Figurative public sculpture, a mainstay for millennia, seems to be re-emerging as a viable artform after a half-century of modernist abstraction in civic spaces. But the world has changed since the golden age of Daniel Chester French, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the American Renaissance; the old paradigms cannot be unquestioningly repeated. We honor a wider range of individuals now, and that diversity calls for a renewed vocabulary of sculptural ideas. The achievements of women are being recognized, and sculptor Meredith Bergmann is leading the way in this area. Her 2003 Boston Women’s Memorial celebrated Abigail Adams, Lucy Stone and Phillis Wheatley (see American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2005).
Her most recent project, a bronze statue of Marian Anderson (1897–1993), was unveiled in September 2006 at Converse College in Spartanberg, South Carolina. Marian Anderson is the fourth in a series of five figurative works commissioned by the college honoring women who have made significant contributions to American history. The others currently displayed on the campus honor poet Emily Dickinson, painter Mary Cassatt and astronomer Maria Mitchell. Marian Anderson is a natural choice as the subject for a public monument because she combined excellence in her chosen field with history-making career milestones. A celebrated contralto, she first sang at Carnegie Hall in 1928 and became an international opera and concert star. She made a belated (she was nearly fifty-eight) but highly successful debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Verdi’s Un ballo in mascherain January 1955. The incident that secured her place in American history, however, occurred in 1939. Manager Sol Hurok had arranged for her to give a concert at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., when the Daughters of the American Revolution, who owned the building, refused to allow a “singer of color” to perform there. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization. Marian Anderson was invited to perform at the Lincoln Memorial, and a crowd of 75,000—the largest to date assembled there—attended. Anderson did not consider herself a political activist, but her hard work to carve out a career in the face of discrimination lifts her to the rank of a national hero.
While Bergmann’s eight-foot-tall bronze has the monumentality to suggest Anderson’s moral grandeur, it is not a static image. The figure stands in a familiar concert singer’s stance, hands clasped in front of her, lips parted. But one leg crosses over in front of the other, pulling the floor-length drapery into graceful folds and lending the figure a dynamic contrapposto. Her dress and hairstyle are period enough to suggest the mid-twentieth century, yet simple enough to invoke traditional forms. The warm golden patina of the bronze seems appropriate to Anderson’s African-American heritage without insisting on it. There is always a tension, in the presentation of individuals with a public persona, between the realism of portraiture and the generalization of emblematic characters. These poles are often discussed in terms of Roman naturalism and Greek idealization, but in most cases the sculptor finds a place somewhere along the continuum between the two. Bergmann is particularly deft at making her subject both an individual woman with recognizable features and a symbol of American virtues, of grace under pressure and quiet triumph over injustice.
How do we define heroism today, especially in the genre of public sculpture? Since antiquity, a very large percentage of public secular sculpture has been devoted to military achievement, memorializing the sacrifice of common soldiers and the triumphs of generals. The individuals depicted were usually men. Even an exception such as Anna Hyatt Huntington’s over-life-size bronze Joan of Arc (1915), on New York City’s Upper West Side, follows a traditional model, the equestrian warrior, although Joan’s reverently raised sword emphasizes her religious aspect. Female figures have always been plentiful in public sculpture, but they tend to be allegorical: Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty (1875–84), the figures of Justice—with her scales and blindfold—ubiquitous to law courts. Many of these secular embodiments of values we prize as a society owe something to ancient deities such Athena. Female figures appear as supporting players: Nike presenting a palm or laurel wreath to a victorious athlete or general, nymphs and angels mourning gracefully over a fallen hero in funeral monuments. The dynamic changes when the female figure moves to center stage, not as an abstraction but as an individual, especially when the career being celebrated does not fit neatly into inherited sculptural tropes. Bergmann understands and draws from traditional forms and symbols, but she is highly creative in the way she plays with expectations about what figurative public sculpture can be. Marian Anderson is larger than life but literally—without the aggrandizing element of a hierarchical pedestal—down to earth. The woman Bergmann depicts is an exemplar, yet she remains accessible, a companionable reminder of what talent, hard work and personal dignity can contribute to society. For more information on Converse College, visit www.converse.edu . Pictures of the sculptor’s work can be seen at www.meredithbergmann.com