By Julia Wolkoff
A flock of six bronze cranes soar upwards in a circular array. From a shy crane nesting its head in its feathers on the grassy base to its companion launching into the sky, wings fully extended, the group of cranes—called a sedge—demonstrate Anna Hyatt Huntington’s understanding of cranes’ full range of motion. This upward spiral is a compositional motif with which Huntington was familiar and often returned to. An earlier sculpture, Tiger Catching Heron (1911/12), shows a tiger leaping off of a rock to catch a bird mid flight, as it struggles to escape his lethal grasp. Birds in Flight—possibly a preliminary version of Cranes Rising—depicts a group of cranes in various stages of flight. Even the Diana twists and reaches towards the sky like Huntington’s birds. Cranes Rising is a unique example of a composition made possible by a group of the same animal. While the tiger leaping for a heron is fierce and predatory, the flock of cranes is hopeful. The sinuous lines and "whiplash" curves of Cranes Rising are uplifting and lyrical as they literally take to the sky.
In addition to their beauty and spectacular mating dances, cranes are particularly expressive animals. Highly vocal, they possess a large vocabulary of specialized calls, which has caused many cultures to use them as symbols.. Throughout Asia, the crane acts as a symbol of happiness and eternal youth. In Japan, the crane is a holy creature that symbolizes good fortune and longevity due to its fabled life span of a thousand years. The crane is a favorite subject of the tradition of origami and ancient Japanese legend promises that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish. Cranes are also featured on bridal kimonos in Japan, and one of Japan’s most popular folktales involves a crane that transforms itself into a maiden. These Asian traditions were especially likely to have been noticed by Anna Hyatt Huntington because of the American interest in Japanese culture so prevalent since the middle of the nineteenth century..
Anna Hyatt Huntington was repeatedly drawn to the elegance of the world’s tallest flying bird. Crane and Young, Angry Crane (1934), and Boy and Crane capture the grace of the long-necked, wide-winged creature. In their varying states of movement and repose, the cranes in all of these sculptures display a strong pathos. Crane and Young shows the majestic bird with wings outstretched over her nesting chicks as they squawk hopefully, look to their mother for food. Angry Crane represents the bird distorted, with his wings cowed and neck arches up into a terrible scream. Boy and Crane exemplifies Huntington’s own affinity for animals, with a young boy lovingly clutching his elongated pet.
By the time Anna Hyatt Huntington turned to the subject of cranes, the bird was rapidly disappearing. Cranes can be found on every continent except Antarctica and South America. However, by the mid-twentieth century, the Whooping Crane, one of only two crane species found in North America, were nearly extinct. A 1941 count found only fifteen living birds. The plight of the Whooping Cranes inspired some of the first US legislation to protect endangered species.
Cranes Rising was part of Anna Hyatt Huntington’s1936-39 traveling exhibition. After the exhibition the cranes were on loan to Columbia University, where they were displayed in 301 Philosophy Hall. Neither Anna nor her husband Archer Milton Huntington attended college formally although Archer received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. Anna gifted Cranes Rising to Columbia in May 1950 and the gift was formally acknowledged in October of that year. The sculpture remained on display in Philosophy Hall for over five decades.