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Antiqued Statuary Doesn't Live Up to Roosevelt

By Paul Richard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 1997; Page G06

First, the Washington Monument.

There it stands dignified, commanding, minimalist and macho, both Roman and Egyptian. The landscape pivots around it. At the city's core, among our public sculptures, the Monument is chief.

"The Seated Lincoln," by Daniel Chester French, is a great American statue; when touring, laughing adolescents step into his presence they shut up. The black wing-spread of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial has more than done its duty. These are the grand sculptures of the Mall and its environs. The statuary at the new Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is not in their league. Nine bronze figures and bas-reliefs have been set into place in designer Lawrence Halprin's nicely sequenced, nicely scaled, stony outdoor rooms. The bronzes -- Neil Estern's seated FDR, 8 feet 7 inches high, is the biggest; Robert Graham's the most engaging -- are mostly solid, serviceable, middlebrow, legible and solemn. But they share an uncertain relationship to time.

They can't really decide whether they're new or antiquarian. They were conceived in the 1970s and belong as much to those days as to FDR's. Whatever the reason, they sort of fib about their age. Intentionally blurred, as if by centuries of rain, and heavily patinated (though not, of course, by weather), the new bronzes have been styled to present themselves as older than they are.

Throughout the memorial, this reach for the antique is a governing aesthetic. Halprin's heavy, rough-hewn granite blocks want badly to seem Stonehengey and giant-tossed. But they've been grouted with brown epoxy, and they're wholly free of lichen, and so the sought-for mood of pastoral antiquity -- of statues in the shadows and fountains in the ruins -- feels just a little bogus.

But then the late 20th century isn't exactly the golden age of hewn stones and bronze statuary.

Halprin got the stones from a Minnesota granite company and assigned the bronzes to five more-or-less well-known, mature, competent American artists -- Leonard Baskin, Neil Estern, Robert Graham, Tom Hardy and George Segal.

The current market for bronze statues, says Estern, is much stronger than it was 20 years ago, but making them convincingly remains a fading skill. The ancient tricks required aren't as sharp as they once were. In Athens and Rome, in Leonardo's day and Rodin's, and after our Civil War, when America's parks, and its graveyards too, were filled with monuments, sculptors were dab hands at modeling the sinews of horses, the fall of heavy drapery, and far-seeing heroes' eyes. Not anymore.

The first work of bronze encountered is the weakest. Called "The Presidential Seal," it was welded by Tom Hardy for the "Eagle Alcove." Hardy's Roman-American oversize eagle spreads its wings before a circle ringed with stars. Its beak is hooked, and its talons are sharp, but its plump body is in need of grooming. There are holes in its feathers; it's a raggedy bird.

Intentional blurring has softened the figures of "The First Inaugural," the next sculpture you see -- a relief by Robert Graham, and not his best. It depicts the new president -- dimmed, as if by mists of memory -- riding in an open car and waving to the crowd. The people who wave back are even blurrier than the president; they look like ghosts.

Statue makers used to work from living models. Nowadays, especially when given historical commissions, they're more likely to rely on old newsreels and pages from Life magazine, and when you look into these bronzes you keep thinking of old photos, as if these were statues of old pictures, not flesh.

Statuary once mattered much more than it does now. Historians in the Renaissance hoarded antique coins, medals and marble busts because that was their only way of ever finding out what Alexander, Caesar and other worthies looked like. But a century from now, when people want to know the real FDR, they'll listen to recordings for the timbre of his voice and watch old newsreels to catch his reassuring twinkle and the fine jut of his chin.

George Segal's assignment was to populate the room about the Great Depression. His three figure groups recall those hard times.

Segal has a nice way of varying his surfaces -- some are rendered with exactness, some drift from that precision toward the abstract. In "The Fireside Chat," a life-size man, cast in bronze, is seated on a kitchen chair listening to the radio. You can't read the thinness of his farmer's arms or the poor cut of his clothes; they're just suggested. But the all-important radio is detailed minutely -- from the texture of the cloth covering its speaker to the ribbing of its knobs.

