Art is a personal thing. We are drawn to works that reflect back to us something about ourselves. There is some part of us that looks out at the object and whispers, “That is me.”
Public art, our monuments, reflect how we see ourselves as a people. Our culture. Our ideals. Our history. Serious things that evoke strong feelings. So it’s no wonder that the designs for monuments are magnets for controversy.
Take the Confederate memorial on the capitol grounds.
If you visit it you will see a grand gray granite base with a pedestal at each corner and a taller one at center. The base is the work of Frank Teich, the man who carved some of the most magnificent monuments that grace Texas public and private spaces. (We talked about him a couple weeks ago.)
Each of the pedestals is topped with a bronze statue by Pompeo Coppini, he of Alamo Cenotaph and Littlefield Fountain fame. (We talked about him as well.)
The corner figures represent the branches of the Confederate service: infantry, cavalry, artillery and navy. On the high center pedestal stands CSA President Jefferson Davis.
This is how Texans in 1895 wanted to think of their “Lost Cause.” The figures are noble, defiant and larger that life. (Nine feet tall, to be exact.)
But what most people don’t know is this is the second design. The one that was rejected may tell us even more about how our forbears saw themselves.
That first design so enraged the public sensibilities that the United Confederate Camps of Texas (who oversaw the monument’s creation) was forced to abandon it.
How people felt about that proposed design was summed up by one Austin citizen who said it would, “scare imaginative children…and drive their elders to suicide or emigration.”
What could be so horrible?
It was a design by Elisabet Ney. She sculpted the marble statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin that reside at Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol and in Austin.
The base was the same as what we see today, but the statues atop the pedestals where not.
Representing the infantry was a fallen standard bearer, a comrade seizing the banner and taking his place. Cavalry was represented by a wounded Ranger leaning against his dying mount.
The artillery was to be honored by a wounded soldier laying atop a broken gun carriage, a fellow artilleryman facing death with only a ramrod. The final corner would honor the “faithful servant,” supporting and carrying his wounded “master” from the field.
On the high pedestal stood “the soldier returning home,” embraced by a wife grateful not to be a widow. He stared into the distance, contemplating what the future would bring, his right arm around her waist, his left sleeve empty.
Some modern eyes may prefer the pathos of this unflinching glimpse of reality cast in bronze, but Texans of that post-war generation rejected it.
Maybe the wounds were still too fresh.