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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Shrouded in Loss, Part II: Comparing Tomb Memorials


Before many monuments arrived on the national Mall in Washington, DC, the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery was a major tourist attraction in the capital city. Because of its fame, I decided to visit it. I compared this monument to a tomb by Lorado Taft in Chicago, because I have always been quite moved by Taft's Solitude of the Soul at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Adams Memorial is a seated bronze figure with an androgynous face and deep, textured drapery. Augustus Saint-Gaudens completed it in 1891. Its green patina and mottled effect beautifully contrast with the speckled pink granite base and block designed by architect Sanford White. By comparison, Lorado Taft's sculpture, erected in 1909, is starker; it takes the memorial concept further into 20th century abstraction.

Henry Adams, a 19th century historian and novelist, commissioned the Adams Memorial after his wife, Clover Hooper Adams, committed suicide in 1885. An amateur photographer of some note, Clover had suffered from depression before swallowing potassium cyanide, a chemical used in developing her photographs. Saint-Gaudens planned and executed the sculpture over 5 years. He loosely based the statue on Clover's appearance, the iconic qualities of Buddhist statues and the grandeur of Michelangelo, particularly his Sibyls on the Sistine Ceiling, striving to capture an eternal presence in a figure that will never be alive to Adams, or us, again.
Saint-Gaudens entitled this work the The Mystery of the Hereafter and the Peace of God that Passeth Understanding, but the public called it "Grief," a term Henry Adams never accepted. Adams, a grandson and great-grandson of US Presidents, was buried here when he died in 1918.

As I see it, the statue expressed Henry Adams' need to come to terms with his wife's death, an event about which he avoided speaking or writing. Yet the loss deeply affected him and whether there was guilt, regret or other unresolved feelings, he seems to have used the monument to make peace with those feelings. The intention was
to express a state of being which is neither joy nor anguish. The memorial avoids ideas about judgment and the hereafter, but evokes concepts of the divine feminine. Adams visited this grave statue often, but never met the state of peace the image portrays. (Yet the powerful female spirit appears to have influenced him long afterwards, as revealed in his books, The Education of Henry Adams and Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres.)

The bronze figure, its face and strong hands are powerfully reminiscent of Michelangelo. The drapery is very heavy, but the woman's face is not covered. She raises an arm and hand to intercept the veil, emphasizing that face. The eyes appear closed at first glance, but are actually open, looking downward. An earthly existence is vanishing but still present, as Henry Adams tried to keep her. And she is present to us in a timeless way, since the Saint Gaudens' statue tries to avoid the finality of loss so pervasive in the statues of Lorado Taft.

Eternal Silence is the appropriate name Lorado Taft gave the grave marker of Dexter Graves in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago. A heavily draped bronze figure pulls his robe over his mouth, snuffing out his presence in the world. Note that a hand deliberately covers the mouth, in contrast to the Adams' figure whose hand opens the veil like a curtain to reveal a face. Here the individual portrait is completely irrelevant; he is representative of an eternal truth, the finality of a life. Eyes are closed and, like most of the face, they are blackened.

Taft prefers broad, bold simplified shapes in sculpture, as opposed to the Adams Memorial's more nuanced drapery folds. The bronze's patina is a light green, in contrast to the black face. A nose pops out under the hood--also green. It's spooky. No wonder many tales about ghosts have come from those who have visited the statue. For the record, Dexter Graves died in 1844, after he had come to Chicago from Ohio with 12 other founding families of the city in the 1830s. He built a hotel in Chicago and his son Henry commissioned the monument in 1907.

The statue and sky reflect behind into black granite, the
same material used in the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. Taft simplified the outer garment, barely suggesting a large masculine physique underneath. The figure stands erect, his silencing complete.

Taft -- like Michelangelo and Rodin -- was committed to using the human figure to express the greatest truths as he saw it, even if his ideas were quite abstract.