This Independence Day, we look back in A.i.A.’s archives to our May/June 1974 issue, in which art historian Marvin Trachtenberg considered the formal, social, and allegorical aspects of Auguste Bartholdi’s colossal 151-foot statue Liberty Enlightening the World. Though he concedes that Liberty is banal as a work of sculpture, Trachtenberg argues that it is a successful monument “that slips without resistance into the imagination.” Accordingly, he pays close attention to the visual impact that the statue has on its intended audience-people aboard vessels entering New York’s harbor. “From a ship, Liberty appears initially to be striding powerfully forward into the path of the oncoming vessel,” he writes. “Once alongside the statue, however, one finds that this dynamic image has yielded to that of a Liberty standing resolutely planted, her movement confined to the upward thrust of the torch and the proud, if brooding, facial expression.” We present his essay in full bellow. —Eds.
“Not a work of Art,” the reluctant American patrons of the Statue of Liberty complained of it, even before the unveiling in 1886. In inverse proportion to its mass popularity, it has been disdained by the cultural establishment ever since. Too large and too firmly rooted in the soil of Bedloe’s Island, and in the hearts of Americans, to be transferred to a museum as so many other monuments have been, Liberty retains an ambiguous status. She has not been subjected to that recent esthetic alchemy through which all artifacts become art in a museum context. Liberty would seem to be a strange composite of success and failure. As a symbol, her celebrity is unsurpassed. Yet the question of her legitimacy as art is generally raised only in a negative context, where she is dismissed simply as “kitsch.”
Reduced to a less overpowering scale, the chef d’oeuvre of the French monument-maker Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904) would unquestionably present a perfectly banal and stereotypical image for its day. Wearyingly similar Neo-Classical works made in academic shops from the time of Canova onward populate European capitals; in mid- and late nineteenth century state monuments in Paris, such as the Louvre and the Opéra, they abound. A particularly Liberty-like figure, in a variant of the pose, appeared at the Paris Exposition of 1855 (the year of Bartholdi’s first Salon success): it was France Crowning Art and Industry, atop the Palais de l’Industrie. To works such as this can be traced Liberty’s forward stride and the lifting of her torch, which reflect diffuse Neo-Baroque tendencies of the time. Her iconography, of course, involves a manipulation of the Renaissance system of symbolism that was still the common basis for allegory; she was certainly meant to recall such historical favorites as the Phidian Athenas or the Colossus of Rhodes. Even the statue’s given title exemplified a fashionable mode: Liberté éclairant le monde—Liberty Enlightening the World. It takes up, like an Olympic torch runner, the theme of its predecessor among Bartholdi’s projects, Egypt Passing the Light to Asia of 1867, meant for de Lesseps’ canal at Suez; the latter, in turn, picks up from Carpeaux’s 1866 Louvre group, France Carrying the Light in the World.
Liberty‘s conventionality as sculpture explains why, the statue itself being obviously too large for any museum, no related studies, maquettes or reductions appear in art museums. (They are exhibited instead in the historical Museum of the City of New York, the scientific Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris, and, of course, the biographical Musée Bartholdi in Colmar, the sculptor’s birthplace.) It seems that even in Bartholdi’s day Liberty‘s form as such was not regarded as particularly significant. Conformity is not necessarily incompetence, however; and if the Statue of Liberty is anything, it is a highly finished work of sculptural craftsmanship. Bartholdi’s rendering of a draped Neo-Classical figure at enormous scale is remarkably convincing and represents unusual skill as well as years of devotion (from 1875, when the model was approved by the patrons, to the trial erection in Paris of the enlarged components in 1881-84, to the re-erection in New York in 1886). In comparison with other post-Classical colossi—such as the seventeenth century S. Carlo Borromeo at Lake Maggiore, the eighteenth century Hercules in Kassel or 19th-century monuments like the Bavaria in Munich, the Arminius in the Teutoburger Wald or the Virgin of Le Puy—Bartholdi succeeded astonishingly in maintaining an illusion of organism in a draped, 151-foot-high form built of thin, beaten sheets of copper hung on a wrought-iron armature.
