Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Books in the Hands of Statued Men

Presidents, Poets, and Pulchritudinous Poses

If you look close enough when you are driving around the city of Chicago--or any other city for that matter--you might just notice that there are quite a few statues from some bygone eras. Many of these statues date back at least 100 hundred years, in the days when "statues" were themselves not just popular, but somehow a mark of artistic and cultural significance to a community. Today, and for at least the past fifty years or so, the idea of "the statue" has seemingly fallen into the category of "the obsolete," especially if it is attempting to be anything realistic; abstract statuary is a wholly other field to be discerned and discussed. As for our stone or bronze men (as it seemingly always was back then; I cannot readily think of any statue of a woman from the early 20th century in Chicago, save for those hidden in the Fountain of Time on the Midway) in Chicago, I could probably display a dozen to you. But I've decided to show you just three today.

As you will see, such as with our dearly departed 25th president William McKinley (at left and above), many statues from the late 19th and early 20th century were men holding books. Yet again, we come to see both the fashionable and the semiotic: the book in the hands of statued men, promoting a sense of dignity, intelligence, pensive deliberation, and so forth. This particular statue was built shortly after the assassination of President McKinley in 1901. The statue is in a park, aptly named after the slain president, and guarded on three sides by sycamores and maples lining the paths that loop around the park. I'd seen this statue many times. It is in the neighborhood of "McKinley Park" (again, the obvious name), an area which I drive by or to often, for some shopping needs. The morning I went to visit this statue and take a photo of it, I parked my car nearby, and walked along the muddy path after a long night's rain. I went up to the statue and its massive foundation, which was more like a curved granite and cement platform with carved benches and stonework. I snapped a few images, and then realized that a homeless man was passed out on one of the benches, covered with newspaper, one hand carelessly hanging to the ground, and his earthly wares tucked in a ball beneath him.
I looked back up at the old President one more time, then back to the sleeping man, whom I didn't want to disturb. Surely this old stone slab of art could afford this man without home or shelter a morning's worth of dignity and shelter. So I left quietly, walking through the park, and back to my car, considering the various stations of life that all people find themselves at.

Now, another day, and far north and east of McKinley Park, close to the lake shore, is the area of Lincoln Park and the Lincoln Park Zoo. It was in this park that I one day spied another couple of statues, each of them with books in their hands! The first of them was a statue of Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), the Danish poet and writer, known for such children's tales as "The Little Mermaid" and "The Ugly Duckling." This latter book would explain why there was situated next to Mr. Andersen a "goose"-looking bird sculpted finely by the artist, while Mr. Andersen sat with his book in hand. In the following image, you can see the head of the "ugly duckling" along with a somewhat close-up view of the statued "book" on the lap and in the hands of the poet-author. I decided to take a picture of the sculptor's signature on this particular statue, partly because it looked ornate, and partly because I wanted to examine the history of this artist and his relation to the statues of Chicago.

As it turns out, the artist was a man named Johannes Sophus Gelert (1852-1923), who was born in Nybol, Sundeved--an area of southern Denmark. Gelert lived in various places in Europe, but eventually came to the United States in 1887, settling in Chicago. He was an artist and sculptor, and produced a remarkable number of statues, many of which are in Chicago. If you go to the Wikipedia page about Mr. Gelert, you will find some interesting photos of him and his works, including the famed Haymarket Police sculpture. The page is in Danish, but has a list of his works. Oddly, the sculpture of Hans Christian Andersen, which we've discussed today, is listed incorrectly, as having been done in 1896, but as we can see below it reads "sc 1893" (presumably, "Sculpted 1893").

The final statue I will share with you today is of Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), the famed German poet. One might wonder "why is there a statue of a German poet in the middle of a Chicago park?" Germans were once the largest immigrant group in the city, which can be seen in both historical records and the Chicago Public Library's collection development history: after the great fire of 1871, the greatest foreign language acquisitions were in German, far outnumbering Czech or Polish at that time. But perhaps the real reason that Schiller is found in a Chicago park can be found in a small clue I came across in the American Almanac of October 1996, in an article entitled "For He Was One of Us": Friedrich Schiller, The Poet of America, by Gabriele Chaitkin, which notes:

Most of the statues of Friedrich Schiller in the United States were erected at the end of the last century or in the beginning of this century, which saw big celebrations of Friedrich Schiller in May of 1905, commemorating the 100th anniversary of his death.

In Europe, statues in public places were restricted, until the beginning of the nineteenth century, to nobility or leading military figures. Schiller's statue was among the first to honor a poet. The many statues which were erected in his honor became a symbol for a society fighting for his ideas of political freedom. The Poet of Freedom became thus the symbol, the guarantor, of a more human society.

If, more than by chance, this statue was erected in or around 1905, there is surely some connection to the 100th anniversary of Schiller's death. And it would put this sculpted image in that period of "statue-ing" of Chicago Parks at the turn of the 20th century. What is interesting about this long-past era of statuary is that is was a time, which appeared to be celebrating individuals of "the book" (such as poets and writers), but also "bookish" characters--like McKinley, whose holding a book in one hand conveyed the sense of political oratory and communication, something respected in an age of nascent technology (McKinley was one of the first presidents to be recorded on a wax cylinder). One of the reasons we have so few "human-like" statues today may be that our understanding of communication and oratory are far different than they were a hundred years ago. Our sense of poetry, literature, and even political freedom espoused by the masses is something completely different today than it was in 1905. And in some ways, many of us find it odd, even strange to cast images of people in stone or metal, who are still alive or recently deceased. There is a statue of a couple in my neighborhood, who donated millions of dollars to build a hospital building, their faces gleaming and their hands outstretched in a "look what we've done" pose do not convey any sense of dignity; instead, one comes away thinking "hubris" and "tasteless." Even more strange, perhaps, is the statue in Indonesia, of a 10-year-old Barack Obama, commemorating his time spent in that country as a boy. Well intended, but for some reason, it gives people the creeps.

Yet, let us return to the old statues, the images of the president and the poet. You see, there is a less obvious connection between the statues of McKinley and Schiller, but one which has an underlying political and social foundation: the early 20th century was a period--like many others--of social and political unrest; it was a period ripe with anarchist politics. President McKinley was assassinated by Leon F. Czolgosz (1873-1901), who had been linked to anarchist philosophies of the time; Schiller, who'd died a century earlier, in another country, was the elixir of political need in the shape of a poet, someone, something that could give voice to the unsettling and tumultuous motions and movements of the world. And 1905, the centenary of Schiller's death proved a perfect moment to resurrect the poet and his words for freedom, for both the common person and the not-so-common person, the poor and the rich, the politically starved and the politically well-fed; and it was in this need, not long after the president's death, that a new sense of freedom was sought; and so deftly stated by the poet himself in his Ode to Joy, now best-known accompanying Beethoven:

Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Was der Mode Schwert geteilt;
Bettler werden Fürstenbrüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Thy enchantments bind together,
What did custom's sword divide,
Beggars are a prince's brother,
Where thy gentle wings abide;*