statues and the city

Architecture | Statues and the City

Richard Porch explores the relationship between statues and the city in a wide ranging essay that reaches from Cardiff to Tokyo.

They can be great works of art that stand-alone (forgive the pun) within the public realm such as the copy of Michelangelo’s David in Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Or less well-known ones like those to Harald Grytten and Bøkkerenin Ålesunde (Norway) or St. Michael in the Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome. Or they can be that very commonplace British equivalent the civic bronze paid for by public subscription and erected in homage to some local worthy. These dot the urban landscape of most British towns and cities which have origins in the 19th century. The deployment of them began to peter out in the 1960s / 70s with the advent of public art. The latter could more easily be badged as a celebration of civic success or ambition and it sidestepped the perennially thorny issue of who to commemorate and why. The latter could be a source of controversy vide past statues to Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde in London. In addition public art could be financed by various mechanisms including ‘Percent for Art’ schemes that didn’t impinge on the public purse.

Statues are useful things despite every suggestion to the contrary. They can function as devices that not only celebrate someone but also help the visitor orientate themselves around the built environment. They are landmarks within a 3-D map of the environment and consequently form part of our mental furniture. Although if you’ve ever visited Tokyo you’ll know that advertising graphics can fulfil this role too.

My earliest awareness of what a statue was came with my discovery (as a child) of one to John Batchelor (1820-1883) on the Hayes in the heart of Cardiff’s city centre. Batchelor was an eminent Liberal politician and industrialist, and the statue unveiled in 1885. It bears a simple inscription saying “The Friend of Freedom” and the sculptor was James Milo ap Griffith (1843-1897). I make no claims for it being a masterpiece of the genre and it stands on a simple, tapered plinth of polished granite as the city swirls around it. Batchelor stands stiffly atop it as he has done every day for the last 135 years with one hand on his hip clutching some screeds (doubtless of civic importance) and the other outstretched as if making some debating point. It is very matter-of-fact in its impact, is in no sense kinetic and carries no freight of drama with which to engage the onlooker. As a result it does not send them scurrying away to learn more about the man that inspired the statue. Maybe that has changed with the advent of iPhones and the Internet…but I doubt it. This lack of interest (and hence relevance) has condemned Batchelor’s statue to becoming just another piece of largely ‘invisible’ street furniture. For many decades it was marooned on an isolated traffic island until pedstrianisation gave him a new and approachable prominence. Perhaps this new accessibility will stimulate interest in onlookers. Again, I doubt it.

Outside key statues in important civic thoroughfares in London, few new statues to civic heroes are unveiled and the practice has waned except in the case of war memorials and even they now tend to be located in arboretums especially designed to receive them. There are of course very niche exceptions to this rule and you have to change the definition of the word ‘hero’ to make it work. I refer of course to statues commemorating well-loved entertainers in their home town (i.e. Tommy Cooper in Caerphilly) or to footballers outside grounds where they played (i.e. Bobby Moore at Wembley) or pop stars (i.e. the Beatles on the waterfront at Liverpool) where they were born or grew up. What they all have in common is that they seem to have been created more as a wax works version of the person they honour than anything more artistically adventurous. One that has been dipped in bronze and then arranged in some pose that they would have been famous for in life. They ask nothing of the onlooker other than recognition. These, I would argue, are not actually statues but are more akin to a full-body death mask masquerading as one.

In other places in Europe though statues exist which exert a level of interest that – while they have a local connection – they are by virtue of their superior sculptural qualities and location raised above being merely street furniture. For example; there is a statue by Raffaello da Montelupo (1504-1567) sculpted in 1544 that now stands in an inner courtyard of the Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome. This imposing circular structure overlooks the right bank of the Tiber and resembles an ancient fortress. Appropriately enough it was created as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian and his family and was built between 123 – 139 AD. It is largely accessed via a bridge once called the Pons Aelius now known as the Ponte Sant’ Angelo which was built between 134 – 139 AD. This bridge has later additions (angels) by Bernini starting in 1669. Montelupo’s statue once sat at the apex of the apex of the Castle’s dome until 1752 when it was removed to the courtyard because of weather damage. The statue is supposed to represent St. Michael sheathing a sword (both sword and sheath have been lost) to signify the end of a period when Rome suffered the plague in 590. The removal of the sword and scabbard from the hands of the statue far from spoiling it has only given it an extra dimension of disturbing drama. St. Michael looks as though he is communing with someone or an apparition. The plinth he stands on is (at least when I saw it last) very workaday and far from grand. The setting however is a classic example of how a statue and where it is located can invest each other with real architectonic drama.

