The scourge of the bronze zombies: how terrible statues are ruining art
Residents in Celoron, New York are so offended by Dave Poulin’s Lucille Ball statue that they want the artist to fix it for free. Photograph: AP Photo/The Post-Journal
It may be time to ban artists from creating statues. They have simply lost the ability to do it. The art that once gave us Michelangelo’s David and Rodin’s Burghers of Calais has degenerated into a cynical province of second-rate hacks who are filling up city squares, railway stations and other public spaces all over the world with ugly, stupid and occasionally terrifying parodies of the human form.
One of these awful artists has finally apologised for his crimes against good taste. Sculptor Dave Poulin wrote to the Hollywood Reporter this week accepting responsibility for “Scary Lucy”, a bronze statue of legendary TV star Lucille Ball in her birthplace of Celoron, New York that has disturbed and offended locals.
Poulin portrayed Ball as a mad alcoholic, with the clumsy, gauche rendering of her facial features making them look monstrous. But he is not the only sculptor who has scarred public spaces with bad statues. A few more artists should have the good grace to come forward and confess to their lack of skill and taste.
Maggi Hambling’s A Conversation with Oscar Wilde: ‘a horrible work of art’. Photograph: Alisdair Macdonald/Rex
Where, for example, is my apology from Maggi Hambling? Every time I pass her sculpture A Conversation with Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square, I am overcome with revulsion and rage. Apparently, it seemed clever in 1998 to create a flaccid bronze bust of Wilde rising from his coffin smoking a cigarette, but the structureless wispy preciousness of the bronze and the inane overstatement of the coffin add up to a horrible work of art. If only this statue were standing up; then it could be pulled down.
Bad statues can be upsetting, even frightening. There is, after all, something uncanny about replicating the human form. In Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Pushkin’s poem The Bronze Horseman, statues come eerily to life, and such fictional nightmares come true when statues accidentally slip into a zombie-like ugliness that freaks out their onlookers. Imagine encountering a statue of Margaret Thatcher on a dark night – especially one as badly sculpted as the image the Falkland Islands erected last year, in which her face is screwed up, gaunt and deathly. The culprit is islander Steve Masson.
The mystery is why these purportedly realistic statues keep appearing all over the world when so many are corny and bad. Modern art supposedly killed off this kind of vulgar realism. Picasso showed that a great sculpure can be a bull’s head made from a bike seat and handlebars. Why, then, continue casting shoddy simulacra of celebrities? In the Soviet Union, a doctrine of socialist realism led to the creation of such jaw-dropping follies as the Stalingrad memorial, which covers an entire hillside with bizarre machine-gun-toting statues. You’d think eastern Europe had seen enough kitsch, but recently Budapest got a statue of Peter Falk in his raincoat as Columbo, much to the bafflement of locals. Not that Britain can talk. Not until Paul Day’s fatuous colossus of embracing lovers that looms up in St Pancras station – idiotic in scale, devoid of artistic life – gets melted down by order of parliament.
Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus has been widely mocked since the 16th century. For some reason. Photograph: Artmedia/Westend61/Corbis
There’s only one thing to be said in favour of all these dire statues. They are an education in the difference between good and bad art. Simply by looking at their failure, future generations may be inspired to create better.
There’s a precedent. Baccio Bandinelli’s lumpen marble group of Hercules and Cacus outside the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence was widely mocked when it was unveiled in the 16th century. It was called a “sack of melons” – with justice. Formless and static, it is a disgrace to the Renaissance. Yet it inspired rival artists to do better, just to show up the useless Bandinelli. Benvenuto Cellini even thought of killing him, but instead created his great sculpture Perseus on the same piazza to show what true art looks like.
Perhaps in Celoron or Budapest or London a young artist right now is so angered by our embarrassing 21st-century statues that she or he is learning to make them properly. This would give the night of the bronze zombies a happy ending.
Article by Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, UK