From Henry Moore to Giacometti, modern sculpture has seldom produced successful public monuments. Norbert Lynton is pessimistic about Antony Gormley, but not about David Nashby Norbert Lynton / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
I too have been losing sleep over that empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. You will recall that Prue Leith, of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce, invited suggestions for filling it. Baroness Thatcher? Another Nelson, i.e. Mandela? The Queen? The Beatles? A Damien Hirst? The corresponding plinth, in the northeast corner of the square, is occupied by Chantrey’s equestrian monument of George IV, intended for the top of Marble Arch, but here wholly disregarded. Rumour has it that Her Majesty and the prime minister favour a novel solution, post-modern perhaps: a different statue each year, some to come out of museum stores, Victorian and later, and new ones to be commissioned.
Chosen by whom? Commissioned by whom from whom and of whom? Look at the current collection: Bomber Harris on the Strand; that dour array in Parliament Square; little Charlie Chaplin, a photographic likeness in bronze, quite invisible amid the bustle of Leicester Square-obviously we lack the vision and the artists. Benjamin Britten has had a narrow escape in Aldeburgh. Successful monuments call for faith in the subject or occasion and faith in art. Would we have the generosity today to let another Lord Shaftesbury be commemorated by means of an Eros fountain in Piccadilly? Was he not a do-gooder? Prue Leith argues against live subjects: “You never know what they will do.”
Modern art has rarely aspired to monumentality. Henry Moore enjoyed making large sculptures and sending them around the globe, but they were never statues and rarely were they made to order. They can look good-like that one outside Parliament we know as a television backdrop for politicians-but their meaning is quite unspecific. Brancusi’s 100 metre-high Endless Column in Romania, a war memorial set up in the 1930s, is a unique triumph. Picasso’s famous Man with Sheep (1943), over life-size, went first into a chapel in Vallauris and then to the market place. Picasso regretted the move: out in the open it shrank and lost its aura. In both these cases, significantly, the modern sculpture echoes ancient religious images.
Giacometti was asked in 1959 to provide a sculpture for outside the new Chase Manhattan skyscraper in New York. He set to work eagerly, making his characteristic female and male figures taller than usual. Once they had been tiny. In the late 1940s they got bigger and in 1948 he had his first…