1997-98 Arts Preview

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Diamonds, rubies and ordinary rocks star at area's new Mine Gallery.

A memorial to the commander of the Civil War's Massachusetts 54th Regiment comes to town.

A profile of America's most successful playwright as he prepares "Proposals" for a pre-Broadway run

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In All Its Glory, the 54th Mass
Marches Into Washington
Shaw sculpture
Augustus Saint-Gauden's monument to Robert Gould Shaw and his all black 54th Regiment of the Union Army being installed in the National Gallery by Clifford Crane (top right) and his crew.
Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post

By Paul Richard
Sunday, September 7, 1997

Monumental Washington, a city that already has more than its fair share of Civil War memorials, this season will be getting the most moving of them all.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens's monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment is a sort of sculpted hymn to sacrificial courage and interracial decency. The 1897 memorial stands in bronze on the edge of Boston Common. The sculptor's much-adjusted plaster version of the sculpture group will go on public view Sept. 21 at the National Gallery of Art.

It's not quite an acquisition. The newly restored plaster arrives here on a 10-year renewable loan from the National Park Service's Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, N.H. But it is more than just another transitory show. The gallery's West Building has been extensively adjusted 20 feet of original wall has been taken down, and a massive steel beam inserted in the floor in order to receive the delicate, enormous work of 19th-century art.

The plaster is a bas-relief 15 feet high, 18 feet wide and 3 feet deep. Though classical in theme (the sculpture quotes the frieze that runs around the Parthenon, Roman equestrian statues, and the bronzes of the Florentines), the memorial is in spirit progressively American. It is our most intensely felt abolitionist work of art.
Detail of one of the rows of marching soldiers.
Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post

Shaw, a right-minded aristocratic Bostonian, was only 25 when he took command of the 54th, the first African American regiment to fight with the Union Army during the Civil War. He fought with them, and he died with them. There were 281 casualties among the 600 soldiers of the 54th who stormed Fort Wagner at the port of Charleston, S.C., in 1863. Their corpses, Shaw's among them, were thrown into a common grave.

Saint-Gaudens's infantrymen aren't generalized soldiers or stereotyped black Americans. Each is individualized. All were portrayed from life. They're not victims, they're heroes. It isn't just the drum or the marching rhythms of their blanket rolls, their canteens and their rifles that drives them to their destiny. They know where they are going. The justice of their cause leads them willingly to death.

The meditating figure mournful, cowled, androgynous which Saint-Gaudens fashioned to sit beside the tomb of Henry Adams's wife in Rock Creek Cemetery is one of the two best statues in Washington. Daniel Chester French's "Seated Lincoln" in the Lincoln Memorial is the other. Saint-Gaudens's Shaw Memorial is comparably distinguished. It will be shown in the West Building with plaster sketches and related studies until Dec. 14, when the American galleries there will close while their skylights are replaced. The memorial will go on view again permanently, one hopes in fall 1998.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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