Maureen O’Hara, latest victim of bronze statue treatment
At the time of writing we do not know what is happening with the statue of Maureen O’Hara in Glengariff, Co Cork. On Wednesday, the Daily Mirror reported that the artwork – the village’s second attempt to honor Ireland’s biggest film star in this way – had, just 48 hours after its unveiling, been removed ‘because people felt that she didn’t look like him enough. We can say with some certainty that the Ranelagh Liberation Front was not involved. Although born in this suburb of Dublin, Ms O’Hara spent most of her last days in mild West Cork. They have every right to immortalize it in bronze.
History reminds us, however, how difficult it is now to satisfy admirers of a personality with an old-fashioned and vaguely naturalistic statue. Having only seen the piece in photographs, we are able to judge its merits, but the Mirror has gathered a familiar jumble of displeasure. “Maybe because the statue is bronze, it’s hard to make it look so real and portray all of its natural beauty,” one seemingly reasonable resident said. Just so. But is that what a statue is for? We still have the movies.
Barely a month goes by without a degree of eye-rolling occurring at a seemingly unsatisfactory attempt to place a stone or metallic version of a large figure in a public place. Sometimes a real misunderstanding occurs. In November 2020 veteran iconoclast Maggie Hambling had to explain that her tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft in a north London square did not portray the trailblazing feminist as a naked pixie. This image represented a general spirit of femininity.
None of these excuses explained Ian Rank-Broadley’s positively odd statue of Princess Diana at Kensington Palace. Unveiled last July, the piece shows the late royal standing between two seemingly needy children, neither of whom are her own. Even without the implications of sanctity, the statue deserves opprobrium for an absence of life that is surprising even for something cast in cold bronze. The princess’s alleged informality and good humor could hardly have been more fully concealed had the image been draped in black velvet
Somewhere between these two is the famous quirky bust of Ronaldo which once stood at Madeira Airport. Few would have noted Emanuel Santos’ work alongside Michelangelo’s David, but the asymmetrical, grinning image had a cheerful eccentricity entirely absent from the bland, demon-eyed statue which, following family complaints, eventually replaced her. The new room was more like him. It wasn’t “weird”. That was all that mattered.
You can’t travel to London, Paris or Vienna for statues of imperialist assassins on horseback
Over the past 80 years, truly successful statues of real people – as opposed to just tolerable likenesses – have sprouted here and there. Jim Larkin’s statue of Oisín Kelly, unveiled on Dublin’s O’Connell Street in 1979, captures the expansiveness of the man’s spirit without yielding to slavish representation. Luke Kelly’s Vera Klute head on Sherriff Street eschews the gray conventions of classic statuary and embraces a mix of media that leans toward off-center realism.
However, since around the end of the Second World War, the figurative statue has struggled to appear in its time. In an article following the erection of the statue of Diana, Jonathan Jones, art critic for the Guardian, called the genre an “archaic art form”. He went further. “It’s as if all our public debates are fixed on the scrimshaw, the madrigal or some other lost art.”
Around the millennia, the form had, at the end of the 19th century, taken on the flavor of equestrian hagiography. You can’t go to London, Paris or Vienna for statues of imperialist assassins on horseback. They had a lot of them in the southern United States. They have less since the good people of this locality started tearing them down. Long before such questioning took hold, the proliferation of photography, cinema and television posed problems for the sculptor of tributes that have still not disappeared.
Plastic artists reacted, at the beginning of the 20th century, by evolving towards cubism, futurism, vorticism and competing modernist sects, but the sculptor, commissioned by the good bourgeois of Squareville to produce a resemblance to the local hero, n didn’t dare take such liberties. The politician, the writer, the philanthropist or the brave general still figuratively sat on a horse and looked with hope towards the proud dawn of his nation. Good luck doing to her (less often to her) what Picasso did to his Weeping Woman. The public has the photographs of the magazine. They have the movies. They now have YouTube videos. “But that doesn’t look like him!” they will repeat themselves until they achieve the most bland iteration imaginable of the artist’s original vision. This seems to be an increasingly desperate field of activity.
Routes always desirable
And yet. As recently as September last year, Mark Richards’ tribute to Roger Casement, mounted above the baths at Dún Laoghaire, demonstrated that there are still desirable routes through the most familiar territories. The statue doesn’t linger at the forefront, but its imaginative conversation with the surrounding maritime space confirms that the “archaic form” may still have breath in its lungs. And not a horse in sight.