Depending on the weather or the lighting conditions the combined effect possesses a controlled surreal magic that De Chirico used to obtain so effectively in his metaphysical paintings between 1909 – 19. . You know what I mean; looming classical architecture, deep shadows (Piazza d’Italia– 1956) and exaggerated perspective (The Lassitude of the Infinite– 1912). Then the artist just adds something completely unexpected (and usually innocuous) like smoke from a partially hidden train, the billowing sail of a boat or an odd statue in a plaza and a disturbingsurreal magic takes over. I’m simplifying the formula a bit there but I’m sure you know what I mean. There’s nothing truly surreal at work; no melting watches, strange elongated creatures suspended on fragile crutches or weird dream-like simulacra effects, etc. De Chirico’s magic lies in relationships, lighting and subtle distortions of perspective and perhaps that’s what I look for in a good statue and its setting.

I’m almost certain that whoever it was that signed-off the movement of Montelupo’s St. Michael from the dome to that courtyard, did not subscribe to my theory. But it works anyway. It helps that Montelupo’s marble statue has highly stylised wings made of bronze which sprout from its back in an unusually modern style to set up an arresting counterpoint between the two materials. Its setting is a narrow courtyard lined on two sides by buildings with the side nearest to the statue pierced by sundry window openings framed by stone mouldings. Two of which have menacingly large iron grilles to them the function of which is unclear; is it incarceration or defence? The statue’s bronze wings seem frozen and magnetized by an invisible source behind the main window as if they are being pinned there by some invisible means. Consequently there seems to be an unexplained drama being played out and one which cannot be understood by the onlooker. This adds to a generalised sense of unease. In addition when the sun is at the right angle Montelupo’s St. Michael also throws a disturbingly bizarre gothic shadow against the masonry behind it. Consequently the trajectory of the sun endows it with an independent and kinetic life all of its own which adds to the architectonic drama of it all.

Much more conventionally; two civic statues in the small Norwegian port of Ålesunde (pop.45, 395) shows how modern civic sculpture can be deployed to generate interest and curiosity. For here are two statues by the Norwegian sculptor Olaf Leon Roald (b.1952). Both are as different from James Milo ap Griffith and his statue of John Batchelor as can be imagined. While both sculptors worked in what might be termed a ‘realistic style’, Roald’s is altogether more Gothic and austerely dramatic. His statues for Ålesunde do not appear to interact intimately with their setting and seemingly owe a superficial debt to Giacometti (1901-66). The first one I saw was alongside the river at Lorchenestorget and rested on a small plinth out of which it soared like a column of bronze that has sympathetically weathered into effigy. Erected in 2012 the person it celebrates is Harald Grytten a local historian (who is still alive) and who has written extensively about Ålesunde’s history. The head of Grytten’s statue is a good likeness but the slender wrapped body is the work of the sculptor’s imagination. The whole posture of the work is enigmatic, open to interpretation and left the visitor (i.e. me) baffled but engaged.

It did make me want to go away afterwards and investigate who Harald Grytten was. Its position beside Ålesunde’s main river is slightly odd as it is not a natural point of confluence for pedestrian traffic. Nor did Grytten have any connection, maritime or otherwise to it. I can only think it was chosen for its potential for forming a foreground presence for photographs of the picturesque Jugendstil architecture behind it. The other work by Roald is even odder and definitely a work of the imagination injected into the public realm. This one is called Bøkkeren (erected in 1998) and is a symbol of the people who used to make barrels when fish were transported that way from Ålesunde 100 years ago or more. Here the sculptor has created a huge over-sized workman in the act of barrel-making. Unlike the statue of Harald Grytten this one dominates space and demands investigation. It appears to have grown up through the pavement and its pitted and distressed surface makes one think it has been made from architectural salvage rather than bronze. Nevertheless it too engaged me and made me want to know what it was all about – which was the history of Ålesunde.

I suppose that a major part of the reason why the two Ålesunde statues and the one of St. Michael in Rome energise interest is that they are closer to being public art than mere statuary. The freedom of expression behind their creation gives them a power that memorial statuary usually struggles to compete with. The problem with much public art though is that it is often opaque in meaning, non-representational and an imposition by the local authority. In other words it is more a product of local cultural politics than anything else. Is it therefore more exclusive than inclusive?

Statues tend to work best when they are rooted in the origins of a place or are at the very least part of its mythology.