One of the stranger disputes of the past few weeks has concerned a Victorian figure that has occupied a niche in the centre of Oxford for more than a century without, for the most part, attracting any attention at all. Now, of course, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign is demanding that the sculpture — its subject having been posthumously found guilty of racism and imperialism — should be taken down from the façade of Oriel College. The controversy is a reminder of the fact, sometimes forgotten by the British, that public statues are intensely political.
This was clear — until quite recently, at least — when one drove into the Syrian city of Hama. There, dominating a roundabout, was a large bronze representation of the late President Hafez al-Assad. This was a reminder to the inhabitants not only of who was in charge, but also who had ordered that the centre of the town be blown up in 1982 and somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 people massacred. Since June 2011 that statue has no longer been there.
Here in Britain we have never been particularly statue-conscious. With the exception of Nelson on his column, few of the monuments to the once powerful dotted around our cities have made much impression on the national consciousness. It is hard to imagine a memorable sculptural monument to any living British politician (though I am a little sorry the ‘Ed Stone’ was not saved as a curiosity for the V&A).
Elsewhere, however, it is different. Images of the Assad family may have been crashing down in Syria, but 2015 was a boom year for the statuary manufacturers of North Korea. All over the country, in accordance with some enigmatic political imperative, 3D representations of the ‘Eternal President’ Kim Il-sung, founder of the dynasty, are currently being removed and replaced by those of his descendants Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un.
This was the way things often went in the ancient world.