This memorial lacks in stature
At the top of Beacon Hill stands the glorious Robert Gould Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, an 1897 Civil War monument that is one of the greatest expressions of the American Renaissance. When Beacon Hill slides down to Back Bay, the level of the sculpture plummets as well -- the latest example being the Boston Women's Memorial, unveiled in October on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall between Gloucester and Fairfield streets.
The mall ought to be our Champs-Elysees, with world-class sculptures that proclaim our civic pride. It isn't. But nothing else on this stately stretch of green is as poor as this newest addition, a large granite circle with three bronze figures on the periphery, representing Abigail Adams, the protofeminist who was wife of one president and mother of another; the 19th-century women's rights activist Lucy Stone; and Phillis Wheatley, a slave who was the first African to publish a book in the United States. The result suggests that the artist, Meredith Bergmann, was in over her head. But let's leave the clumsy composition and the ugly patina aside for a moment and look at why we're stuck with this thing.
The impetus came from the Boston Women's Commission, a branch of city government. The rationale for the piece was that statues of historically important men -- soldiers, scholars, preachers -- are all over Boston, while statues of women are not. That's a point well taken.
In terms of public art process, the commission quite responsibly turned the artist selection over to the UrbanArts Institute at the Massachusetts College of Art, the agency that stands the best chance of improving the level of public art in a city that's seen few first-rate examples over the last century. UrbanArts formed an impeccably credentialed jury, and brought in a neighborhood committee as well, to help choose the artist. The one major hurdle the jury faced from the get-go was that the memorial had to be representational: That eliminates most of the top public artists working today. Ours is not a great age for figurative sculpture, in Boston or anywhere else.
Many donors, public and private, helped to fund the $425,000 project. They were concerned about the dearth of images of women in the city's public art, and they wanted to do something about it.
They did. Now, along with all those statues of men, people walking down Commonwealth Avenue will encounter a tribute to three determined, clear-sighted women -- the kind of women who are role models for our daughters.
But the Women's Memorial also reads as an attempt to deal with the problem of parity all at once, by rounding up three individuals and sacrificing their individuality in the pursuit of a generalized recognition of the achievements of women in our city.
The attempt is sincere. However, choosing three women who never met in life and who will now spend eternity together (just try getting rid of bronze) dilutes the impact of their unique contributions. The memorials to men around town don't herd heroes together; neither should a memorial to women. Commemorating one great woman at a time might have been a better approach. (Of course, there was no certainty about when there would be a next time.)
The Women's Memorial owes its existence in part to City Hall bureaucrats dedicated to art that plays to the lowest common denominator -- some of the same folks who allowed the mawkish Irish Famine Memorial to go up on a parcel of prime downtown real estate.
Much of what money Boston has to pay for one banal statue after another comes from the Edward Ingersoll Browne Fund, which is supposed to pay for the beautification of public spaces and is managed by the city's Trust Office. The Browne Fund gave $200,000 toward the Women's Memorial, nearly half the total cost.
Figurative bronzes plus Boston City Hall plus the Browne Fund must now be recognized as a reliable recipe for missed opportunities in public art. Is there a way to separate these three ingredients? A way to give UrbanArts the muscle to advocate stronger design successfully?
As for the aesthetics of the memorial: On the plus side, it was a nice idea to have the women casually posed and at ground level. This makes them seem accessible, unlike those generals on horseback mounted on tall plinths. Each of the women made her mark through her writing, and each one is depicted holding a pen.
That's about it for the pluses. The placement of the three figures at the edge of the huge circle makes the composition look like a merry-go-round, with an awkward emptiness at its center. The figures don't have anything to do with one another, compositionally or emotionally. They look neither at one another nor at us. They're inanimate, like poorly crafted dolls. Attempts at stylization cross the border into caricature: Abigail Adams's silly, scrolling curls detract from her otherwise somber demeanor.
The most aesthetically objectionable aspect of the memorial is, thank goodness, the one that will change: Patinas evolve over time. For the moment, though, the women are the color of pumpkin pie, head to toe.
The Women's Memorial makes you long for the days when Boston's powers that be had taste and vision, commissioning sculpture by Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French and murals by John Singer Sargent and Puvis de Chavannes. (There are examples aplenty a few blocks from the memorial, in the Boston Public Library.)
Artistic vision requires a visionary or two. The great architect H.H. Richardson, Boston's unofficial cultural czar at the time, pushed for Saint-Gaudens to get the Shaw commission. There was great public debate over the design, with the likes of Charles Eliot Norton, Harvard's legendary fine arts professor, weighing in. Today, there's an aesthetic disconnect between the Boston area's great museums and universities and the city, a mood of mutual skepticism and mistrust.
Another, larger issue is whether we really need more public monuments to every noble, heroic, politically influential, or disadvantaged group. The American landscape is becoming littered with them. The more that are churned out, the less meaning the form retains. One local curator suggested a while back that we simply put up one humongous Memorial to Everybody and have done with it.
Meanwhile, we're all supposed to make Boston look as spiffy as possible for the Democratic National Convention this coming summer. With all the mediocre sculpture around town, that's tough. A potential, if temporary, remedy: a quick call to Christo, he of the draped-and-tied monument fame, begging him to bail us out by wrapping the worst of the works.
Christine Temin's Perspectives column runs on Wednesdays.
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