The five men in Segal's "The Breadline" are meant to make you think of '30s paintings and Farm Security Administration photographs, and they do. The husband, in denim, and the wife, in thin cotton, of "The Rural Couple" owe much to Grant Wood's "American Gothic." Though some of the odd poignancy of Segal's plaster people -- that fragile, pale ghostliness -- is lost when he resorts to bronze, his ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished figures at the memorial convey messages of dignity, and messages of poverty, that any child could read.

Farmers, rock-drillers, geometers, short-order cooks, actors, turbaned women, riveters and swaths of drapery all flicker together in Graham's five-part bas-relief. They've been choreographed by references to Mondrian's grids, Josef Albers's squares and Ad Reinhardt's monochromes. The piece, which has the dullest of titles, is called "Social Problems." Graham keeps shifting his surfaces (which sometimes evoke window glass, sometimes veiling, sometimes fog), and his scale, and his colors. His work is a kind of metal field painting. It is active. Instead of being some hagiographic, deferential image of the president, it's a picture of us.

In the next room we confront the death of FDR. Leonard Baskin's shallow bas-relief is intended to evoke the mourning at his funeral (though here, again, the famous photographs of the accordionist, weeping, and the woman waving goodbye are more powerful than any bronze). Baskin has long seemed a slightly retrograde artist who never quite makes it to the level of the masters he strives to emulate. He goes for a mood of never-never timelessness, and he quotes a lot. His horses, unbridled like Picasso's, pun the Parthenon frieze. The lead mourner with his face in his hands is a quote from the silent movies, or perhaps from Masaccio's "Expulsion."

Next come three straightforward figures by Neil Estern: Franklin and Eleanor and Fala. While Daniel Chester French's Lincoln sits in a precisely cubical space, Estern's FDR, like Michelangelo's figures in the Medici tomb, is composed of triangles. French's statue takes some of its mightiness from the calm strength of Lincoln's resting hands, and also from the jut of his enormous square-toed boots; Estern, though not so successfully, has also called attention to his subject's shoes and hands. His Eleanor, an upright columnar figure, wears thoroughly sensible laced shoes.

(And as for the wheelchair controversy: In the White House, Roosevelt often used a regular wooden chair with wheels on its legs, and you can clearly see the wheels on the one he sits in here.)

Statues, especially memorial statues, seem to require lots of drapery, though we are seldom told why. Even Lincoln, though he doesn't seem to need it, has a big cloak tossed over the back of his throne. FDR wears a floor-length cape, and a gratuitous blanket has been thrown over the lead horse in Baskin's funeral cortege, as if cloth were a sort of blessing.

The FDR Memorial is a good place to be -- the water is nice, the views are good, the statuary is all right -- but the message is incomplete.

One thing that's missing is his deadliness. Roosevelt, Navy-trained, was a planner of battles, a deployer of armies and armadas. Most memorials dedicated to warriors cloak the death. The Vietnam veterans' wall, with its named dead, is one exception. Henri Merwin Shrady's Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the foot of Capitol Hill is another -- cold and implacable, he's the last enemy you'd ever want to see. This Roosevelt, unlike the man himself, has none of that ferocity. He's benign.

And a bit humorless. There's been a lot of talk about FDR's wheelchair, but what about his cigarette holder? The cartoonists of his day rightly understood it as symbolic of his spirit. He used it to chase gloom away, the way the good fairy uses her wand, and to demonstrate self-confidence, the way the general uses his swagger stick. But Roosevelt doesn't get to smoke at his memorial. Although smiling and good humor were as crucial to his presidency as they were to Ronald Reagan's, Estern's Franklin D. Roosevelt, open-mouthed, concerned, maybe slightly boggled, doesn't get to smile. The FDR Memorial is, on the whole, a heavy place, cloaked with weightiness, while Roosevelt the man was jauntiness itself.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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