I write this on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
How can a sculptor memorialize a great person without sinking into cliche or banality?
Portland’s Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, The Dream, on a corner by the Oregon Convention Center, is an abject failure. Looking as if it was designed by a committee (which it might have been), a likeness of Dr. King is accompanied by a man, a woman, a child, and a flock of birds. I can almost hear the mandate: “Be sure to include a cute little girl and some doves.” One of the project’s organizers, speaking sixteen years after its 1998 dedication, lamented, “It’s still surprising how many people don’t even know the statue is there.” His surprise is the only surprise. The monument has the emotional impact of a fire hydrant.
It need not be so. In 1891, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin was commissioned to design a memorial to one of his heroes, the author Honoré de Balzac.
British historian Kenneth Clark has praised the resulting work as “The greatest piece of sculpture of the nineteenth century.” Yet, when Rodin submitted his model to the project’s sponsor, the Societe des Gens de Lettres, a French literary society, the work was rejected and lambasted as “grotesque.” It was not cast in bronze until long after Rodin’s death. Today, the monument, on Paris’ Boulevard du Montparnasse, is a site of pilgrimage (and tourist buses), and reproductions grace museums around the world, including the Hirschhorn Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. To many admirers, it is Balzac.
What makes it work? Rodin said that he set out to portray Balzac’s “persona” rather than a likeness. It might be more accurate to say that he set out to sculpt his own personal veneration of the novelist’s courage, defiance of fashionable prejudices, and (in Kenneth Clark’s words) “his prodigious understanding of human motives.” In other words, Rodin set out to make a personal work of art.
That is also the aim of the recently unveiled monument to Dr. King on the Boston Commons. Designed by artist Hank Willis Thomas, The Embrace—four massive, intertwined bronze arms of a man and a woman—is an abstracted representation of a press photo of King and his wife, Coretta, hugging after hearing that he had been awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
The sculpture sits on the same spot where, in 1965, King led 20,000 people in the Northeast’s first mass march protesting school segregation. It is a monument to love and joy, the twin wells of courage and perseverance.
Much of the public reaction has been harsh, generating online mockery, ridicule, and vulgar jokes. Some commentators have described the work as “obscene,” and many are offended that by not depicting the Kings’ faces, it could just as well represent a white couple. I suspect Dr. King would smile at that, as it was his dream that his children would someday live in a nation where they would be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” A shared humanity triumphing over color. Thomas has the faith to continue to dream.