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What is the purpose of a monument?

The first time you drive up Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, you probably won’t notice anything but the magnificent Philadelphia Museum of Art, growing larger and larger in front of you. But as you drive along the parkway, there are several statues, monuments, fountains and even smaller museums all around. One of those smaller museums is the Rodin Museum, dedicated to the works of Auguste Rodin, the late 19th century and early 20th century French sculptor.

The Rodin Museum is small — just a handful of indoor galleries situated on one floor. Many of the casts of Rodin’s sculptures are outside in the gardens. High on a pedestal at the front entrance of the museum’s grounds is what is probably Rodin’s most-known work, “The Thinker.”

The Thinker, Rodin Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ greets guests at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. (Photo: Enrique A Sanabria/Flickr)

“The Thinker” is always an appropriate introduction to Rodin and his works. The sculpture takes on additional significance because the museum’s current installation invites us to think. “Rethinking the Modern Monument” opened in early February and will run through December 2020. It brings together several of Rodin’s works and also highlights statues and monuments brought over from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A monument’s purpose

monuments, rodin museum, picasso Some of the artworks in the ‘Rethinking the Modern Monument’ installation, including Picasso’s ‘Man with a Lamb’ in the foreground. (Photo: Rodin Museum)

“Rethinking the Modern Monument” asks the questions, “What is the purpose of a public monument? What should it look like and who decides?” These are questions we’re grappling with today in the United States, as we rethink the purpose of many of our public monuments.

Throughout the U.S., many groups and government officials have called to remove Confederate statues and plaques. While hundreds have been removed across the country from Durham, North Carolina, to San Diego, the decisions have been met with protests. While many people want to take down these reminders of a time of slavery and racial oppression, others say they commemorate an area’s history and culture. Monuments have certainly become controversial.

The Rodin installation is a reminder that these questions about monuments have been asked before. When Rodin designed monuments for France, the country was undergoing major change. His works were often considered controversial. He was attempting to change the way monuments were viewed, literally. Previously, most monuments had been elevated on high pedestals, idealizing the subjects as hero figures with strength, power and military might.

Rodin’s style was different. He wanted the subjects of his statues to be presented as equal to those who were viewing the artwork. He attempted to remove the pedestals entirely. As you can see in the “The Burghers of Calais” pictured at the top of the page, the six figures in the monument are not elevated.

The monument depicts a scene from the mid-1300s when King Edward III of England seized the French port of Calais. He demanded that the town surrender their leaders (burghers), and this monument depicts the six leaders as they walk to their fate. The men were ultimately spared when the English queen, Philippa of Hainault, intervened because she was afraid their deaths would bring bad luck to her unborn child.

Rodin created a monument he believed everyday citizens could empathize with. These men believed they were walking to their deaths. Although they did so willingly to save the citizens of their community, it’s easy to believe they did not do so joyfully.

The monument was not received well. People wanted to tear it down.

An 1885 letter to Rodin by the committee that commissioned the piece gives us a glimpse into why.

This is not the way we envisaged our glorious citizens going to the camp of the King of England. Their defeated postures offend our religion… We feel it is our duty to insist that M. Rodin modify the attitudes of his figures and the silhouette of the group.

The purpose of monuments in the time of Rodin, it seems, was to create a sense that the subject should be worshiped or celebrated as glorious, victorious, admirable, and above all else, greater than the common person.

Rodin didn’t change the attitudes or the silhouettes of his figures as requested, but the work was installed on a pedestal against his wishes. It wasn’t until the 1970s that it was removed from its tall pedestal and placed closer to the ground.

Answers for today?

Joan of Arc, Rodin Rodin’s ‘Head of Sorrow’ depicts Joan of Arc in her final moments. It’s an example of the artist’s desire to have his subjects be empathetic. (Photo: Rodin Museum)

When visitors are finished walking through “Rethinking the Modern Monument,” there are no answers to the questions raised. The installation encourages those who view the monuments to grapple with the questions themselves.

It’s easy to look at “The Burghers of Calais” 130 years after Rodin created it and think it’s an appropriate monument that makes you empathize with the men and their struggles.

I can do the same with the “Head of Sorrow” depicting Joan of Arc’s last moments, shown above.

And these thoughts lead me to others, including: Should our modern monuments glorify those who have brought harm to others?

This isn’t just a question about Confederate monuments. Here in the Philadelphia region, there’s controversy over a statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo, in part because of his racially divisive politics but because of his “heavy handed police tactics.” For now, the statue remains where it is, but many would like it moved to another location or removed altogether.

Even the beloved Rocky statue that stands in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has its critics. It’s a huge tourist attraction, but it was created as a movie prop. Some don’t consider it art, and they don’t believe it belongs at the bottom of the museum’s iconic steps, the ones Sylvester Stallone’s character ran up in the movie.

I thought of both of these examples as I wrestled with the questions the Rodin museum’s installation asks us to consider. There are other questions I’m mulling over, too.

  • Is it appropriate to have monuments that show those who have brought harm to others in not-so-glorifying ways, like Rodin’s “Burghers of Calaise” did?
  • Should these controversial monuments be moved away from open, public spaces owned by the government but still kept as works of art in privately owned museums?

These questions are merely first thoughts; I haven’t come to any conclusions. But the installation did get me to think, and to bring up the subject with my son. He is now perhaps thinking about our modern monument controversy with more consideration instead of jumping to an opinion — a thoughtful approach we could all use these days.

If you go, check out the Rodin Museum website for hours and other information. It’s located next to the Barnes Foundation with its collection of paintings by Cézanne, Matisse, van Gogh and more. The two museums can easily be visited together in one day.

What is the purpose of a monument?

Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum exhibit asks, “What is the purpose of a public monument? What should it look like and who gets to decide?”

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