The WWI Memorial: An American Acropolis
Sabin Howard, a New York sculptor, has designed the equivalent of an American Parthenon for Washington, D.C. A Soldier's Story, a 75 -foot-long, 10.5-foot-tall bronze wall bas-relief honoring the 4.7 million men and women who served in World War I, is to be installed in Pennsylvania Avenue’s Pershing Park, located one block from the White House and the National Mall. Completed, it will become the largest public monument ever created in the United States, and one of the largest bronze sculptures in the world.
Howard, who was selected by Joseph Weishaar, the architect of the project, describes it as “a monster project; it’s epic.” In May of 2017, after several revisions, the Commission of Fine Arts approved Howard’s design. The projected cost of the installation is fifty million dollars, to be raised by the World War I Centennial Commission, which will take several years to complete.
While there was initial opposition to installing a classical-styled memorial next to the White House and the National Mall, Weishaar’s concept, A Soldier's Story, was chosen from among a field of 350 entries. It is not surprising that Howard, a prominent modern classical sculptor, would undertake such a project. After many decades of modernist domination in public art, a pathway has been opened to the current generation of gifted classical sculptors and painters.
I can foresee a time when the Washington National Mall might evolve into an “American Acropolis.” This would necessitate increased participation from gifted sculptors, architects, visionary leadership and an interested, passionate populace. Something equal in inspiration to the original 1902 McMillian Commission plan. During Athens’ Golden Age (460-430 BC), the statesman and general Pericles orchestrated the construction of the site’s most important buildings, including the Parthenon, the Erechtheion and the Temple of Athena. He selected Phidias as his chief architect and sculptor. For the last 2,500 years, the Parthenon and its classic bas-relief figures have served as the enduring symbol for Western democracy and civilization. Sculptor Daniel Chester French and architect Henry Bacon, creators of the Lincoln Memorial (Washington National Mall, 1922), made frequent trips to Athens to study the Parthenon and its statuary. The colossal statue of Athena by Phidias no longer exists, but fragments of the original ninety-two metopes (bas-relief marble figures on squared spaces inserted into the Doric frieze) remain in situ. A group of metopes were rescued from the east pediment of the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in 1812 during the invasion of Greece by the Ottoman Empire. Today, the “Elgin Marbles” are to be found in the British Museum. There is nothing in the West to equal the influence of their classical perfection.
There is still a lot of controversy over the style and subject matter of works created for the Mall. There was a seismic reaction against the flawed design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial proposed by architect Frank Gehry. George Will wrote: “The $142 million Eisenhower Memorial will squat there, representing Washington at its worst, proving that we have forgotten how to nurture our national memory with intelligent memorials.”1 Gehry’s original design presented a three-foot bronze statue of Ike as a kid in short pants, confronting a hundred-foot-wide electronic computer screen, depicting scenes from his life and World War II. Other memorials installed during the last thirty years also call into question whether this nation has lost its vision. I include the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (plaster casts), the World War II Memorial (a parking lot) and the Korean War Memorial (G. I. Joe toy soldiers). An exception is Frederick Hart’s Three Soldiers, an adjunct part of Maya Linn’s equally successful Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
There are a number of skilled representational artists working today, but we need visionaries. “My mission in life,” Howard explains, “is to promote an uplifting approach…that highlights the heroic and inspires what is best in man.”2 Howard’s bas-relief depicts one American soldier’s passage through the horrors of war. A Soldier's Story will feature more than thirty larger-than-life male and female figures, to move the narrative through to war’s end and final victory. “You will feel the mud and blood and the sweat and the tears,” assures Mr. Weishaar.3
Howard’s parents, both professors, split their time between Italy and the United States. Their son frequently accompanied them on tours of the museums and artworks. When he was fourteen, Howard encountered his first view of the Medici Chapels in Florence. The figures of Night and Day, Dusk and Dawn, sculpted by Michelangelo for the tombs of Giuliani and Lorenzo, were a revelation he has never forgotten. Yet it took almost a decade later before he decided to give up his studies in Literature at the University of Massachusetts and enroll at the Philadelphia College of Art.
His first two teachers were Martha and Walter Erlebacher. Was it luck or fate that he was mentored by two of those most responsible for reconnecting contemporary figurative art to the spiritual and the beautiful?
Martha and Walter were classmates of mine fifty years ago at the Pratt Institute, where they studied abstract expressionism. After graduation they undertook the daunting task of learning how to paint and sculpt the human figure, which was fast becoming a lost discipline. Under their mentorship, Howard bypassed the years usually wasted on “experimentation” and “self-expression,” imposed by the new curriculum. Instead, he was directed to the rigors of craft, which follow the tradition set by Michelangelo. Young Howard would get lucky again: within a few years he would meet the love of his life, Traci Slatton, whose favorite artist was the sculptor Bernini. Again, spiritual realism and beauty. A graduate of Yale University and author of twelve books, Traci provided strong support in shaping her husband's philosophy of art.
