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Unhappy With 'Confrontational' Image, U.S. Panel Wants King Statue Reworked

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008; Page A01

A powerful federal arts commission is urging that the sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. proposed for a memorial on the Tidal Basin be reworked because it is too "confrontational" and reminiscent of political art in totalitarian states.

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The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts thinks "the colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed statue recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries," commission secretary Thomas Luebke said in a letter in April.

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.

A model of the statue has been built in China. The project's chief architect, Ed Jackson Jr., huddled with advisers this week in Ann Arbor, Mich., to discuss ways to address the commission's objections before sculpting of the granite statue begins.

"We said: 'Okay, this is what the commission said. How best can we achieve that and retain what we have accomplished thus far?' "

It is the second time in recent months that the memorial to the slain civil rights leader has come under fire. Last year, critics complained after a Chinese sculptor known for his monumental works of figures such as Mao Zedong was selected to create King and other elements of the memorial in China.

The $100 million memorial, which is being built largely with private donations by the Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, is planned for a crescent-shaped four-acre site among Washington's famed cherry trees on the northwest shore of the basin. Construction is expected to start this year and end next year.

The centerpiece is to be a 2 1/2 -story sculpture of the civil rights leader carved in a giant chunk of granite. Called the Stone of Hope, it would depict King, standing with his arms folded, looming from the stone. At 28 feet tall, it would be eight feet taller than the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial.

The King memorial has been authorized by Congress, and a groundbreaking ceremony was held in 2006. Its general design was approved by the seven-member federal commission that year, based on drawings of the Stone of Hope that showed a more subtle image of King, from the waist up, as if he were emerging organically out of the rock, the commission said.

But since the drawings have been developed into detailed models, the vision has generated criticism. The latest round came with the commission's April 25 letter to the foundation, which followed an April 17 hearing on the project.

Commission members said the sculpture "now features a stiffly frontal image, static in pose, confrontational in character," Luebke wrote. They "recommended strongly that the sculpture be reworked, both in form and modeling" and cited "precedents of a figure emerging from stone in the works of sculptors such as Michelangelo and Rodin."

The commission objected to what it perceived as the loss of the subtle way King seemed to be coming out of the stone in the drawings, Luebke said.


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