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Heisman trophy original plaster sclpture by frank eliscu, 1935
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For seventy years, the Heisman trophy has been awarded to the best player in college football, voted on by more than 1,000 sportswriters and announced every December at New York’s vaunted Downtown Athletic Club (DAC). Many of the players have become both household names, first round draft picks and Pro Football Hall of Famers, such as Paul Hornung, Marcus Allen, Barry Sanders and Roger Staubach, while winning the award remains the pinnacle for others who have left football for more private lives. Their excellence remains embodied in sport’s most dynamically sculpted trophy. The first award was called the DAC trophy. However, in 1936 gridiron coach, innovator  (he pushed to legalize the forward pass) and first DAC athletic director John Heisman passed away, and, in his honor the DAC renamed the trophy to reflect his contributions. The trophy itself - the running back in full stride with lhis right arm outstretched  is an icon of the sport of football, chosen by the DAC committee and instantly recognizable to the hardcore and casual fan alike. Frank Eliscu, a 23-year old sculptor New York native was chosen to design it to be cast in bronze. His first design was made of clay; his second sculpted in plaster to be used as the model for the mold. The follwing tribute to Eliscu and the Heisman trophy, written in 1990 by the late legendary New York Times obituary writer Robert McG. Thomas, Jr., most aptly describes the story behind the creation of the trophy and its sculptor. Frank Eliscu - From Feet of Clay to Greatness in Bronze Time is running out. His team is behind, and he has gotten the call. He has taken the handoff, broken through the line and bulled his way past the linebackers until he is not in the open field with only a single determined defender between him and the goal line. The game is in the balance. As the defender closes in from the right, sure that he can bring the ballcarrier down, the runner shifts the ball from his right hand and tucks it firmly into the crook of his left arm, pressing it close to his body. Then, in one fluid motion just as the tackler arrives, he takes a sudden graceful sidestep and throws his right arm out, shoving the tackler away with his open hand. As quickly as he appeared the tackler is gone, now merely an implicit fallen figure as the runner surges forward. The touchdown is made. The game is won. A beautiful run, but this is the moment we remember: the runner alone in full stride, his arm outstretched, moving away toward football immortality. If ever there was a run and a moment worthy of Heisman Trophy, this is it, but then, of course, this is the Heisman Trophy. That the Heisman Trophy is at once one of the world’s most recognized and respected awards for individual athletic achievement and an actual trophy-cast in bronze and standing on a black onyx base on a marble pedestal-may be more than happenstance. It is tempting to wonder whether the club’s annual presentation could have attained its present preeminence if the committee of founders had decided to honor the year’s outstanding college football player by establishing, say, a Heisman Award, symbolized by a suitably imposing plaque, or even a Heisman Cup, complete with graceful handles. But the actual unassailable fact is that when the members of the Downtown Athletic Club created the annual award in 1935 they also decreed that a trophy depicting a football player would be created along with it. And Frank Eliscu is the man they chose to create it. It is also tempting to wonder what the Heisman may have become if the founders had entrusted the trophy to another sculptor. They could hardly have known at the time that the Heisman would be the first of hundreds of celebrated works by Eliscu ranging in scale from the inaugural medals of President Gerald Ford and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to the monumental “Cascade of Books” above the entrance to the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress. At the time he was assigned to create what became known as the Heisman Trophy, Eliscu was an impoverished 23-year-old graduate of Pratt Institute whose sole professional output has been department store mannequins and dolls’ heads.  To be sure, he was not the first choice. To a man, those who were considered the leading sculptors of the day either turned up their noses at the very idea of creating a sports trophy or hid their disdain behind a demand for payment far beyond the club’s means. Eliscu was different. He needed the money. He no longer remembers exactly how he came to the committee’s attention, but as the 82-year-old Eliscu recalled in an interview from his home in Sarasota, Florida, in the spring of 1994, “It was my first commission.” If there seems to be a prayerful veneration in Eliscu’s work, it may be no accident. Eliscu, who was born in Brooklyn on July 13, 1912, and grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, recalled that the first tentative explorations of what was to become his art were made with the residue of his great-grandmother’s prayer candles. “I would take the paraffin with me into the tub when I took a bath and work it underwater,” he said. His first figures were of horses’ heads. “I loved to make animals,” he said. Eliscu’s horses seemed so real, so alive that his talent was instantly apparent. “I became something of a local celebrity,” he said. In time, word of his talent spread beyond Washington Heights to Harrison Tweed, one of New York’s most prominent lawyers and a major patron of the arts. Tweed, who operated what amounted to a summer arts colony for talented youngsters at his estate in Montauk, Long Island, invited Eliscu to spend 10 weeks at the camp, and a lasting