Along with my three favorite paintings (click back here for a refresher), I also have my three favorite statues.
This is the story of how I found one of those works of art.
We are in the Art Institute of Chicago circa 1987.
I am here on a weekend jaunt to immerse myself in the fabulous pieces of culture that reside here. My main mission on this outing is to view Georges Seurat’s masterpiece of pointillism, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. I first saw this painting courtesy of the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In their adventure around the Windy City, the trio of Ferris (Matthew Broderick), Sloane (Mia Sara), and Cameron (Alan Ruck) hit this museum. In one of my favorite cinematic moments that does not involve dialogue, Cameron is seen staring at Seurat’s painting. In a series of increasing close-ups, the camera switches between Cameron and the little girl in white who stands in the center of the work. I am sure that this moment is meant to convey some sort of internal transformation of Cameron, but it eludes me.
Art is frustratingly like that at times.
I did see Seurat’s work and it was also here that I first saw Claude Monet’s Cliff Walk at Pourville, which to my eyes (and please feel free to disagree) is the finest example of Impressionist painting that graces any public or private wall.
Neither of these paintings nor any of the other dozens of pieces of art I saw that April day stopped me in my tracks.
As I was walking away from the Monet, I glimpsed the backside of a larger-than-life size bronze sculpture of a man in a robe. I came around to the front and looked up at the man’s face.
I was dumbstruck.
Up until that point, I didn’t know it was possible to freeze an emotion in bronze. I stared hard at the face trying to figure out if this man was scared, sad, determined, resigned, or fearful. It was entirely possible that all these feelings and a great deal more were being portrayed.
I pried my eyes away from that visage to look at the information card. It told me I was looking at one of the six figures of Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais. The card gave some background data on the story of the Burghers.
During the Hundred Years’ War, where England and France were having one of their usual skirmishes, the French city of Calais fell to the English forces in 1347. Edward III, the guy sitting on the English throne, offered to spare the populace if the city’s leaders, the Burghers, would surrender themselves. Because giving up wasn’t enough, Ed-the-third mandated that the leaders present themselves to the English nearly naked and with nooses around their necks.
Rodin’s sculpture freezes this moment when the Burghers walk out of the city on their way to greet death.
I was dumbstruck and stunned.
At my age, death had never touched me. No one in my immediate family had passed away and I had not lost any friends. Death was as alien to me as an actual space alien was to me.
Now here I was staring at the face of a man who was staring at his own death – a death he was volunteering for. In my personal realm of experience, that type of sacrifice is unheard of. Yet here I was, face-to-face with a visage captured in bronze that was evoking just that type of feeling.
This lone figure is a man holding a giant key (presumably a key to Calais), dressed in a simple one-piece garment, and with a noose around his neck. The stoic look in this gentleman’s face is stunning to view. His frozen bronze frown, along with the hollow far-off look in the eyes, appears to denote an almost resigned sense of calm or acceptance. This is a man who seems to be saying, without words, “Let’s simply do this.”
For the first time, a piece of art made me feel an emotion I had never experienced. At no point in my life until now had I ever seen such a personification of the fatalistic acceptance of one’s own impending demise.
Gazing upon this bronze, I gave myself a quest. Since this lone figure staring through me in Chicago was but one of a set of similar figures, I made it a goal of mine to see, personally, a complete set of Rodin’s statues of these gentlemen from Calais.
Many years later, serendipity guided my eyes as I read in the “Weekend” section of The Washington Post that the Hirshhorn Museum was hosting an exhibit of works by Salvador Dali. I had always walked by this building while going from the Smithsonian Metro station to the Air and Space Museum, but I had never experienced it. Here, with the Dali exhibit, was my invitation to enter this circular gallery and see what it had to offer.
The exhibit was small but pleasant and gave me the chance to see more works by Dali other than The Persistence of Memory. After viewing the other pieces of art inside the Hirshhorn, I walked outside and looked at the other sculptural works as the full name of this locale actually is the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculptural Garden.
You know where this is already going, don’t you?
After completing the circle of the main grounds, I walked out onto Jefferson Drive and saw a sign across the street that stated that the sculptural gardens continued. I strolled across the one-way avenue and walked down the right-hand side stairs.
I turned left and there he was.
The face that had pierced me in Chicago was again staring through me.
He was not alone.
Sharing his pedestal were the five other Burghers.
I approached slowly as if any sudden movement of mine would cause the metal men to scatter like pigeon on the sidewalk.
Standing in the foreground and on the right of this work was the man who had haunted me in Chicago. To my left, and also in the foreground, was a man facing away from me. He also had a rope on him, but it was not quite around his neck. It was loosely draped over his left shoulder. His right arm gestures upward and he appears to be engaged in conversation with the Burgher to his right. In my mind, he is answering the question posed by the gentleman behind him. He seems to be saying, “What would you suggest we do?” His acceptance of his fate seems less stoic than the man I saw in Chicago as this man is gesturing and being active.
The man doing the questioning (in the background all the way to the left…and let’s call him Six) has his left arm outstretched. His mouth is open and I can hear him pleading, “Isn’t there another way?” Tacit acceptance does not seem to be Six’s way.
To (by my perspective) the right of Six and the center figure in the background is a man whose countenance seems to give off an impression of chagrined fatalism. His mouth, a mixture of a frown and smirk, seems to be transmitting his inner thought of “This is what must be done.” His eyes are not as hollow as the lone figure I saw in Chicago as if he is still having some debate or thoughts about his fate whereas the Chicago bronze settled that inner argument long ago.
In the center of the work stands a heavily bearded man with a noose firmly around his neck. He is caught in the act of moving so his garment has fallen away from part of his body exposing his naked and gaunt left leg. His head is bowed and he looks tired, beaten, and worn down. However defeated he may be, he is still moving toward his destiny of sacrificing himself to save others. He has moved past the stoicism of Chicago-Statue into actual action. He is the only figure moving toward the viewer and, I believe, toward his death.
The last figure, all the way on the right and in the background is the complete opposite of the heavily bearded figure. This statue epitomizes despair. There is no stoic resolve, there is no questioning, there is no acceptance. This figure has both his hands covering his bowed head. It is nearly impossible to see this man’s face, but his hands and his stance are enough to convey his pain and dismay.
In one tableau, Rodin managed to capture some of the stages a person goes through when faced with death. Despair, questioning, answering, stoicism, acceptance, and action are all on display.
And that is why this is one of my favorite statues.
That’s my story.
P.S. As for my other two favorite statues, well…those are stories for another day.