Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Sunday, February 27, 2011

In the Eye of the Beholder

The ladies of Queens, New York, Congressman (D) Anthony Weiner, and City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D) are all agog over a statue in a park near Queens Borough Hall that they consider “indecent.”

“The Triumph of Civic Virtue” by famed Beaux Arts sculptor Frederick William MacMonnies depicts Civic Virtue, a nearly nude man, triumphing over the twin evils of vice and corruption. These figures are represented by women transformed into snakes. Located on the corner of Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike, near Queens Borough Hall in Kew Gardens, with the Queens Family Justice Center just down the block, Weiner decided, like Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia in 1941, that he’d had enough of being “mooned” by the statue’s back end.

Weiner and Ferreras are asking the city to dismantle it and sell it on Craigslist. The 20-foot (two story) tall marble fountain was commissioned in the early 20th Century and stood in front of City Hall for 19 years until LaGuardia banished it in 1941.

“Mayor LaGuardia had it right when he banished this offensive statue from City Hall Park,” Weiner said. “Queens residents don’t want this sitting in our backyard any longer. This statue is neither civil nor virtuous — and it’s time for it to go.”

This is not the sculptor’s first statue to get into trouble for indecency. His second best known sculpture, Bacchante and Infant Faun, a life-size nude, was offered as a gift to the Boston Public Library by the building's architect Charles Follen McKim in 1896, to be placed in the garden court of the library. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union caused such a public outcry citing its “drunken indecency” that the library had to refuse the gift, and McKim gave the statue to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Brooklyn-born MacMonnies is also known for less controversial sculptures such as Nathan Hale. The life-size Hale was the first major commission gained by MacMonnies. Erected in 1890 in City Hall Park, New York, it stands near where the actual Nathan Hale was thought to have been executed. Copies are scattered in museums across the United States, since MacMonnies was one of the earliest American sculptors to supplement his fees from major commissions by selling reduced-size reproductions to the public. The Metropolitan Museum has a copy, as does the Art Museum at Princeton University, the National Gallery of Art, and the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College.

In 1891, he was awarded the commission for the centerpiece of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago: the sculpture of Columbia in her Grand Barge of State, in the vast central fountain of the Court of Honor, was truly the iconic figure at the heart of the American Beaux-Arts movement. This large decorative fountain piece became the focal point at the Exposition and established MacMonnies as one of the important sculptors of the time.

In 1894, Stanford White brought another prestigious and highly visible commission, for three bronze groups for the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza. The complicated figural groups occupied him for the next eight years.

In late 1917, two years before “Civic Virtue”, MacMonnies was commissioned by a group of influential citizens of New York City, to work on a sculpture in honor of those that died in the Battle of the Marne as a gift to the French people in exchange for the Statue of Liberty. The statue, located in Meaux, France was over seven stories tall, and while work started on the statue in 1924 it was not finished until 1932 and at that time of its dedication was the world's largest stone monument.

West Point has MacMonnies’ "Fame," a woman in billowing drapery, built in 1895. She balances on a 46-foot-tall column atop the Battle Monument, which honors soldiers of the regular army who died during the Civil War. Her triumphant pose and her very name - “Fame” or "Victory" - celebrate the fact that those soldiers died fighting for a worthwhile cause. The names of the officers honored are on the column; the names of the enlisted men are on supports around the base.

In 1911, MacMonnies also sculpted a bronze statue of Kit Carson on Horseback as part of the Pioneer Monument Fountain and Smoky Hill Trail Monument in the Civic Center in downtown Denver. Originally the statue was a heroic Native American figure but the public sentiment of the time forced him to replace it with a depiction of Kit Carson

In 1884 MacMonnies left for Paris to study sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts, twice winning the highest award given to foreign students. In 1888 MacMonnies opened a studio in Paris and began to create some of his most famous sculptures, which he submitted annually to the Paris Salon. In his atelier he mentored such notable artists as Janet Scudder and Mary Foote. He married a fellow artist, Mary Louise Fairchild. They were divorced in 1908, and he married his former student Alice Jones in 1910.

On a visit to the Museum of Art in New York City, my mother looked up the statue of David and sniffed huffily, “Pornography!” I had to admit, I blushed looking at the Statue of David (although it seemed to me the offending part of the sculpture was Sincpretty small in comparison to the rest of the statue). The ancient Greeks’ morals were the stuff of notorious legend and the Romans copied the Greek statues – and their morals.

I can’t blame the residents of Queens for objecting to a nude statue in a public park, where children are playing and it can’t very well be avoided. However, if it bothers Queens so much, why don’t they hire a sculptor to give Civic Virtue a loin cloth. How hard could it be? As for the politicians who object to the portion of this statue facing their city hall, the same way it faced in Manhattan in 1919, why don’t they just turn the statue the other way (and give it a bronze loincloth)?

The politicians might want to ask themselves just why the sculptor positioned his statue the way he did. Most statues will face a building or a thoroughfare, not turn its back on the majority of viewers. Could it be MacMonnies was trying to tell the politicians and bureaucrats something? They’ve proven themselves, throughout history, as the very models of vice and corruption. Since they do a lot of posterior-kissing (Democrats are particularly fond of union posteriors), they shouldn’t be surprised to find a statue dedicated to the art of posterior worship right on their doorstep.

MacMonnies is well known for sculptures dedicated to heroes such as Nathan Hale and George Washington, so it’s rather suspicious that he would also dedicate statues to pornography. Perhaps he was sending a message to the ladies of Boston on the issue of temperance and book-banning, and another to the hypocritical heirs of Tammany Hall.

Tammany Hall, also known as the Society of St. Tammany, the Sons of St. Tammany, or the Columbian Order, was a New York political organization founded in 1786 and incorporated on May 12, 1789 as the Tammany Society. It was the Democratic Party political machine that played a major role in controlling New York City politics and helping immigrants, most notably the Irish, rise up in American politics from the 1790s to the 1960s. It controlled Democratic Party nominations and patronage in Manhattan from the mayoral victory of Fernando Wood in 1854 through the election of John P. O'Brien in 1932.

Tammany Hall was permanently weakened by the election of Fiorello La Guardia on a “fusion” ticket of Republicans, reform-minded Democrats, and independents in 1934, and, despite a brief resurgence in the 1950s, it ceased to exist in the 1960s. It was Mayor LaGuardia who banished Civic Virtue to Queens.

The Tammany Society was named for Tamanend, a Native American leader of the Lenape, Tamanend or Tammany or Tammamend, the "affable", (c. 1628–1698) was a chief of one of the clans that made up the Lenni-Lenape nation in the Delaware Valley at the time Philadelphia was established. Tamanend is best known as a lover of peace and friendship who played a prominent role in the establishment of peaceful relations among the Native American tribes and the English settlers who established Pennsylvania, led by William Penn.

Tamanend reputedly took part in a meeting between the leaders of the Lenni-Lenape nation, and the leaders of the Pennsylvania colony held under a large elm tree at Shakamaxon in the early 1680s. There, Tamanend is reported to have announced that the Lenni-Lenape and the English colonists would "live in peace as long as the waters run in the rivers and creeks and as long as the stars and moon endure." These words have been memorialized on the statue of Tamanend that stands in Philadelphia today.

Politicians own the disgrace of Tammany Hall, corrupting a society originally dedicated to a good man and blemishing his name. They shouldn’t be surprised to find a statue consecrated to their lack of virtues on their very doorsteps. The statue should be dismantled and moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, facing the National Mall as message to the present occupant of the White House.


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