The paradox is that his very success is part of the conventionality of his statue. This conventionality has been critical to Liberty‘s fame. Were she any less academically perfect, her aura of conventionality would be dimmed, which would be truly detrimental to her celebrity, for it would spoil her easy access to the imagination. In her polished Neo-Classicism, Liberty generates little resistance in the observer (except, perhaps, on the part of the “elite”). Her image is somehow familiar and enters effortlessly into the consciousness, being already part of the common visual language, like words of a native tongue.
Liberty, from this point of view, is not really present as a sculpture, to be contemplated as a form in space. She is, rather—and was meant to be—principally a figure in the imagination. As a monument, marking the importance of something beyond herself, she can be clearly distinguished from the museum piece, or “work of art”—something critics have reproached her for not being. The “work of art” may be esteemed for its historical progressiveness, its uniqueness, its rarity or simply its great beauty. Such an object is problematic, highly specific, not reducible to a mental image; a work of art is always densely there, to be seen anew when the witness returns. If the work of art is thus opaque, the monument is transparent. And in modern times, at least, banality has tended to be an agent of such transparency in successful monuments.
This relationship—the monument’s addiction to convention—is corroborated by difficulties experienced by two of Bartholdi’s contemporaries, both far more distinguished as sculptors: Carpeaux’s La Danse at the Opéra scandalized the Parisian bourgeoisie by confronting them with innocent kinetic affection, when what they had wanted was a staid allegorical reflection of a cultural mode; and Rodin, having already incurred resistance with the Burghers of Calais, created a terrible imbroglio with his expressionist figure of Balzac, a great work of art but not the easygoing memorial his patrons expected.
Had the Statue of Liberty been more original and expressive, it would probably have been less potent as a mass symbol. Yet obviously its conventionality only posits one condition for its success. It does not explain it. And we need not insist that Liberty has no peculiarities whatsoever, for indeed she does, although they are not those of the usual sculptural repertory.
Traditionally, the impact of colossal statuary has been magnified by extraformal factors; in particular, effects of scale were abetted by grandeur of site and the vantage point of the observer. One need only recall the colossi at Abu Simbel, carved out of cliffs of the Nile Valley; Phidias’ Athena Promachos on the Acropolis, said to have been visible from the sea; the Helios that dominated the harbor of Rhodes; S. Carlo Borromeo standing at the edge of Lake Maggiore; or the Virgin of Le Puy looking out over a volcanic landscape. There is also Bartholdi’s other colossus, the sixty-foot Lion of Belfort, built of rugged stone blocks imbedded in the cliffs below a fortress which was the scene of heroic resistance against the Prussians; it is visible from the town below.
Bartholdi’s New York monument even more fully exploits its site. It also quite specifically exploits several related “extrasculptural” factors. Liberty‘s overt sculptural form may be of low expressive content, but our experience of the statue in its setting is one of considerable force and singularity.
What we really mean when we speak of the “Statue of Liberty” is not just Bartholdi’s sculpture but a more complex entity: a huge, hollow, internally accessible statue atop a massive granite pedestal (designed by Richard Morris Hunt), rising from a rugged star fortress of the War of 1812, set on a small island in a huge harbor, alongside the principal path of entrance to the New World.
The intended observation point for this scene is not on the island itself but aboard a ship making for the harbor, cutting across Liberty‘s outward gaze (from her right to her left). The kinetic energy of this confrontation is heightened by the curious “double” aspect presented by the statue, which is perhaps its most singular sculptural characteristic. From a ship, Liberty appears initially to be striding powerfully forward into the path of the oncoming vessel. Once alongside the statue, however, one finds that this dynamic image has yielded to that of a Liberty standing resolutely planted, her movement confined to the upward thrust of the torch and the proud, if brooding, facial expression. Thus Bartholdi arranged for the observer that, after weeks at sea, his hungry eye would be met by the forceful image of Liberty striding into his path, then succeeded by a more stable image that might linger in his memory after reaching shore. (Seen in reverse—from a departing liner—the change of image works like a film run backwards, and is not so effective.)
