Since there's been a lot of discussion and activity during June 2020 pertaining to 19th / 20th century statues in public spaces, with some statues coming down through formal and informal means, it occurred to me I should photograph some aspects of an especially elegant, complex, evocative, allegorically rich, and often lifelike -- but in places, I think, also patronizing and demeaning -- monument in Philadelphia: the Washington Monument in Eakins Oval, at the base of the Art Museum steps. Anyone who's spent time in Philly probably knows this monument very well, with its swirl of allegorical animal and human figures enveloping the high-up equestrian statue of Washington. My object in this visual essay is not to advocate taking this public sculpture down, or keeping it up, or altering it (though there's one or two places where an alteration/addition could be interesting). It is, rather, to draw attention to its craftsmanship and symbological complexity, and by extension to the dilemmas connected to maintaining public artworks like this one in public space over long periods of time spanning many eras with many different political sensibilities. The monument was designed in 1897 by Rudolph Siemering, a German-Prussian sculptor from Königsberg. Some extra info can be found at the link here:
The monument complex has 4 levels, as seen above: Washington on his horse at the top; then a pedestal with figures and relief sculptures pertaining to the American Revolution; then a level with symbolic reclining figures (what look like two Native Americans and two European figures); and finally a level with many animals. This scheme obviously asserts a hierarchy.
The shot above also gives a sense of the 4 levels.
Below, starting out at the animal level: one of the two moose at the eastern corner of the monument complex (in background, the Art Museum steps, designed by Julian Abele; the museum flags are at half mast in honor of 2020's Coronavirus victims).
Below, the eastern corner of the monument, looking towards the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Philly City Hall. The metal barriers are left over from several large protests against police brutality and racism which have occurred along the Parkway in June. As far as I know, these protesters have never directed their anger at the monument. Behind the trees at the left, barely visible, is a protest encampment (ongoing as of 6/23/2020).
(The major public statue conflicts which have occurred in Philadelphia during the June 2020 unrest concerned a statue of former Philadelphia mayor and police chief Frank Rizzo, which was next to City Hall and has been removed; and a Christopher Columbus statue in deep South Philly, which is still there. Elsewhere in the U.S. during this period, a George Washington statue was pulled down by a crowd in Portland, Oregon).
Below, one of the two buffalo (bison) at the southern corner of the monument.
Below, one of the two deer at the western corner.
Below, the bear at the northern monument corner. Curiously, unlike the other three corners, the northern corner of the monument does not have a same-species animal pairing (i.e. two moose, two buffalo, and two deer), but rather a bear and a cow (cow is next pic). I'm not sure if this difference was intended as symbolically significant.
At the next level up in the monument complex, we get four reclining figures, two of whom seem to be white/European, and two Native American. To my eye, the two Native American figures, at the southern and eastern corners of the monument, register as demeaning visual moments in the sculptural scheme. In this photo (below) at the southern corner, Washington and his horse seem to loom over, visually dominate (perhaps even threaten to trample?) the reclining, apparently subjugated figure, the Native American man.
George Washington ordered massacres and land dispossession of the Iroquois peoples during and after the American Revolution (the Iroquois Confederation had sided with the British) -- though for reasons I get to later in this essay, I don't think it's clear whether the sculptor intended this visual relationship between the equestrian Washington and the Native American man to convey that violence and domination.
In terms of narrow formal craftsmanship, the statue of the Native American man is -- to my eye -- beautiful.
The statue of the Native American man has a bow across his chest and a downed bird (a hawk or falcon?) slung behind him.
Something to add: while I was talking about this topic (public statues in general) with a friend and geography colleague, Kafui Attoh, he proposed what I think is a brilliant idea for dealing with fraught or demeaning visual themes/hierarchies in some historical statues in public spaces. Rather than taking things away (a pattern which I think can impoverish public space, though it does depend on what's being taken away), a new statue could be designed and added to the old one, showing figures assembling or mobilizing to take pieces of the old statue down, or perhaps the entire thing down. In other words: a monument to the idea of removal, rather than removal itself. This solution would honor both the historical artwork itself (assuming there's some aspect of the artwork we wish to honor, which may not be true of all historical artworks) and also the reality that we've changed and evolved as a society, and in some cases we feel righteous anger at the power asymmetries which historical statues like Philly's Washington monument visually aestheticize.
Below: the reclining figure at the eastern corner. Apparently a Native American woman (?). The figure has a fishing net as well as caught fish and a conch (next pics). Note that the two Native American figures are shown with hunted or fished animals.
At the northern and western corners of this level of the monument complex, the hierarchical scheme is becomes somewhat more nebulous. This reclining figure below, a woman (apparently white/European?) wrapped by a snake, is at the same hierarchical level as the two Native American figures.
Below, the reclining figure at the northern corner. Like at the western corner, this reclining figure is also apparently white/European. He's killing an alligator with a trident. Note that the two white/European figures are coupled with reptiles. The "alligator killer" is also at the same hierarchical level as the other reclining figures: that is, as the white/European woman with the snake, and the two Native Americans. If the equestrian Washington figure is supposed to be visually "trampling" the two Native American reclining figures at the southern and eastern corners, is it also supposed to be tramping these two reclining figures at the western and northern corners?
Note that the alligator killer with the trident is associated with the bear and cow pairing at the northern corner. The two Native Americans, with their caught fish and hunted birds, face the Parkway and City Hall, i.e. in the same direction as Washington. The two European-looking figures with their snake and alligator face the Art Museum, i.e. in the opposite direction as Washington. I suspect there's symbolic meaning in these directional and animal-associative decisions.
The Association for Public Art page (link at beginning of essay) has an audio which says these reclining figures are supposed to be allegories for rivers, though the audio does not say which figure is supposed to be which river (assuming that's how the "river allegory", apparently present in the monument, is supposed to work).
One hierarchical level up from reclining figures, we get to the sides of the equestrian pedestal, which show symbolic scenes pertaining to the American Revolution. On the northeast side of the pedestal is a relief sculpture of soldiers marching (below).
Below: on the southwest side, civilians marching, including Ben Franklin.
Below: the southeast side of the pedestal, facing the Parkway and City Hall, has an allegorical female figure, apparently representing "liberty."
Below: the northwest side of the pedestal, facing the Art Museum, has a comparable allegorical female figure, representing war and struggle. (Note the salamander in the foreground.)
A final comment--pertaining to the last, highest, level of the schematic hierarchy, the level showing Washington on horseback. From a distance, the monument obviously draws attention to this equestrian figure. But up close, while wandering through and photographing the monument, I found myself forgetting about the Washington equestrian statue completely. The main features up close are the animals and allegorical figures. I think this was likely the sculptor's intent, because the sight-lines within the monument complex do not allow you to look up and see Washington himself, if you are looking from a spot inside of the complex. The Washington of Siemering's monument is not the man but rather a bigger symbol, hovering over and drawing attention to more accessible figures representing a complex new country. The sculptor seems to want us to examine, or admire, these figures and ultimately relate to the artwork at this level -- rather than to the person of Washington himself.