In the final act of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a statue of Queen Hermione comes to life after 16 years of being seemingly frozen in time. Her observations and reconciliation with her daughter, Paulina, leads to a somewhat qualified happily (sort of) ever after ending to Shakespeare’s play. Conversely, when the statue of the murdered Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni steps down from his pedestal in the cemetery to accept a dinner invitation, literally all hell breaks loose as a result.
Statues. They stand in place through the seasons and through the ages. Through times of war and peace. Through pandemonium and pandemic, they stare down at us silently concealing their thoughts. But today, more and more, they seem to be speaking volumes, and their message is often contradictory and confusing. It just depends on which statue you’re talking to.
The dialogics of statuary if you will.
Benedict Arnold was an American hero before he became a traitor and although his actions and betrayals are condemned in the American history books, he retains public recognition as a person of historical importance (albeit a controversial one) in Saint John, New Brunswick. There he rates a statue in a public park as well as a room dedicated in his honour at the University of NB faculty club that features a portrait of Arnold along with his personal correspondence. One country’s traitor is another’s Loyalist.
The heroic stature of the abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad and the revolt against slavery leading to emancipation after the American Civil War went largely unrecognized in the Southern U.S. in the first half of the 20th century while the commissioning and construction of statuary memorializing Robert E. Lee (and many others) commemorating the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy can be found in abundance. These cultural markers of white supremacy standing beneath the Confederate flag, are located in museums, war memorials, public parks, town centers, Civil War battlefields and historic sites throughout the South while people who rebelled against enslavement like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, rate nary a mention.
Because this is the point with statues: as material culture, often they represent the life and times of real people. So what a person may have done or said in one age, might be interpreted differently in another. As historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in his collection of essays On History (1997):
“In theory the past – all the past, anything and everything that has happened to date – constitutes history. A lot of it is not the province of historians but a good deal of it is. And, insofar as they compile and constitute the collective memory of the past, people in contemporary society have to rely on them.”
Hobsbawm went on to note that some “national historians” have to guard against being the “servants of ideologists.”
In that sense, statues can be as ideological as they are representational. But it is most often the ideological divide – not the aesthetics – that has prompted debate and discussion with regard to which statues are worth keeping and which ones have outlived their plinth life.
Sally Han is the manager of Cultural Partnerships for the City of Toronto. She oversees the installation and upkeep for the 234 public art and statue installations throughout the city. Han had this to say about the current debates: “There are no easy answers. The questions posed are part of larger policy questions about naming public spaces and infrastructure, public commemoration, and honors bestowed by the city.”
The majestic equestrian statue of Edward VII, King of the United Kingdom and Ireland and Emperor of India from 1901 until his death in 1910, was considered redundant by the city of New Delhi in 1968 where it was slated to be melted down and the bronze metal repurposed. After a private collector intervened, it was transported to Toronto and erected in a place of honor outside the provincial parliament building at Queen’s Park.
The statue was immediately the subject of much discussion and debate in the press and at city hall. The cost of its installation was originally borne by the businessman and former Conservative MP, Harry Jackman, who was then president of Empire Life Insurance company. Jackman personally assumed the purchase and transportation costs of re-locating the statue from New Delhi to Toronto in 1969. As the debate heated up, he attempted to distance himself from the legacies of empire and British imperialism claiming in the Toronto Star, “it was actually a tribute to that noble animal, the horse” that he wished to celebrate.
Now, just over a half century later, as the same debate continues to play itself out again in real time, propelled by the Movement for Black Lives, Idle No More and other organizations and individuals, Sally Han adds: “As all curators appreciate, when conditions change, so too must the curatorial approach. There are no fixed narratives or absolute truths in history so any artwork, statue or memorial must participate in ongoing conversations with the wider public regarding their purpose, relevance and impact.”
A complete account of the city’s role and the debate within city council in the late 1960s can be found in an article by David Wencer that appeared in the TORONTOIST here.
Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, also has not aged well. His statue (close to Edward VII) in Queen’s Park was vandalized over the summer with a coating of pink paint and is now cordoned off by a plywood fence and a garbage bag that hangs like a shroud over the P.M.’s head.
