“Stone of Hope,” the 30-foot memorial statue of Martin Luther King, on the National Mall in Washing, D.C., has the power to astound, but not in a good way.
The sculptor Lei Yixin, known for his statues of Chinese Revolution leader Mao Tse-tung, has said he was inspired by Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech delivered at the nearby Lincoln Memorial 48 years ago. But it doesn’t come across that way. Dr. King is seen coming out of a block of white granite standing stiffly with his arms locked across his chest. The posture conjures up a big-brother-is-watching-you poster. It conjures up Mao.
The U.S. Commission of Fine Art rejected Yixin’s design in 2008, saying that facial expression looked too solemn. Yixen changed it to appear thoughtful. But the figure is so tall, you can’t see that. All you see is the tough-guy stance. Dr. King was strong, but he wasn’t hard.
How do you celebrate a warrior’s memory without a warrior look? You may have to look all the way back to Michelangelo’s “David – his carving of the biblical hero who slew Goliath – to find it. Even at the moment of battle, you see only a hint of it in an otherwise easy stance – in the furtive palming of a stone in one hand and the sling flung casually over the shoulder. An intimation of fear shows solely in David’s furrowed brow. But like the MLK statue, David’s head is too high (16 feet in the air) to see the brow. You can see this for yourself in a faithful copy of the Florentine original at the Ringling Museum.
Michelangelo’s savvy tribute stands pretty much alone in the art world. More common are the bungled tributes to warriors like “Monument to Joe Louis” by Robert Graham, installed in downtown Detroit in 1986. The statue shows a 24-foot-long forearm with an ungloved, clenched fist thrust through steel bars that form a 24-foot high pyramid.. Through the bars, it looks imprisoned. And disembodied from Louis’ head and heart, the memorial touts force alone. This makes the work less a celebration of Louis and more a reminder of racial tensions. Yixin’s celebration of MLK has the unwitting punch of “Monument to Joe Louis.”
Another failed tribute to a victor is “Civic Virtue” by Frederick, McMonnies, installed at NYC’s City Hall in 1922. A 57-foot-high work, it was supposed to represent the triumph of virtue over vice. What you got was a stern-looking male (virtue) standing over two female figures (the siren vices of old) lying at his feet. Clearly, the artist’s high intention, spoiled by an outdated idea, can be misunderstood.
The concern here is that the MLK statue may be misunderstood, too.
Note: My book, “Sculpture Off The Pedestal” – a behind-the-scenes look at 25 sculptors – is available at Amazon.com, where you can also post a review.