Observers from D. H. Lawrence to Robert Venturi have found the urge to movement an ingrained American characteristic; conceivably, Bartholdi, who chose the site and placement before completing the model for Liberty, may have been affected by this sensibility. But Liberty‘s era was one of dynamic experimentation in general: of ballooning, of the railroad, of instantaneous photography and Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion. Liberty‘s kineticism may ultimately resemble these phenomena only fortuitously, in an illusion of timeliness, as it were. Yet it is a curious fact that many aspects of the Statue of Liberty seem not not only timely but almost avant-garde. Its elegantly intricate wrought-iron skeleton by Gustav Eiffel embodied the most advanced structural technology of the time (it was, in fact, among the first curtain-wall structures). And certainly the experience of the interior, which visitors to the island rush to gain, is one of wholly untraditional disorientation, for the stereotyped exterior becomes bafflingly complex within. As one winds slowly up or down the double helical staircases, from which there is no escape once en route, one might, with a bit of imagination, feel trapped in some giant machine, lost in a contemporary Jules Verne novel or in a plight like Chaplin’s in the factory scene in Modern Times. Inside the head, the interior of Liberty‘s classical coiffure and its wrought-iron armature present a configuration of dramatic curvilinear patterns that amounts to a precocious, “accidental” Art-Nouveau effect. But it is the view from the diadem windows that transfixes visitors; like Lilliputians atop Gulliver, they can fancy themselves titillatingly perched on a giant—or even for a moment become the giant goddess. The experience fuses the modern love of spectacular amusements like ballooning with the sense of some ancient rite, perhaps a visit to an oracle across distant waters.
The Statue of Liberty’s unforgettable quality as a monument is based on a winning combination of factors. The statue itself presents a familiar iconic form that slips without resistance into the imagination. It is infused with great power through immense scale, a romantic setting, a dynamic sea-approach and a compelling double aspect, not to mention the lure of a symbolic visit to the island and an exciting climb to the top. But there is more: perhaps the most important factor of all—what the statue finally, in fact, stands for—is its meaning as a monument and symbol.
It was fortunate for Liberty that her natural symbolism—stance, movement, gesture, expression and attributes—is sufficiently complex and indeterminate to allow a high fluidity of meaning. Reinterpretation and adaptation to changing historical conditions—quite basic transformations of meaning—have occurred since the statue’s original conception; all of these have been crucial to its success.
Liberty Enlightening the World was not really conceived for the Americans to whom she was given but for the French audience toward which she faced from across the Atlantic. Her purpose, ostensibly to celebrate the American Centennial, was really one of propaganda for the French Third Republic, which had come into being through long and intense political struggle in the 1870s. For Americans—who from the first avoided the French title in favor of such appellations as “the Bartholdi statue” and, of course, “the Statue of Liberty”—this naturally had little import. Already in 1883, Emma Lazarus had written her soon-to-be-famous verses, The New Colossus, whose appealing literary banality matched Liberty‘s sculptural banality—”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” etc. The statue’s gaze and torch were no longer interpreted as inspiring Europeans to achieve liberty at home, but rather to forsake the Old World entirely for America, at whose “Golden Door” Liberty lifted her torch—now in a gesture of welcome. (This interpretation was latent in the way she projects herself toward an arriving ship.) In 1903, toward the height of the last great wave of European immigration, this sentiment was so widely accepted as the statue’s meaning that a plaque bearing Lazarus’ poem was affixed to the pedestal, becoming an ex post facto inscription.
These meanings survived in varying mixtures in conjunction with a third one which came to be dominant. As a symbol of immigration, Liberty‘s appeal was wide but ultimately limited to a minority of Americans, post-immigrant generations commonly neglecting—even casting off—their origins, particularly in the case of groups who moved away from New York and the East. During World War I, Bartholdi’s statue, administrative responsibility for which had been shifted uncertainly from one branch of the Federal government to another (the Lighthouse Bureau to the War Department) around the turn of the century, was, at great effort and expense, successfully floodlit. At this point, in 1916, it became the symbol of America itself—the “Light of the World”—and less of a symbol for arriving immigrants, against whom a wall of restrictions was being raised at the very same time. Liberty was gazing out actively across the Atlantic again, this time watching ships go forth to liberate Europe, to “free the world for democracy” (albeit not by “enlightenment” but by sheer force of arms). America was now a world power, not just a distant republican ally of France. And Bartholdi’s colossus had become its most effective allegorical embodiment, displacing a number of previously existent symbols, including the Indian Princess, Columbia, Brother Jonathan and Uncle Sam, as well as an older version of Liberty, with bonnet, cloak, staff and broken jug—none of whom had had a Bartholdi to confer compelling physical actuality.
