By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 28, 2006
Remember, tomorrow's Memorial Day. That's what it's for, remembering.
The holiday's gone blurry. Now it's mostly fun (ballgames, setting up the barbecue, another day off work), but it used to be for focused recollections of the dead.
Not the dead in general, the dead in sharp particular. Half a million soldiers had died in the Civil War. When the rites were first observed in 1866, there were plenty to recall.
Each spring at the end of May, their graves were strewn with flowers, their faces brought to mind. This was deeply serious business. The fallen mustn't be forgotten. We used words like "the fallen" then. That seriousness bred art. That art would shape the country's look, and Washington's especially. Vast amounts of money, artistry and effort would be expended on its making. The beauty of the art would illumine its high purpose -- to immortalize remembrance. Strewn flowers weren't enough. The fallen would be given stone-and-metal monuments impervious to time.
Washington is filled with them. If you want to get Memorial Day, look around at the memorials. They're victors' monuments. They put generals on pedestals, and dead presidents above them. Washington's memorials share a certain style. Their statues aren't just portraits, though they're often that, as well; they're personified ideals. Their bronze laurel wreaths and eagles, and Greco-Roman lions, say: The past approves of us. They're insistently high-minded, august.
They represent an art movement, now dead. For a long time their architects and artists, their stone-carvers and bronze-founders got better and better. For a long time their elevated style got nobler and nobler. Then, suddenly, it died.
It died a poignant death -- at the peak of its accomplishment, just when it got great. We know the date exactly. Memorial sculpture's greatness left Washington forever on the 30th of May, Memorial Day, 1922.
* * *
That Memorial Day was when they dedicated the Lincoln Memorial.
The Lincoln is a temple. In the temple is his statue, a colossal marble figure by Daniel Chester French.
Of Washington's great personified sculptural memorials, the Lincoln is the greatest, and the last.
We keep trying. Other statues of dead presidents have succeeded French's Lincoln, but it's no use; it's over. They keep getting worse and worse.
French's statue is a portrait. He studied Lincoln's death mask and scrutinized his hand casts. It's also superhuman. Much larger than life, also more majestic, far-seeing and humane, it's like a statue of a god.
Nineteen feet high, 19 feet wide, it would fit into a cube. It was carved from 28 identical blocks of white Georgia marble. People shut up when they see it. The statue seems inhabited. It weighs an estimated 120 tons.
The broad stair from the Mall has awkwardly wide treads. These make your climb a pilgrimage. Only at the end is his full presence revealed. Lincoln peers into the distance, pondering his nation, its future and its past. His might is overwhelming. So, too, is his patience. Dwarfed by his great boot, the little people around his pedestal whisper to each other, if they dare to talk at all.
In 1917, with the building half completed, French had a 12-foot plaster model of his statue installed in the great hall to see how well it fit. It didn't seem big enough. French (1850-1931) was not a man who compromised. He doubled his statue's bulk.
Credit for the memorial isn't his alone. Architect Henry Bacon designed the building. The Piccirilli brothers (Attilio, Furio and Getulio) carved the marble. Politicians, engineers, bureaucrats and masons shared in the high cause.
Their faith is still apparent. They believed in the high righteousness of statue-centered monuments. That confidence is gone now. The Lincoln is the epitome of Civil War memorials. It's also the epitome of presidential statues. It'll never be surpassed.
* * *
Second only to the Lincoln, though not nearly as well known, is Henry Merwin Shrady's Ulysses S. Grant Memorial at the far end of the Mall, near the Capitol.
Shrady's bronze Grant is a killer, cold-eyed, relentless, storm-whipped, implacable. He's on his warhorse. Lincoln is enthroned. This does not divide them. They're spiritual companions. Both peer into the distance. Do their knowing gazes meet? Both men ponder death. They belong to the same era. Spiritually, politically and, especially, aesthetically, they're allied in the same cause.
Shrady's complicated memorial comes with the usual accouterments, marble plinths and balustrades, bronze draperies and lions. These are not what one remembers. Two amazing life-size sculpture groups -- "Cavalry" and "Artillery" -- flank the mounted general. Both depict war. Horses plunge and fall and neigh, caisson wheels creak, men scream and grimace. All the details are right. The bridles and the holsters, the wheel spokes and swords, all of them are right. Nothing is at rest.
Shrady (1871-1922) made one great work of art. This is it. His story is a strange one. He was president of the Continental Match Co. before he turned to sculpture. He won the Grant commission in a competition. (French and Augustus Saint-Gaudens were on the jury.) The making of its bronzes took him 20 years.
They resemble classical sculptures. They're also like a war movie, as action-packed, as harrowing, except they were conceived before there were such things as war movies.
The Grant Memorial was dedicated on April 27, 1922; the Lincoln, 33 days later. The two of them together mark the great tradition's end.
* * *
Movies helped kill the form. They're too much like memorials. They offer the observer, as memorials are supposed to do, larger-than-life likenesses, soul-disturbing narratives, riveting intensities. Movies are communal. They sharpen public memories. Like memorials they immortalize. To call to mind John Wayne, his voice, his strength, his swagger, you don't need a marble sculpture. These didn't die with his body. Just see his films again.
The memorial boom did not survive the movies' spread. Its confidence dissolved. It lost its national centrality. It burst like a bubble.
Look what's happened since.
The Jefferson Memorial was dedicated in 1943 on the 200th anniversary of his birth. Like the Lincoln, like the Grant, the Jefferson provides a monumental likeness meant to awe the viewer, but it's not in the same league. At the dedication, Rudulph Evans's 19-foot-high figure was still plaster, metal being needed for more important things than statues during World War II. Eventually, bronze replaced it, but that didn't help. Evans's airless figure is both sticklike and lumpish. It awes less than it irritates. What you mostly see is the dead president's ankle-length coat, which seems a cop-out. He doesn't do anything, he just stands there. To keep it from toppling over, his figure is supported by what appear to be a pair of buried bogus-Corinthian columns, with corncobs instead of acanthus leaves.
The big 1968 bust of John F. Kennedy in the Kennedy Center is another loser. French and Shrady spent many years perfecting the surfaces of their portraits. Robert Berks, the sculptor of the Kennedy, didn't bother. He was in too much of a hurry. Shrady spent 20 years on his memorial, French spent 11. Not Berks. "An artist has to be of his age," he's said. "Athletes perform faster; artists have to be faster, too."
Berks has portrayed Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope, Albert Einstein and Ted Leonsis. You could call his sculpture blob art. That's because he makes his portraits out of stuck-on blobs of clay before he has them cast in bronze. Kennedy's skin isn't like skin. It's like chewing gum stuck on the bottom of a movie seat.
As indistinct and undistinguished is Robert Graham's 2001 statue of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the Roosevelt Memorial, which looks like it was shaped with a comb. Roosevelt is in his wheelchair. His chair's in focus. Nothing else is. His suit jacket is blurred; it doesn't have buttons. His shoes are blurred; they don't have laces. His pince-nez is blurred, its lenses opaque. What's the president thinking? Who knows? You can't read his eyes. Graham's statue is bronze. It's also dinky.
Making mighty monumental statues of the great used to be an art form, a Washington art form. Not any more.
It's Memorial Day. Take a moment. Stand up, take your hats off, think of what the nation's lost.