The Corrugated Lincoln
Today's sculptors don’t do justice to our history
October 12, 1979
I think I was drawn to public statuary as a topic because statues don’t write complaining letters to the editor. One can always draw useful lessons from commemorative artworks of any period. Critics might disdain figurative art as old hat, but the newer statues around Illinois do not disappoint because they are figurative but because they aren't very good.
A few Sundays ago I was leaning against the balustrade that separates the Centennial Building esplanade in Springfield from the Statehouse grounds below it. I visit the place often (in spite of my dislike for pansies) [I mistakenly described them as peonies in my original] because it is a fine place for reflection. On this particular afternoon I found myself reflecting on the progress of a solitary tourist. He had a copy of the Capitol guidebook given away by the Secretary of State and he was studiously making the rounds of each of the statues on the grounds, looking down at his guidebook, looking up at each statue, then looking down at the guidebook again before moving on to the next one.
Because it is the capital city and because it is the home of Abraham Lincoln, Springfield has more than a small city's ordinary share of monumental art. The Statehouse grounds alone is home to no fewer than eight larger-than-life bronzes. (The number docs not include the memorial in front of the armory across the street.) It is a curious pantheon. In addition to Lincoln, it includes two failed Presidential candidates, a lieutenant governor, and a man who is remembered mostly for being Howard Baker's father-in-law. According to the secretary of state's guidebook, for instance, Illinois's Civil War governor Richard Yates (whose likeness by Albin Polase was unveiled in 1923) is remembered because of his success in increasing the number of potential dead and wounded from the Prairie State during that war to 259,142.
Another of this gallery is Pierre Menard. Menard's career was not especially distinguished; he had a county named after him, true, but with 102 counties in Illinois that hardly puts him in select company. The Menard statue is a useful lesson to schoolchildren nonetheless. The 1888 work by John Mahoney depicts this enterprising French-Canadian merchant holding out a hand to an Indian seated at his feet—a consummate gesture of condescension. What one cannot tell from the statue—and it is this point which I hope impresses itself on the young—is whether Menard is giving or taking away.
When I was younger, my companions and I used to think it fine sport to climb onto Pierre's perch and place an empty beer can (the emptying of beer cans being a necessary preliminary to such escapades) in his outstretched hand. We did this in the hope that passersby would he as amused as we were at the sight of Pierre offering his anonymous red friend a cold Bud.
Sadly, few of the other Statehouse statues offer such rich comic possibilities. Gilbert Riswold's portrait of Stephen A. Douglas, for example, is perhaps the best work of art on the grounds: whatever there is that is comic about it stems from what was comic about Douglas himself. A few steps away from Douglas there is a replica of the Liberty Bell that was cast in 1950 in France and which toured the state in 1976 during the Bicentennial (remember that?) in what I must call (with apologies all around) the old statue of Liberty Bell play.
More interesting is the memorial sculpted in 1964 by John Szaton in honor of the more than 9,000 coal miners who had by then lost their lives in Illinois since 1882. It is a curious work. It depicts a miner (male), with his pick resting lightly on his shoulder. It is cast in the heroic mold; indeed, there are hints of Stalinist socialist realism in the impossible resolute chin. But it is all wrong. If they wanted to give us a memorial to miners they should have given us a man whose chest is shriveled by black lung and whose back is bent by working short seams while stooped over nearly double. The miners are entitled to their romantic notions about themselves—they've earned them—but the rest of us should not be so deluded.
The newest member of the Statehouse gallery is also the most controversial. Carl Tolpo was commissioned by the memorial commission of Illinois's late senator Everett McKinlev Dirksen to create two statues and a large bust for a package price of $125,000. The result is a fifteen-foot, fifteen-ton Dirksen.
Ironically those who thought that a mere six feet worth of the living Dirksen was too much often like the larger version better. The figure of Dirksen is okay, but Tolpo editorialized on the details. He placed a bunch of Dirksen's beloved marigolds at the senator's feet along with an oil can, the latter a reference to his idiotic saying. "The oil can is mightier than the sword." There are also heads of a donkey and an elephant representing Dirksen's reputation for bipartisan knavery. (These heads bear expressions of maniacal glee reminiscent of Heckle & Jeckle, those madcap cartoon magpies of the 1950s; Tolpo is nothing if not eclectic in his influences.) As the crowning touch, one of Ev’s hands is shown behind his back, and the first two fingers of that hand are crossed. Looking at this statue, one begins to suspect that the model for this last detail was the artist himself.
For all its faults, though, the Dirksen statue is marvelously instructive. One need only compare it to the Menard statue next to it to appreciate the distance we have traveled in 150 years, at least as measured in how we perceive our leaders.
Naturally, the figure most often represented in Springfield is Abraham Lincoln. One of the best-known works is Gutzon Borglum's bust that stands guard at the entrance to Lincoln's tomb. Over the years visitors (especially schoolchildren) had gotten into the habit of rubbing Lincoln's nose as they went in, ostensibly for luck; the custom show s the simplicity of the very voting, who do not yet know that one gets better results rubbing politicians' palms (preferably with cash) and not their noses. Officials in the Ogilvie administration worried that so much affection might wear away even Lincoln's considerable nasal equipment and leave him staring Sphinx-like at the busloads of well-wishers. They put him out of reach on a higher pedestal, until pressure from a public grown used to hands-on history forced them to relent.
Similar indignities are suffered by Andrew O'Connor's 1918 Lincoln that stands on Second Street on the Statehouse grounds. This is a brooding, affecting work, showing Lincoln with head bowed, as if marshaling a thought during a speech. Demonstrators rarely pass up the chance to enlist this Lincoln to their causes by festooning his forlorn figure with signs pleading the cases of welfare mothers or schoolteachers or pot smokers. It is a habit as harmless as it is inevitable, yet I confess to feeling offended every time I see it, which I suppose is the highest kind of praise I could give Mr. O'Connor.
Lincoln doesn't always do so well in Springfield, of course. One need think only of that grotesque papier maché Lincoln that stands on the state fairgrounds like a giant Punch doll, or the Lincoln that stands atop the replica Alaskan totem pole outside the state museum. But the Lincoln that's caused the most stir stands outside Lincoln Library downtown. Commissioned by the Old Capitol Art Fair as a Bicentennial gift to the city, this newest Lincoln cost $8,000 and was dedicated in November 1977—presumably after library officials ran out of ways they might decently delay its unveiling.
Lincoln never agree about anything to do with the great man, but even the most contentious of them must agree that this statue is frightful. The artist, Abbott Pattison, has noted that he strove for an interesting, powerful shape that would reflect the nobility and grandeur of Lincoln's character. If that was his aim, one might reasonably suspect Mr. Pattison of being an unreconstructed Southern sympathizer nursing a secret grudge from the late war. For those who haven't seen it, I should explain that the Pattison version looks as if someone had taken O'Connor's Lincoln and dropped a safe on it from above. I have heard one youngster complain that it made him want to "upchuck," and a local sculptor reportedly has drawn unflattering comparisons between the work and a Kelvinator. Neither fully abstract nor representational, the piece lacks the vigor and coherence of either. In the meantime, I expect library officials will continue to pray that lightning or a runaway auto will do to the statue what their positions forbid them to do. [As of 2020 those prayers were not answered, alas.]
What, I wonder, would our solitary tourist at the Statehouse make of our corrugated Lincoln? For that matter, did it occur to hint to ask why there are no statues in the capital of Adlai Stevenson? Or Mother Jones? Or Carl Sandburg? Perhaps it's better that we leave some of our heroes unsculptcd. We often do them no greater dishonor than trying to honor them. It makes better sense just to remember them. ●