During the past twenty years, Howard produced a series of classical allegorical statues. The World War I Memorial project presented a challenge that forced the sculptor to think outside the box. Howard did extensive reading on the history and culture of the period. He also studied post-war paintings and prints by the German Expressionists, seeking the sense of anxiety the Great War wrought. Monstrous battles, trench warfare, gas and shell shock and the disastrous Treaty of Versailles have effectively demolished the 400-year-old cultural heritage of “Raphael to Bouguereau.” Classic virtue and Christian iconography played an important role in early memorials. Howard might restore the classical tradition to the National Mall, but the narrative of A Soldier's Story also conveys a sense of alienation.
Howard explained in a recent interview that he chose bas-relief to tell the story, rather than a sculpture in the round, because a relief is very pictorial and sculptural, giving tremendous range to tell a story.4 Like Phidias’s metopes, many figures overlap; the “negative” (empty) spaces between limbs and body parts of other figures are so perfectly realized that the background is as visually exciting as the figures in the foreground. Howard believes the ability to see—to create in marble, bronze or paint—is an inborn gift from God. But this gift must be coupled with discipline: he thinks too many artists today fail to take on the necessary rigor of their craft.
To aid in the design process, Howard took over twelve thousand photographs of actors dressed in period costumes and uniforms of 1918, carefully guiding them through a series of poses, arranging how their bodies interact together, how the “negative” spaces between them coalesce with the “positive” formal shapes of the figures. He directed his models to move in slow motion, simulating military charges and battlefield medical situations. He then moved the group poses, aligning them into formal visual arrangements, abetted with war paraphernalia such as rifles and flags. He edited and cropped the photographs into composite designs, which would later become the source for free-hand drawings, to enhance the emotional quality he seeks. He estimates the overall process required about 750 hours of intensive work. He compares this experience to directing a Hollywood motion picture, where, through the process of editing and staging, one achieves a story line. Instead of a seated audience passively watching film roll across a theater screen, visitors to the World War I Memorial walk along a sculptured storyboard.
Michelangelo continues to exert a powerful influence on Howard’s figurative work. Note the contrapposto in Howard’s drawings, which will be further enhanced by bronze. Vasari wrote that Michelangelo’s statues “are so beautifully formed, their attitudes so lovely…that if the art of sculpture were lost, they would serve to restore to it its original luster.”5
Howard’s art is driven by this idea. The Art of Life, written by Traci Slatton and Sabin Howard, is a deeply informative catalogue of his classical sculpture and drawings. Indeed, his figure studies are a revelation. I have never seen anatomical analysis so clear and precise. Within the contours of Howard’s drawings is a synoptic visual analysis of how each part of the human body works. He writes: “Each part [of the human body] must have its correct relationship to the whole. If one relationship is off just a little bit, things stop working. The whole collapses. For me, it’s an allegory of how the universe is assembled.”6
A Soldier's Story contains many scenes, creating a holistic, narrative view of the war. The relief begins with a young girl giving a soldier’s helmet to the protagonist. We follow our soldier through a series of encounters, until he returns to his family, wounded, haunted by the experience. He returns the helmet, upside down, to his daughter, now a young woman. The war was a heroic experience for the nation and the young man. But it had consequences, which can be evaluated only in hindsight. Almost every major conflict since can be connected back to World War I.
The next step, after the Memorial Commission’s final approval, is to transfer the initial drawing into a three-dimensional sculptural concept. Aristotle wrote that civic art sets the standard of excellence for a civilization. President John Kennedy hoped the National Endowment for the arts would establish such a standard for the American people. So far, the NEA has not measured up to its founding charter “to seek excellence.” The importance of A Soldier's Story is to be found in both its profound narrative resonance and its beautiful aesthetic quality, which will, hopefully, reset the bar for future works.
Please make your checks out to: US Foundation for the Commemoration of the World War. Mail to: US Foundation for the Commemoration of the World War. Donation Dept. 701 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW #123, Washington, DC 20004.
by James F. Cooper
1. George F. Will, “The Proposed Eisenhower Memorial Is a Monstrosity.” The Washington Post, August 19, 2015. Web. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/honoring-ike-with-a-monstrosity/...
2. Unless otherwise specified, quotes have been taking from personal interviews with Sabin Howard.
3. Thomas MacMillan, “Conveying Horror and Heroism for World War I Memorial.” The Wall Street Journal, 10/23/2016. Web. https://www.wsj.com/articles/conveying-horror-and-heroism-for-war-war-i-...
4. Chris Isleib, “What the Memorial Needs to Do to Appeal to the General Public.” The United States World War I Centennial Commission. Web. http://www.worldwar1centennial.org/index.php/communicate/press-media/wwi...
5. Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists (New York: Penguin Books, 1965), 368.
6. Sabin Howard and Traci Slatton, The Art of Life (New York: Pavarati Press, 2011), 212.