By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008
The furrows in Martin Luther King Jr.'s brow already are gone, and his face looks less troubled.
The pen in his left hand is gone, too, replaced by a scroll. His hands seemed etched in more detail, down to the creases in his knuckles and the bones under the skin. There are buttons on his coat sleeves.
The sculpture of the civil rights leader, destined for a memorial on Washington's Tidal Basin, began undergoing these subtle yet noticeable changes even before a federal arts commission expressed its criticism of the model last month. Now it will probably be altered even more.
Ed Jackson Jr., the executive architect on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial project, said last week that he is sending more modifications to the sculptor in China, who is building a full-scale clay model of the 28-foot sculpture, known as the Stone of Hope.
"If he says it's doable," Jackson said of project sculptor Lei Yixin, adding that if Lei can maintain the integrity of the massive image of King, "then we're willing to do it."
But in an interview last week, Lei expressed irritation at objections the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts has raised to the proposed depiction of King in the Stone of Hope, the centerpiece of the $100 million memorial.
Initially, the arts commission "voted for it unanimously," he said by telephone from his home in Changsha, China. "Now they say my statue is too confrontational.
"Some of them say my statue resembles dictators from communist or socialist countries, that it somewhat resembles Stalin or Lenin from the Soviet Union or Mao Zedong from China," Lei said.
"The art of statues originally came from the West," he said. "What is the difference in the style in the socialist countries? It's like ballet. We Chinese can boast that our ballet is among the best in the world. Do not think it is different because it is Chinese."
The tempest over the aesthetics of the King statue has arisen since the federal commission approved the design in 2006, based on drawings inspired by a famous photograph. The design showed an image of King from the waist up with his arms crossed, subtly emerging from the stone. He has a pen in his left hand and a thoughtful look on his face.
But the initial models constructed in China by Lei and his team of artisans show King from the knees up, almost fully clear of the stone, with a knitted brow and a stern look.
Last month, commission Secretary Thomas Luebke wrote a letter criticizing the sculpture as too "confrontational" and reminiscent of the social realism style. He compared it to statues that have been torn down in totalitarian states and said commission members thought it had lost the subtlety they liked in the drawings.
The letter set off intense debate, with members of the public and the arts community arguing the pros and cons of the sculpture. "I had to rush around and mend fences that weren't even broken," Jackson, the head architect, said.
On Wednesday he met with commission Chairman Earl A. Powell III, at the National Gallery of Art, which Powell directs.
"This is all part of the process," Jackson said, adding that he talked to Powell about the criticisms and modifications being made to the model. "I think we are singing from the same songbook."
"I would characterize it more as a progress report," Powell said. "At the last meeting we saw clay models. We had some concerns about the evolution of the image. At some point we'll see some refinements of that. The direction it's headed in is what we're concerned about.
"We want to be helpful in the discourse and get one of the great monuments for Washington out of this," he added.
By law, no project like the memorial can go forward without approval from the commission, the federal agency that advises the government on public design and aesthetics in the capital.
Most memorials and monuments proposed for Washington undergo rigorous review and public debate, which can go on for years and involve significant design changes. The Korean War Veterans Memorial, for example, had more than a dozen statues subtracted from its design.
Jackson said several adjustments in the King model had been made before the commission voiced its objections.
He said, for example, that the furrows between King's eyebrows already had been removed, at his request. He showed a photograph of the model he received from Lei early last week in which that seems evident.
In addition, the pen King is holding had to be replaced because of a research error.
The pen appeared to be in King's left hand in a copy of the 1966 Bob Fitch photo the foundation acquired, Jackson said. But after the sculptor finished the first models, the foundation discovered it had accidentally been sent a reversed copy of the photo. King was right-handed, and the pen was in his right hand. According to Jackson, the project officials realized: "If we put a pen in his left hand, it suggests he's left-handed. We can't do that."
In response to the commission, Jackson said he is now asking if Lei can alter the model to make King's figure appear more integrated into the stone, "as if he still hasn't cleared the stone."
The sculpture controversy is the latest to hit the project. Last year, critics complained after Lei was introduced as the chief sculptor, saying an African American artist, or any American, would have been preferable, and contending that the models did not look like King.
The King memorial has been authorized by Congress. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in 2006. And preliminary utility work on the site is expected to begin this month, Jackson said.
Major work, or "the big dig," as he called it, is expected to start by October, and the memorial could be completed next year.
Jackson said an inspirational image is still a goal of the project. "We want something that when you experience it, you're moved by it," he said.
Researcher Wu Meng in Shanghai contributed to this report.