Frederick Kiesler, Winged Victory

Frederick Kiesler, Winged Victory, circa 1951. Bronze, 30 × 28 × 24-1/2 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, Inc., 1983 (1983.200). Photo by Mark Menjivar.

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audio transcript

Valerie Fletcher: Frederick Kiesler was born in Austria in 1890. As a young man working as an architect in the 1920s and 30s, he was an idealist who hoped that radical new ideas in architecture could help to create a better world for all humanity. World War II changed all of that in his mind.

In the late 1930s, as the Nazis gained power in Germany and Austria, he, like so many others, fled to the United States. After World War II, when the economy was returning to normal, Kiesler could once again work as a sculptor and an architect and designer. The sculpture here, Winged Victory from about 1951, expresses his feelings after the war and indeed the feelings of many of his generation who had survived such great trauma and suffering. Winged [Figure], the title itself refers to a famous ancient Greek sculpture, the Nike or Victory of Samothrace. An over life-sized figure, a female idealized perfect body clothed in flattering classical draperies, she strides forward in triumph. She has two great-feathered wings, like the wings of an angel, outstretched. Everything about her bespeaks confidence, optimism, and conquest. Kiesler took those famous wings, translated them from a light marble, uplifted, to dark bronze, bent and falling to the ground. In this sense, he was using clear traditional symbolism that is the aspirations and hopes of his generation hoping to create a new world, a better world, had come crashing down and was now lying in ruins.

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Frederick Kiesler, Winged Victory, circa 1973.

American, born in Austria, 1890-1965

Frederick Kiesler trained as an architect before turning to sculpture and design. Like many other European modernists in the 1920s, he was a utopian idealist. Kiesler first gained recognition in 1925 at the International Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris, where he exhibited a large gridlike structure titled City in Space. Its straight lines and flat planes joined at right angles embodied the utopian belief that simple geometric forms in art would help facilitate a more rational and egalitarian society.

Within a few years, however, Kiesler abandoned that approach in favor of curving biomorphic forms. The new surrealist movement rejected rationality and regularity in art and favored forms inspired by sources in nature—plants, animals, microscopic organisms, water, clouds, and rocks.

Winged Victory alludes to the famous Greek statue Winged Victory of Samothrace from the second century BCE in the Louvre. Created to commemorate a military conquest, the white marble female figure strides forward with widespread wings. Her body, wings, and clothing are wonderfully animated as if in an invigorating breeze. Kiesler reinterpreted that iconic monument to victory: here the figure has vanished, leaving only its darkened wings collapsing to the ground.

The motif of wings falling to earth evokes other sources as well, such as the biblical downfall of angels immortalized in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost or the Greek myth of Icarus. In the years after World War II, the myth of Icarus appealed to some artists and writers. On manmade wings of feathers and wax, Icarus became the first human to fly. But he flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, and he plummeted to earth, crashing to his death—much as the utopian aspirations of Kiesler’s generation had been crushed by war. Winged Victory offers a poignant visual metaphor for the collapse of the ideas and ideals of Western civilization as well as the destruction often inherent in victory.

Frederick Kiesler, Winged Victory, circa 1951. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Frederick Kiesler, Winged Victory, circa 1951. Photo by Ben Aqua.

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