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.