Thursday, August 14, 2008

Nature Abhors a Statue

Central Park's memorial to Richard Morris Hunt, a prominent 19th-century American who is best known today for his pompous memorial in Central Park.

I'm currently reading The Politics of Park Design, by Galen Cranz. It's a history of the dominant political forces behind the landscapes of our city parks, and it has this to say about statues in parks:
"Statuary reminded the viewer of man's handiwork, not nature's, and, because it was associated with European aristocratic formal gardens, it was an anethema to democrats... Most designers objected to statuary in general."
Cranz also includes this 1903 quote from Mrs. Herman J. Hall of the American Park and Outdoor Art Assn.:
"There should be no place in [parks]... for granite pantalooned remembrances of deal musicians and soldiers and statesmen. If we cannot teach people to realize that they should keep their effigies of statemen where they belong, then let us hide them in thickets... We should put nothing in our parks which suggests unrest or anything disagreeable, or that will frighten children, but we should put in objects that will suggest woods, trees, water and nature.
And more explicit is Charles S. Sargent, editor of Garden and Forest magazine, who wrote that "the public is only half-educated in matters of taste, and not only admires these very bad figures, but is continually pestering the commissioners to put up more like them."

And the rabble prevailed: German immigrant groups erected monuments to Schiller, temperance activists built fountains to proclaim the virtues of pure drinking water, and the pastoral refuges of our largest cities grew cluttered with Ozymandiases.

But what Sargent and Mrs. Hall fail to note is how their "natural" parks are every bit as man-made as the statues are: the rustic aesthetic of nineteenth century pleasure grounds required a great deal of excavation, planting, and maintenance to come by their "natural" appearance. We're more prone to being fooled these days, when the trees and undergrowth have attained a maturity that really does look primeval. But nineteenth-century city dwellers, who witnessed these parks' transformations from sand dunes and swamps, might well have wondered why it was all right to build a pond, but unacceptable to build a statue.

In spite of the memorials, nature survives, and children manage to show remarkable courage when confronted by a rusty bronze general.


Turboglacier said...

"the public is only half-educated in matters of taste"


Andrew Riely said...

hilarious entry. bravo.