We live in a Post-Modernist age, or so we are told. Within it the legacy of Modernism clings on. The Modern movement in art, of course, based itself on the rejection of many typical 19th-century ideas, values and images. Post-Modernism is pluralistic and capable of accommodating revivals, however. One of the many possible positive readings of Marc Quinn’s ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’ on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square is that it is a revival of Neo-Classicism, inspired by the Venus de Milo. The maquette for it is also a revival of Realism by direct casting from the human body — more Madame Tussaud than Michelangelo, perhaps.
One school of current thought holds that we no longer need figurative images in bronze or stone to commemorate today’s heroes, heroines and celebrities. In any case, the anti-hero is probably thought to be ‘in’ and Victorian ancestor-worship ‘out’. Future generations, the argument now runs, can, if they insist, find out what the late Queen Mother, Nelson Mandela, Lady Thatcher and David Beckham looked like by retrieving news footage, documentary films or browsing the internet for photographic images. If a memorial is absolutely necessary, then what’s wrong with an architectural form, a symbolic abstract image, some soothing jets of water or a combination of all three in an appropriate spot?
As a matter of fact, things do sometimes go wrong with such a choice. In the late Diana, Princess of Wales’s imageless memorial in Hyde Park, a stream flows round and round between concrete banks. The intention was not without some merit but the whole area is now marred by large and negative warning notices which betray the scheme’s flaws. These obtrusive signs forbid dogs, ball games and above all ‘walking in the water’, which was what the public most enjoyed — until some child predictably cut a foot. And did nobody foresee that green grass would soon become brown mud when trodden on by the very crowds the memorial was supposed to satisfy?
The memorial’s judges would have done better to have chosen the proposal of the shortlisted sculptor William Pye. A superb artist, Pye has devoted his life to analysing and creatively influencing the behaviour of water. His work is admired by the sophisticated within the art world, but it is popular as well. Far from cutting themselves and moaning, travellers have been throwing coins into Pye’s ‘Slipstream’ and ‘Jetstream’ at Gatwick Airport for some 15 years. The current take is about £10,000 a year, all of which goes to charities.
To go abstract or aquatic, of course, is perfectly appropriate in many circumstances. The celebratory water jets outside Somerset House are fine, for example. Nevertheless, just as the legacy of Modernism is still with us despite having passed its theoretical sell-by date, so the ancient human impulse to put up statues which recall the look of a person just won’t go away either. And why should it?
Philip Jackson’s larger-than-life-size bronze likeness of Sir Matt Busby holding a football has adorned the entrance of Manchester United Football Club since 1996. Huddersfield sports an image of Harold Wilson by Ian Walters, the sculptor whom Ken Livingstone is reported to have favoured for a proposed statue of Nelson Mandela, to be sited near South Africa House. Such works do not approach the category of great sculpture but they serve a variety of personal, social or political purposes. However kitsch it may be, no doubt the same applies to the recent sculpture of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed in Harrods, entitled ‘The Innocent Victims’.
The human impulse to put up statues is not confined to those who are alive or within living memory. In London recently, some memorial sculptures have been erected to commemorate three major creative figures from the arts of the past, none of them born in England: a painter and a dramatist of the 19th century and a composer of the 18th. A few weeks ago Viscount Chelsea unveiled a statue of Whistler, in Cheyne Walk at Battersea Bridge, looking towards the Thames. Nicholas Dimbleby is the sculptor. He has portrayed the great aesthete with sketchbook in hand. The Mayor of Kensington and Chelsea was there and rain pelted down creating both a suitably Whistlerian mistiness and a typically English event. Not long ago, near Charing Cross railway station, a controversial memorial to another great aesthete, Oscar Wilde, by the painter Maggi Hambling was unveiled.
You never know what will happen when a painter turns to sculpture. Who would have guessed that G.F. Watts could have produced the equestrian ‘Physical Energy’ statue in Hyde Park, for example. In Pimlico there is a more conventional statue by Philip Jackson of Mozart as a boy. It is charmingly situated a few yards away from the house in which the young prodigy stayed and composed his first symphony. Commissioned by Christopher Moorsom and Francis Sitwell, it is tempting to connect its mildly baroque air with Sacheverell Sitwell’s book on baroque sculpture.
A phenomenon which may intrigue social anthropologists is that memorials to the second world war have been going up all over Europe, 50 or 60 years after the event. In London, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall have just opened the figurative memorial, ‘Battle of Britain’, by Paul Day. Furthermore, in Park Lane at Brook Gate there is now a large memorial devoted to the role of animals in fighting for human freedom. As an inscription puts it: ‘They had no choice.’ Some may see a revival of Victorian sentimentality in this ambitious and impressive work. The designer and sculptor is David Backhouse. More to the Post-Modernist point, it exhibits a welcome revival of the skills of carving and modelling. It contrasts dark-bronze free-standing animals with low relief creatures in light stone. It features mules, horses, dogs, camels, llamas, a goat, an elephant and three carrier pigeons. Pigeons are now ‘in’, it would seem. Despite Ken Livingstone’s aversion to the flying rats of Trafalgar Square, the next work to fill the empty plinth will be Thomas Sch