It was in the context of this fully “American” phase in her history, reinforced, of course, by the survival of the earlier “French” and “immigration” phases, that Liberty acquired such overpowering presence in the imagination of the world. In the final analysis, her formal conventionality, monumental scale, contextual spectacle and symbolic meaning all contributed to her gathering celebrity.
But what of the Statue of Liberty as a work of art? ls it, for all its power as a monument, any less kitsch when subjected to esthetic scrutiny? Perhaps scholars and critics, often at least one step behind artists, have done Liberty an injustice through their silence and their implied disdain. If the art-critical tradition has not proven adequate to Bartholdi, there remains the more active dynamism of the cultural context. Might not recent trends in art yield new or at least revived perspectives to suggest a valid view of Liberty as a work of art? May not our avant-garde have led us to the point where we can see the Statue of Liberty’s virtues in a new light? Consider the following conundrum.
In the system of Marcel Duchamp (who once substituted André Breton’s face for Liberty‘s) she can almost be seen as a Readymade (or even a Duchampian “ready-maid”; her form was readily available to Bartholdi as a stereotype but her status as “art” was conferred by context and the psychology of the observer. In Pop art, so, dependent on the Duchampian stance, specific analogies appear. Jasper Johns’ Flags, Targets, and Maps derive their great potency not so much from the artist’s painterly genius as from the way they enter so easily and directly into the imagination as “readymade” symbols, having a “transparency” (analogous to that of Liberty) that establishes an expressive tension with their opaqueness as works of art. Andy Warhol’s impersonal “readymade” images, generally photographic in origin, are subjected to various manipulations of which repetition is among the most effective. Likewise, Liberty has been endlessly reproduced in every imaginable form, from postage stamps to plastic lamps to quarterscale copies (and even the small “multiples” once produced by Bartholdi himself to raise funds for the mother-statue). It is not surprising that Warhol’s poster for the 1964 New York World’s Fair featured row after row of Statues of Liberty. Claes Oldenburg—perhaps Bartholdi’s closest representative among Pop artists—has projected monumental blowups of banal objects such as bananas and teddy bears in visually powerful settings (he has proposed to replace the Statue of Liberty itself with a giant electric fan). Even the most recent phases of the avant-garde cannot escape Liberty‘s shadow, any more than it can Duchamp’s. In the deeds of Robert Morris, Robert Smithson, Christo, Michael Heizer and other environmentalist artists, forms and ideas given simple, even banal shape are intended—like Bartholdi’s statue—to receive potency through their sheer scale, ingenious combinations, spectacular siting or psychological cunning in the placement of the observer. If these phenomena threaten to lose connection in their diversity, they do all seem to find common ground in the neo-Pop dictum of the architect Robert Venturi: “What is interesting is boring, and what is boring is interesting.” This, while referring to the highly paradoxical success of his own designs, might be construed broadly enough to include Liberty.
All these recent modes of endeavor are presently accepted as authentic accomplishments in the realm of high art. The Statue of Liberty, although obviously lacking the modernist qualities of irony and abstraction, seems to engage many areas of current art in its own way. One might even go further and reverse Liberty‘s relationship to the avant-garde: embodying, as she does so completely and successfully, the great traditions of colossal art, grandiose siting, public iconography, and even realistic rendering which have been suppressed for several generations by the restrictive esthetic of the modernist movement, but which are being energetically revived, might we not recognize Liberty—beyond her own esthetic resurrection—as a legitimate historical touchstone for the changing avant-garde? In one of those unpredictable and curious cyclical warpings of historical perspective, what was already retardataire in its own time can be seen retrospectively, a century later, as progressive.