefeller Center.

During his 21 years at Cranbrook he kept a library of Greek and Roman sculpture. He often told his students, I borrow from these works. Another inspiration was 19th century French sculptor Rodin, whom Milles met and who inspired Milles with his words, “When you see something beautiful, look a long, long time.”

His work was not without controversy. Milles designed a fountain with 19 nude figures for the city of St. Louis in 1938 that was supposed to represent the wedding of the Mississippi and the Missouri. St. Louis Alderman Hubert Hoeflinger complained, “I’ve been to a lot of weddings but I never saw one where everybody was naked. This thing isn’t true to life.

“The statues would be just as good if they were draped,” he went on. “They would be just as artistic and the people of St.Louis wouldn’t have to answer embarrassing questions when they took their children by the fountain. Look at that lady trying to forward pass a fish. Look at that fellow with the corkscrews coming out of his head and a fish in his mouth. If those things are beautiful, then I’m crazy.”

With tongue in cheek, Milles explained that the terrified-looking triton with the fish in his mouth was frightened because he had never seen a pedestrian before. “They contract for 10 figures in the fountain, and I give them 19. That’s what art is like. One gets carried away.”

Milles’ “Europa and the Bull.”

      Milles did offer some modesty — he had a fig-leaf installer on call.

In 1952 Milles ordered his fig leaf expert, Torvald Lundberg, to come from Sweden to install modesty leaves on some of his statues that were set for viewing in Washington D.C. One fig leaf had to provide modest cover for a figure 15 feet tall.

In 1956 officials of Detroit’s Convention Hall and Exhibits Building, led by Councilman Eugene Van Antwerp, banished Sunglitter, a nearly nude bronze mermaid at the hall, to the less traveled pool area of the Institute of Arts. “She’ll feel at home there,” said Van Antwerp.

In 1962 the statue was placed in the foyer at Cobo Hall, and later in the cocktail lounge.

The last work completed by Milles at Cranbrook was God’s Hand. One copy was installed near Milles’ former home in Millesgarden near Stockholm. The UAW purchased the other copy in 1959 as a memorial to Frank Murphy, former Detroit mayor, Michigan governor, and U.S. Supreme Court justice. A giant hand holds a 10 foot male figure standing on the thumb and forefinger. Milles meant it to symbolize the hand of God lifting man up to view the universe. It now stands in front of the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice on Gratiot near downtown.

Milles died Sept. 19, 1955. He had lived, worked and taught at Cranbrook from 1931 through 1951.

In April 1988 Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Sylvia visited the Cranbrook grounds and museum and admired the work of their countryman.

At least one Detroit councilman considered Milles’ “Sunglitter” too lewd for public view.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News