On a recent visit to the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., I was struck by the difference between a war memorial I saw there and Ilava's 107th Infantry Memorial.
MacMonnies’ Fame (1895) is a woman in billowing drapery. She balances on a 46-foot-tall column as part of the Battle Monument, which honors soldiers of the regular army who died during the Civil War. Her triumphant pose and her very name - “Fame” or "Victory" - celebrate the fact that those soldiers died fighting for a worthwhile cause. The names of the officers honored are on the column; the names of the enlisted men are on supports around the base.
Worlds away from Fame, although it was created barely 30 years later, is Karl Ilava’s 107th Infantry Monument. Here we see seven men with very similar faces and builds; the effect of the similarity is to make them all rather anonymous. Three of them charge forward, weapons at the ready, one of them shouting. The other four are either wounded or tending wounded comrades. From their gear, these are clearly foot soldiers - grunts - the lowest rank of the army. They’re not thinking about the long-term goals of this war. They’re not celebrating a victory. They’re simply following orders in the heat of battle, which is what grunts are supposed to do.
Because the three central figures are charging forward, the emphasis is on headlong action. It’s actually quite an achievement to be able to show that persuasively. The disturbing feature, though, is that more soldiers are suffering and dying than living and fighting.
In a work of art, the moment that an artist chooses to show is crucial. If, in a battle, he shows the wounded and dying as well as those fighting, and besides that doesn’t suggest the reason for the fighting or the outcome, the message is: “Fighting is brutal and futile.” Or, more succinctly, “War is hell.”
Karl Ilava served with the 107th Infantry, and after living through the horrors of World War I (mustard gas, tanks, trench warfare, rampant disease: see Duffy), I can understand that he might see only the negative side of war. What I find less comprehensible is why a statue with such a negative message was erected for posterity in Central Park.
MacMonnies's other works include the Nathan Hale at City Hall Park and the chariot group and 2 high reliefs on the triumphal arch at Grand Army Plaza, the main entrance to Brooklyn's Prospect Park. In the original model of Fame (a small-scale version of which is on display in the West Point Museum), the woman was alighting on top of the column, balanced on one foot. MacMonnies changed the pose at the request of officials at the academy, who feared the sculpture "would fire up the young cadets too much." On MacMonnies' life and works, see Dianne Durante's lecture "Turn-of-the-Century Artist-Entrepreneurs: Saint Gaudens, MacMonnies, and Parrish," available from the Ayn Rand Bookstore.
While visitors are not allowed to wander the grounds of West Point unescorted, bus tours are regularly scheduled and a museum offers a wide selection of historic uniforms and weapons. The views of the Hudson River from the USMA’s grounds are particularly gorgeous when the leaves are changing colors. And, of course, there’s the great pleasure of spending a whole day at a place where you never see a sign, “No blood for oil,” or “Bring our troops home.”
It does exasperate me that of the dozen or so sculptures on the grounds, I could only get good photographs of two. But I’ll concede that the security of the USMA should take precedence over the satisfaction of cranky art historians.