Monday, May 30, 2011

Art History I: Memorial Day Edition

As we remember those who serve, Indianapolis has the distinction of having one of world's largest war memorials located at the geographic center of the city and state - the Indiana Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument. This memorial, dedicated in 1902, is often taken for granted, which is understandable despite its presence (at some point you just kind of accept it's there and move on).

Soldiers and Sailors Monument

Back in 1998, fresh out of architecture school, I had the unique opportunity to work on a round of renovation work on the Monument to prepare it to receive the Colonel Ely Lilly Civil War Museum. I investigated its history and spent some time at the Monument studying its architecture, but especially its statuary which is quite remarkable for its allegorical power.

The west side is a homecoming scene - a soldier returning to his family (not visible here but in the linked image) with the allegorical figure of Columbia (holding in her left hand the shield of the Union - "E pluribus unum") leading the returning victors. At her feet, a grateful freed slave offers up his shackles as farmers and tradespeople carry on their tasks. A victorious angel oversees all, marking, presumably, the Almighty's approval. The background also includes a tree and what must be a sunrise (consider that you view the tableau facing east) of a New Dawn.

In researching this article, I learned of a controversy regarding a current Indianapolis art project that would have appropriated the image of the freed slave in a new piece by Fred Wilson:

I believe the piece to be smart and provocative as it can be viewed from the Monument (though the Homecoming tableau is on the west face and the new piece is east of the Monument) and the appropriation - and statement - are clear. As counterpoint, I'd like to offer another famous flag-bearing Indianapolis figure:

"Pro Patria" (Henry Hering) faces downtown from the steps of the Indiana War Memorial. the subject of Wilson's sculpture, were he standing, would direct evoke Pro Patria and begin to tell a story of victory over adversity.
The east side features a group of soldiers tending to a fallen comrade. Above them Columbia again watches over, bearing a torch leading onward the troops behind her. The march forward is irresistible. There is no doubt whatsoever about the outcome.

Atop the Monument, yet another Columbia stands ready with torch and sword in hands. One popular fable has her facing south to guard against a possible second uprising, but I prefer to think the architect Bruno Schmitz just thought it nice to have her face the sun.

"Lady Liberty" and Columbia are synonymous and represent the embodiment of American ideals. Images of the Monument when viewed alongside John Gast's painting make clear where our collective head was at in the late 1800s. The maintenance of the Union and the concept of Manifest Destiny are linked here, and not very subtly. The painting suggests the displacement of Native Americans and the conquering of Nature.

File:American progress.JPG

Like all great public art the Monument works at several levels to tell several stories at once. They are products of their time and must be viewed that way. There are some who would seek to retell or redact the stories they feel do not conform to today's mores. This is ironic in that the Monument memorializes, however imperfectly, thousands of citizens who died, at least in part, to preserve the Nation's values, the greatest of which is the freedom to express ones self.


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