The debate continues down the 401 Highway along the Bay of Quinte in the town of Picton, in Prince Edward County. There city council had to deal with similar protests around their own statue of Sir John A. which is located outside the county courthouse where Macdonald presented his first court case in 1834. Last summer the Prince Edward Heritage Advisory Committee was tasked by City Council to form a Working Group after the statue was vandalized (or the focus of an “artistic intervention” as the protestors referred to their action). After several months of deliberation, the Working Group and the PEHAC voted to remove the statue to storage but was overruled by Picton city council last week after a specially called 4 1/2 hour meeting.
Elizabeth Driver is director/curator for Campbell House Museum, a historic site in the city of Toronto. She sits on the PEHAC and, when contacted by Aisle Say.ca, had this to say about the recent meeting: “I can tell you the recommendation of both the Working Group and the PEHAC was to remove the statue to storage. Council’s decision was for the statue to remain on Main Street but with contextual information. But what is interesting from an arts perspective is that it was ultimately the Donor Agreement, which protects the rights of the artist and the rights of the Macdonald Project (which donated the statue) that persuaded Council not to remove the statue. Canadian artist copyright protected the statue in this case – never mind the gnashing of teeth on all sides of the issue!”
Go a bit further down the 401 Highway and you can still take a clearly marked exit that reads, “Sir John A. Macdonald Blvd.” for the city of Kingston, but don’t look for the name anymore on the law school building at Queen’s University. It has been removed “because of the hurtful views and policies he and his government advanced in relation to Indigenous people and racial minorities,” according to the dean, Mark Walters, when interviewed by the CBC.
Ideology was certainly at issue in a recent op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail lamenting the fact that Egerton Ryerson’s statue on the campus that bears his name in Toronto was being unfairly vilified as another architect (with Macdonald) of Canada’s racist residential school system. A petition with over 10,000 signatures has requested the removal of the statue. The contentious op-ed screed observed that Dr. Norman Bethune’s statue sits comfortably “unmolested” outside the Faculty of Medicine building on the University of Toronto campus from which he graduated.
Readers of the Globe and Mail were encouraged to rebuke the statue because of Dr. Bethune’s membership in the Communist party and his belief in a socialized, national health care system that could serve all Canadians free of charge. Absent in the piece was any acknowledgement of the good doctor’s selfless pursuit of medicine in the support of internationalism that propelled his humanitarian participation in both the Spanish Civil War and the Chinese Revolution where his battlefield innovations in blood transfusions and surgical techniques aided combatants and civilians alike on both sides of the conflict.
Bethune died in 1939 and could not have foreseen that a universal, national health care system would be gradually put in place in Canada just slightly over two decades following his death (beginning in Saskatchewan under the government of Tommy Douglas) and that organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières would continue his pursuit of medicine in the cause of internationalism in areas of conflict and need throughout the world. It would have been especially gratifying for Bethune to have been able to witness another Canadian physician (again from his own faculty at the U of Toronto), Dr. James Orbinski, accept the Nobel Prize for the work of Doctors Without Borders in 1999.
Much statuary is localized in its context so that one town’s villain may be another’s hero. The long journey home for Friedrich Engels is another good case in point. When the artist Phil Collins was looking for statuary to honor the city of Manchester for the 2017 Manchester International Festival, he thought of Engels, the co-author, with Karl Marx, of the Communist Manifesto and also an active member of the city’s cultural landscape where he lived for two decades in the mid-19th century.
A small town in Ukraine had banned and exiled a statue (although not destroyed it) of Engels as a symbol of the Soviet era and laid it to rest covered in burlap in a farmer’s field. When Collins discovered its whereabouts, he repatriated the 3.5 metre effigy for a homecoming that would be central to the MIF that year. Collins felt that Engels, also author of The Condition of the Working Class in England, might be the perfect icon to (ironically) reinvigorate the city’s business centre where the unveiling took place.
Kat Harrison-Dibbits, head of communications for HOME, the charity that runs MIF, reports that, so far, comrade Engels has been embraced warmly by the majority of the city’s populace and has become a favorite photo-op for locals as well as tourists. Although she playfully adds: “if you take a look at our Instagram you’ll see we managed to get him appearing to have a pumpkin for a head during Manchester’s Halloween celebrations this year, which wasn’t hugely respectful but did make people laugh!”
