IT IS DOUBTFUL that Albert Einstein ever received as many harsh words in his lifetime as the proposed Einstein memorial has already received, along with its sculptor. Robert Berks, and its progenitor, the National Academy of Sciences. At least two good, strong voices in this paper have been raised against it to date; and by the time all 139 tons of memorial (figure and base) are settled on the Constitution Avenue grounds in the dewy spring, you may bet that the national critical outcry will equal a great concentration of mass and energy. What the general public will think of the finished memorial remains to be seen-a prospect that always holds the possibility of solace or vindication for artists everwhere. But going by the photos alone, we can't help feeling that the critics are right to make a fuss, not only because the statue isn't beautiful, but also because it doesn't honor its subject.
Admittedly, its subject is not an easy one to honor properly; for the popular image of Einstein is not primarily of a man (though the thoughtful, rumpled figure is memorable), but rather of the power of intellection, the mind at full steam. This image doesn't lend itself easily to statuary; it rides no horses and issues no proclamations. To convey the picture of serious thought by showing a figure posed in contemplation is almost always bound to be inadequate (even Rodin knew the difference between "The Thinker" and thinking). Yet Mr. Berk's statue is more inadequate than it needs to be. The idea of a narcissistic Einstein studying a granite heaven in which 3,000 steel stars make up the constellations at the moment of his own birth is both silly and uncharacteristic.
What Mr. Berks, the national academy and the federal Commission of Fine Arts, which approved this thing, might have considered more carefully is what a statue means to people, people who have affection and admiration for the subject long before it becomes a statue. They must ba able to see life in the inanimate substance, life of which the substance is representative. One trouble with the Einstein memorial is that it is representative in the most superficial and sentimental ways. Everything is on the surface, such as Einstein carrying a scroll bearing his own major formulations, such as the "chewing gum" style itself, which always makes it look as if the sculptor started out with a clean, accurate likeness and then deliberately fudged it. As for national academy president Philip Handler's dream that scientists will flock to the memorial to sit beside the 21-foot master "and reflect beside him on the bench," that hardly seems likely. Some things will flock to the statue, but not scientists.
The system of relativity that Einstein developed was based on the idea that it must be possible to express the laws of physics that apply to the motion of a body in a way that is independent of the motion of the one who observes that body. In short, no absolute frame of reference exists. That may be true of statues as well; and one must not scream too quickly at a new work of art, especially public art, as one man's horror may be another's delight. That said, we still come down to the basic question of what-not solely who-is being honored here. If it is, as we believe, one of the two or three great minds of the century, let the academy start again.