friendship was born. “He became the closest thing next to my own father,” Eliscu said. Tweed introduced the young Eliscu to leading American artists and gave Eliscu’s own art an important boost by paying the production costs of his first work in bronze, “Diana and the Fawn,” which was exhibited at the National Academy of Design while Eliscu was still in high school. Unable to afford college after graduation from George Washington High School, Eliscu worked for a mannequin maker and a toy company before he won a scholarship covering the first year of a three-year art program at Pratt. When the scholarship ran out, Tweed came to the rescue, paying for the last two years in exchange for art lessons every Monday night in his apartment at 10 Gracie Square. Tweed, whose name has been preserved in the law firm, Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, also performed a critical service when Eliscu was offered the Heisman assignment. “He insisted on looking over the contract before I signed it,” Eliscu said. After it passed muster, Eliscu signed it and went to work. Much as he needed the $200 fee, Eliscu has always insisted that he approached the work not as a commercial venture but as a labor of love, which is to say, a labor of art.  “I wanted to make the best thing I could,” he said. “I worked and I changed, and I gave it everything I could.”   Working entirely from his imagination, his only guidance from the club was to produce a football player in action, Eliscu made three wax “sketches,” about four inches high, of different poses. It is interesting to speculate how well defensive players might have fared in the annual balloting if the club had selected Eliscu’s favorite. It was of a lineman tackling a ballcarrier, their conjoined bodies rising into a graceful S. When the sketches were completed, a three-coach delegation from the club, Lou Little of Columbia, Jim Crowley of Fordham and John Heisman himself, paid an inspection visit to Eliscu’s studio at the old Clay Club at 4 West 8th Street. All agreed on the straight-arming ballcarrier, but after studying the figure, it was suggested that the outstretched arm, which Eliscu has pointed straight ahead, would be more natural if it extended out to the side, to better mimic how a runner would push a tackler away. To drive their point home, as Eliscu watched openmouthed, three of the most famous figures in the world of football held an impromptu mock scrimmage right there in this studio, taking turns stiff-arming each other. Eliscu got the point and simply pushed the pliable wax arm back until it pointed in the correct direction. To translate the form into the ultimate trophy, Eliscu worked in clay attached to an armature made of lead wire. He used his own imagination, “artistic license,” he calls it, in forming the body and shaping and detailing the powerful biceps and calf muscles that are so prominent on the muscular figure. Even the face, he said, was of his own imagining. The one area he was not willing to trust to his artistic vision was the figure’s costume. Knowing that Ed Smith, a high school classmate, was a football player at New York University, Eliscu asked Smith to bring his uniform to the studio and pose in it. The Heisman may have been Eliscu’s first professional work, but it was hardly his last. Since then there has rarely been a day that Eliscu has not spent creating. He even rendered crucial artistic service to the nation in World War II. Assigned to an Army engineering unit at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, he spent the early part of the war making invasion maps and models for landings from Salerno to Normandy. Then, after a flood of war casualties began arriving back in the United States, he was transferred to a medical unit at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where he assisted in the grisly work of assisting in plastic surgery and cutting cartilage to form into noses and chins. Eliscu, by then a sergeant, gained an unusual footnote in the history of plastic surgery when he developed a technique of tattooing to remove birthmarks and provide color to reconstructed lips. Since the war Eliscu has not only been one of the nation’s most acclaimed and honored artists, he has also been one of the most prolific. He has turned out hundreds of pieces from the studio he maintained first at his home in Ossining, New York, and more recently in Sarasota, Florida, where he lived with his wife, Mildred. Whatever his subject and whatever his medium, Eliscu, who has worked in everything from wax to stone, strives to satisfy his lifelong passion for breathing movement into otherwise inanimate objects. “To me, movement is almost giving life to bronze,” he said. “I try to put [in] action even if a thing is stilled or seated, through expression or a tilt of the head.” He also shuns abstract art in favor of realistic forms, which allow him to achieve, as he puts it, “a sense of recall, where you look at something and you’re moved to recall what it makes you feel.” Ask him to name his favorite works, and Eliscu, who can choose them from museums all over the country, mentions his original, “Diana and the Fawn,” “Holocaust,” in Orlando; “Cascade of Books,” in Washington, D.C.; the “Shark Diver,” at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina; and, yes, the Heisman. “It’s an honest work,” he said. “I think that the Heisman has a feeling. I think that you can feel not only the movement but the intensity of the piece. That’s what I call honesty.” It is true that the statue depicts a run that never literally happened. Yet it symbolizes a run that happens every fall, year after year, just as Frank Eliscu imagined it. For him the Heisman is more than a trophy. It is a work of art. “I liked it then,” he said, “and I like it now.” Robert McG. Thomas Jr.
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