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The great examples of abstraction, as in the Vietnam or Oklahoma City Memorials – can be immensely powerful spaces. It is the hundreds of followers of these carefully planned memorials that often deaden our perception of what previous generations saw as greatness in art.




Something Tangible

By Henry J. Duffy and Lawrence J. Nowlan

The subject of public monuments has gained attention in recent years, as great tragedies and events resonate in the public consciousness: We may think of the Vietnam Memorial, the Oklahoma City Memorial or the new World War II Memorial in Washington, DC.

Each of these has been born from uncommon human tragedy, and each met controversy and struggle in achieving the final form we see today. Monuments are, after all, deeply personal – they may be civic structures designed and built more often than not by committees representing varying interests, but the ultimate need is individual. Survivors, family members and sympathetic others all need something tangible to serve as a lynchpin to their grief and remembrance.

There are other kinds of monuments as well. Now, as always, people want to commemorate great achievements and success. Public sculpture may be erected for sports heroes, civic leaders, celebrities and others. Public portraiture is also still alive. We may not see equestrian statues any more, but standing and bust-length portraits of individuals are still made.

The long tradition of permanent remembrance stretches back to the first cave artist who placed his hand on a rock wall and blew pigment over it to leave a silhouette of his hand. Ancient cultures used structures and figures, often combined, to provide the dead with a place to anchor in the afterlife, and to recall the exploits (real or desired) of kings and warriors. The Greeks made this practice individual and poetic, erecting handsome, naturalistic marble figures of athletes and warriors, philosophers and gods. For the Romans, an intense realism seems to have given a human face to emperors and political leaders who were often brutal in their grasp for power. In the Renaissance and Medieval times, public art was built on the tradition of the past.

In the Renaissance, the Classical drive for naturalism combined intellect and realism with spirituality. The Baroque introduced theater and emotion. The suppressed electricity of Michelangelo's "David" is replaced by all-out energy in Bernini's telling of the same story. By the 19th century, civic beautification and the art of making instructional or "telling" monuments reached a crescendo. The great personalities of the era – people like Rude, Carpeaux and Rodin – took from the past and made it modern. Each expressed public and private triumphs and failures through the medium of public art. The subject matter changed as well. From warriors and kings, portraiture and monuments moved to literary figures, politicians and the social elite. Even the man on the street could find a place in these figures.

In America, one of the great sculptors of the era was Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907). Trained in Paris and Rome, he stands out in the art of his time because of a complexity of meaning expressed through a simplicity of form. His "Farragut Monument" took the public by surprise. The calmness of a man simply standing seemed opposite to the more histrionic style people expected to see. The "Standing Lincoln" in Chicago captured the image of the 16th president with a verisimilitude described by Robert Lincoln, the president's son, as the best portrait ever done of his father. Humble and powerful, the figure commands our attention. The "Shaw Memorial" in Boston is one of the great works of the 19th century, still seen as a masterpiece to the glory and sacrifice not only of war, but also of a larger humanity as well.

The circumstances of history and the wrenching changes in society following the two World Wars and their aftermath in the 1950s and 1960s have changed our perception of public sculpture. The cultural shift, especially in America, toward a frenetic grasping after newness, has led us to expect less of public art, if we expect anything at all. We have become inured to faceless abstraction – easier for an organizing committee to approve and for socially aware critics to accept. The great examples of abstraction, as in the Vietnam or Oklahoma City Memorials – can be immensely powerful spaces. It is the hundreds of followers of these carefully planned memorials that often deaden our perception of what previous generations saw as greatness in art.

It is often easy to think that traditional art is something of the past, and no organizing committee wants to think that their monument will be outdated. But the number of currently active figural sculptors and the number of commissions for traditional sculpture tell us a different story. People evidently still look for something tangible and immediate in art. Whether it is a celebration or a remembrance, an immediately accessible piece has merit today as it did in the past.

For an individual or a group to take on the commission of a sculpture is daunting. There may or may not be anyone in the organizing group who knows anything about art, or where even to begin looking. One needs to have commitment and energy to pursue the creation of a public sculpture. The project will go nowhere without these qualities, and without patience, courage and hard work. Money is always a brick wall. Sculpture is expensive. But with some effort, the result will be a monument that will last for succeeding generations. The basic steps in commissioning a monument involve: having a general idea of what you are looking for; having a location for the monument secured; having an idea of what you budget will be for the piece; and choosing a specific sculptor, creating a list of preferred sculptors or an open request for proposals for your piece.

When selecting a sculptor, a commissioning party will want to make sure the artist has plenty of experience creating public art. There are many variables in the process of creating a public sculpture that get more complicated the longer the commission goes on. For instance, the price of bronze has risen drastically in the last several years due to the commodities market and growth of China. The price of gas also has risen and these fluctuations can affect a budget estimate considerably. You do not want to be surprised halfway through the project with an additional cost. An experienced sculptor should be able to educate the committee on all of the nuances of erecting a monument.

Having a good idea of what you are interested in will help your sculptor better design an appropriate piece. This will help the process move along when you are dealing with a committee also. The location of the piece will also be something that the sculptor will take into consideration when designing the piece.

The budget is always a sticking point. The process is much more manageable if you have a set budget, though many times public-art projects are begun without the budget in place. There are many grants and public funds available for these projects, so it helps if a committee member is in charge of researching these options. One should not be discouraged by the often daunting prospect of bringing a monument to completion. By choosing the right sculptor and working steadily, a result can be achieved that will be a lasting reminder of the subject of the monument, and to the dedication of those who brought it into reality.  

Henry Duffy is the curator and chief of Cultural Resources for the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site and a historian specializing in 19th and early-20th-century subjects. He can be reached at Lawrence Nowlan is a figurative sculptor whose monuments, relief portraits and original works are found in public and private collections around the country. For more information, go to

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