Have you ever had the feeling you were being watched as you headed for the front entrance of the GISW? The truth is that anyone who passes by the upper parking lot, day or night, is carefully scrutinized by a grotesque observer who uses a magnifying lens and takes copious notes. Should you be alarmed? Concerned?
Well, not really, but you should stop and take a second look at the sculpture on the center island of the lot. It is a grotesque sculptured by a former German School student, Robert Alger (Abitur 1987).
Unlike gargoyles that usually have funnels cut into them to channel rainwater from the roofs of churches, grotesques have a similar look but do not contain such a spout. Carved in limestone in the late 1990s, “Observer Grotesque” was completed while Alger was apprenticed to the Italian Master Stone Carver Vincent Palumbo (1936-2000) at the National Cathedral in Washington.
The idea behind the sculpture
Alger’s father worked for the National Cathedral, and the family lived in an apartment in Hearst Hall, a building on the cathedral grounds, located directly adjacent to the stone carver's shed. From the age of 11, Alger worked under “Palumbo's watchful eye” spending his free time in the carver's shed.
Although the carver’s shed was torn down in 2000, Alger’s experiences there inspired the sculpture now at the German School. As he explains: “There were also many instances when throngs of cathedral visitors flocked to the windows of the carver's shed to get a glimpse of how the small group of stone carvers led by Vincent shaped various pieces of limestone into finished architectural, ornamental, and sculptural works that adorn the cathedral to this day. Often I turned to look outside for a moment only to see a maze of faces and eyes staring at me, observing each movement I made with my chisels and hammer.”
It was several years later, while conducting stone carving demonstrations during the Cathedral’s annual flower mart and open house, that he again felt the watchful gaze of the visitors. So he “decided to turn the tables on the yearly visitors and spectators, so that they might feel a eye staring back at them. It was a spur of the moment and a playful idea.”
Alger explains, “I decided to give my observer figure the grotesque features . . . of kneeling, squinting, the scribbling hand clenching the pencil, the clenched teeth--in order to portray the almost excruciating pains and contorted position taken by the observer just to stare through his magnifying lens at whatever or whoever he was observing.
"Observer Grotesque" at the German International School Washington D.C.
And at a later stone-carving demonstration in the early 2000s, Alger found himself answering questions from a visitor, who had known Vincent Palumbo. The visitor was Monika Hennig, the art teacher at the German School, who wanted some of her older students to get a taste of working with stone. She asked Alger whether he was willing to conduct a stone carving demonstration and talk at the School.
Alger brought along "Observer Grotesque" for the stone carving demonstration. He was pleased with the students’ response to the lesson. And during the Q&A session, Dr. Klaustermeyer, the principal, upon Monika Hennig’s urging, asked Alger whether the sculpture was for sale. Shortly thereafter, Alger helped install the grotesque so that it might “keep a watchful eye on all at the DSW” and expressed the hope that the School community might grow to view him as an undying friend despite his stern and stone-faced appearance. “I am sure that behind that exterior lies a playful nature.
About the sculptor
Robert Alger is a Czech-American sculptor and stone carver who currently resides in the Czech Republic.
When he was 11 years old, Alger learned to carve stone from Master Stone Carver Vincent Palumbo; a 21-year-long working relationship developed that ended with Palumbo’s untimely passing in 2000.Alger worked as an apprentice stone carver at the Washington National Cathedral, and later on as a stone carver/assistant on numerous projects, including the Naval Academy (Annapolis, Maryland), the Pennsylvania State Capitol (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), the White House and the US Capitol (Washington).
He is a graduate of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Carrara (Italy) and a professional member of the Stone Carvers Guild (USA). He has organized and conducted numerous stone carving demonstrations and participates in sculpture symposiums. He graduated from the German School (DSW) in 1987 (Abitur).
Author and Photographer: Dr. Peter Dreher, retired DSW (now GISW) English teacher, April 26, 2020