It should be noted here that over the years waves of feminist museology has interrogated the under-representation of women in the patriarchal world of statuary in many of the generic sites listed above. Feminist scholarship has even de-sexed military statistics in various epochs revealing the participation of women in previously unrecorded numbers. In numerous fortresses and military historic sites it has been discovered that women have actively left the confines of the kitchen to join the men on the barricades performing heroic acts in the midst of battle. Is it little wonder then that many of these recently toppled male statues have seen women pulling on the ropes who also see them as symbols of male supremacy.
Ever so gradually historic sites and public places are beginning to make amends. In Canada, the Women are Persons! monument was installed two decades ago on Parliament Hill in Ottawa where previously statuary was an exclusively male domain. The spatially distanced sculpture pictures five women at a tea party. Known as “the Famous Five” (Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy and Henrietta Muir Edwards) all were from Alberta and active in a court case that sought to overturn a court ruling that women could not be appointed to the Senate, because they were not considered “qualified persons.” Sadly, it was not the Canadian court system that overturned the ruling but rather Privy Council in London who reversed the decision.
While the long arc of Christianity throughout the centuries has produced numerous saints and martyrs – not to mention a body count piled high by the soldiers of Christ – the sanctification of statuary reaches its zenith within the Catholic Church. It is all the more disturbing then that when Pope Francis recently attempted to expand Church dogma just a wee bit by recognizing the multicultural and multiethnic religious practices of the Incas and other Indigenous peoples within the Amazon Basin region, that he was met with such a rash of criticism.
Such was the case when the Pope blessed a statue of Pachamama, the Inca goddess of fertility and the harvest, sometimes called Mother Earth, at a meeting of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon in Rome in October of last year.
Right wing extremists within the Catholic Church were enraged. The American right-wing journal, First Things, declared the synod had revealed “an antichristic church.” German Cardinal Walter Brandmuller, ranting about scriptural prophecy and quoting chapter and verse about end times, called the statues “the abomination of desolation in the holy place.” With these dog whistles summoning the faithful, vandals entered the church where the statues were on exhibition, stole them and threw them into the Tiber. Proud and secure in the surety of their moral purpose and holy mission, they recorded the act for broadcast on YouTube.
Feminist iconography can be controversial in other ways. Maggi Hamblings’ sculpture of author Mary Wollstonecraft, referred to by some as the “mother of feminism,” was recently unveiled in Newington Green, near where she worked in North London, and it is already the subject of much debate. Museologist Emma Evelyn Roberts of Liverpool John Moores University comments on the controversy here.
After a summer of protest that was the result of racially motivated police brutality, Donald Trump was quick to wrap statuary in the mantle of patriotism in an effort to leverage political advantage for his flagging campaign. Apparently never having met a statue he could not embrace – “our beautiful sacred precious statues” – he hurriedly orchestrated a major speech that saw his campaign staff fly off to South Dakota to organize an open air event that featured Trump in the shadow of Mt. Rushmore. Before the speech, the president only half jokingly suggested to the governor of the state that he believed his own visage would go well carved beside the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln.
By executive order in July, Trump also established a mandate to found a “National Garden of American Heroes” by 2026 that would form part of the celebration of the nation’s 250th birthday that year. It will be interesting to see if support for this initiative will be forthcoming from the incoming Biden/Harris administration.
Is the placement of a statue in the town square still a fitting memorial for a deserving individual?
Last February, The Guardian reported the English town of Grantham, located about an hour’s train ride north of London, planned to unveil a statue of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (who was born in Grantham) this coming spring. The project was originally rejected by London councillors when it was proposed to be erected in Parliament Square in the central part of the city. The 10.5ft figure will be constructed on a plinth of the same height in an effort to put it beyond the reach of protestors. Like Trump’s America, Grantham residents are split down the middle between the Iron (bronze actually, for the statue) Lady’s admirerers and her detractors.
On the other hand, the town of Sudbury, Ontario, is currently engaged in a very cordial exchange of ideas about how best to honour a person who has touched the hearts and certainly touched the minds of millions around the globe. Suggestions have ranged from re-naming the local library or perhaps naming a major street in order to bestow a fitting commemoration for one of their native sons. What really is the best way to honour such a person in this day and age? Perhaps the answer should be phrased in the form of a question: Who is Alex Trebek?