Thursday, January 9, 2014

Four Young Women: Wondering How Much We've Changed in a Century

The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, with young ladies Europe and
America flanking the entrance.
In 1907 the "World's Greatest Custom House" opened on Bowling Green at the former site of Fort Amsterdam, the center of Dutch Manhattan.  As the New York Times reported, it was the place "where all the world comes to be taxed"--perhaps not happily, but at least now splendidly.  Indeed, in a land before Federal income tax, the collection of tariffs was the single greatest revenue generator in America.  Now the country had the best of all worlds, an architectural wonder that also churned out nearly $200 million annually.

Today, the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House hosts the National Museum of the American Indian (very cool and worth visiting), the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York (not cool, don't go there), and the National Archives in New York City.  But when I visited over the holidays, I was particularly interested in the four Daniel Chester French statues that look uptown from the front of the Custom House, my interest piqued after watching David Hartman and Barry Lewis take a fantastic "Walk up Broadway"--see here.)

French, born in New Hampshire and European-trained, is perhaps best known for his statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, but for New Englanders he's also famous for the Minute Man at Concord and The John Harvard Monument at Harvard Yard.  (His works are spread around America, however, including the Marshall Field Memorial in Chicago, Alma Mater at Columbia University, James Oglethorpe in Savanah, and Thomas Starr King in San Francisco--see here for more.)

In 1902 French won the competition to design four prominent statues intended to be allegorical representations of the four trading continents, Asia, Europe, America and Africa.  The young ladies that the sculptor envisioned, each to be carved of Tennessee marble, would serve as greeters to the many nations entering the building.  The ideas and forms would be his, but approved by the Federal government.

I think it's fair to say that no sane sculptor would take on such a task today.  How could it possibly come out well?  What allegorical tale could an artist tell about an entire continent that wouldn't get dragged across the comments section of the online Post, crucified by Rush Limbaugh or pilloried in The Economist?  (See my post on memorials, donuts and statues here.)  Yet, 1902 was a different place in America, and Daniel Chester French was happy to characterize the continents in a way (one presumes) that reflected the general sentiments of upscale, commercial America and its government.

This is Europe seated on a majestic throne, representing civilization.  One arm rests on a large book of laws which are being dispersed around the globe.  The back of her throne resembles a sailing ship, and she's accompanied by an imperial eagle, lion and bear head.  She's looking forward, calm and collected.  All in all--with no hint of WWI in sight--Europe was doing just fine in 1907.

To Europe's right sits Asia, straight back and eyes closed in contemplation.  She is surrounded by religious emblems, including a Buddha and scroll of the Buddhist wheel of law.  

Also featured are a lotus flower, snake and tiger, but to her left are three figures symbolizing the suffering multitudes--and I'm not much liking those skulls under her gown, which are meant to show oppression.  The cross and sun at her back were intended to represent the approach of conquering nations.

Next, on the far right, comes poor old Africa--half dressed and sound asleep.  She's on a rock, not a throne, and her right arm rests on a damaged sphinx and her left on a lion.  At best she is mysterious and at worst world-weary, alone and hopeless.

Then comes America--and in 1907, it was good to be America (especially with an American sculptor).  She's young, alert and looking toward the future, holding the torch of liberty in her right hand and stalks of corn in her lap.  The figure of Labor crouches to her right, representing industry and innovation.

He's holding a winged wheel of Fortune and a magnet and prism, tools of knowledge.  Behind her is a Native American resting his foot on a buffalo skull, and to her right an eagle.

These, then, were acceptable American stereotypes in 1907.  Majestic and wise, contemplative but imperious, asleep and alone, and ready to roll.  As the Times reported, French's figures were intended to "give nothing less than the visible embodiment of the spirit of the ages, human tendencies as they have been shown in the development of great racial types, progress and failure, hope and despair, with all the gradations from primitive barbarism to the most advanced civilization. . . ."

Of course, these may not have been acceptable stereotypes to everyone.  I discovered in a news report from January 1907 that someone had tried to deface the figure of Africa by staining it with a "particularly tenacious" fluid that had to be chiseled off.  I'm wondering if it was a protest against Africa itself, public nudity, French's pejorative interpretation of the continent, or just an equal-opportunity vandal who simply wanted to stay nearer State Street for his getaway.  

I wonder, too, had the commission been given to an Asian, African or European sculptor in 1907 how it might have been different (only being sure that it  would be different.)  Or, if it had been commissioned in 1920 after WWI? 1950 after WWII?  2000 after 9/11?

And then there's a part of me that thinks, Tennessee marble doesn't change that much in a century, and I wonder if allegories have a little more of that same permanence to them than we'd like to think.  So, take another look at our four young women and convince yourself, done today for an "upscale, commercial" audience: How different would they really be?

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