With news that the sculptor creating the Soviet-style monument to Martin Luther King here in Washington has now finished his work, I wanted to draw the reader’s attention to another piece of frightening public art that stands not far away. Before the Albert Speyer-revival confection known as the World War II Memorial was plunked down smack in the middle of the National Mall, ready for Leni Riefenstahl to stage one of her torchlit spectacles – or perhaps for Mel Brooks to direct a chorus of “Springtime for Hitler” with synchronized stormtroopers emerging from the arches and doing fan kicks – probably the creepiest monument in official Washington was the 2nd Infantry Division Memorial. It is located at Constitution Avenue and 17th Street NW, and features a giant, 18 foot-tall bronze, gilded sculpture of a flaming sword held in a disembodied hand, displayed in an architectural surround that is reminiscent of an Ancient Egyptian pylon. My mother once described it, during a visit to Washington, as one of the most awful, masonic-looking things she had ever seen.
The memorial was initially dedicated in 1936 to honor the nearly 18,000 dead of the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division in World War I. Subsequently two wings were added to the original central arch in 1962, listing major battles of World War II and the Korean War. According to the National Park Service and other sources, the flaming sword in front of the central archway is supposed to represent the blocking of the German advance on Paris in 1918. The sculptural component was cast to the design of American sculptor James Earle Fraser (1876-1953), and it is frankly rather an off-key example of the work of a man who had a great sensitivity in his art.
Fraser spent much of his childhood among the Indian tribes in the Midwest, and later studied at the Beaux-Arts in Paris. His appreciation of the proud but tragic figures of the American Indians whom he observed first-hand are apparent in some of his most famous work, including the design of the “Buffalo” nickel and his iconic sculpture “The End of the Trail”. And his apprenticeship with the great American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens helped him to gain numerous commissions around the country.
As a result of this, Fraser produced a number of public sculptures that anyone familiar with the city of Washington will immediately recognize, including the sculptural groups at the Arlington Memorial Bridge; the statue of Albert Gallatin in the forecourt of the Department of the Treasury; and the sculptural components of the National Archives on The Mall, among others. Other famous pieces by him include the seated marble figure of Benjamin Franklin at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and the bronze monument to General Patton at West Point. This last is probably one of my favorite pieces by Fraser, showing in a simple, but rough-and-tumble heroic way, Patton as the man of action – even though Patton is portrayed standing still, both feet planted firmly. We should be so lucky as to have had Fraser design the proposed National Eisenhower Memorial, instead of Frank Gehry’s wimpy attempt at designing a monument.
It is unfortunate therefore, that Fraser should have departed so significantly from what he was good at, i.e. producing solemnly heroic images of the human figure, to create something so disturbingly totalitarian-looking. Saddam Hussein would have loved this sculpture, with its martial tone and ridiculously over-sized symbolism. Intimidating the Germans is something that Americans have had to do historically on numerous occasions, but it seems odd that we would want to intimidate ourselves by placing this rather scary thing on display in a public park.
With the result of a combination of the passage of time, a somewhat too-common overlooking by many of the significance of World War I in American history, and the construction of monuments to both World War II and the Korean War elsewhere in the city, the 2nd Infantry Memorial is rarely visited today. Many residents and tourists never even see it, unless they happen to speed past in a taxi. In my opinion this is just as well, for the sculptural part, at least, is something rather too difficult to love in a civilian, urban setting. It would have been better suited – if at all – to West Point, The Pentagon, or an Army base.