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Off Its High Horse

The Virginia Civil Rights Memorial comes down to our level.



Until last week all the bronze figures behind the Capitol sat atop pedestals. Gen. George Washington is on his steed encircled by an elevated host of six fellow patriots. U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd, Dr. Hunter H. McGuire, Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and all-but-forgotten Gov. William Smith are also on granite plinths.

But the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, unveiled near the Executive Mansion July 21 in an exquisite and emotional ceremony, changes the mix. Its 18 figures stand near the ground -- at eye level. They are accessible.

Within moments of the sculpture's unveiling by Gov. Timothy Kaine and actor Blair Underwood, scores of attendees crowded toward the statue and excitedly rubbed its rugged metallic surfaces and posed for pictures. They immediately claimed the piece as their own. 

Artist Stanley Bleifeld (who also sculpted the full-length likeness of philanthropist E. Claiborne Robins at the University of Richmond), told the assembled that his aim was not a monument but a "living memorial." Kaine said the piece was about "the present and the future."

Stylistically, however, the memorial is conservative and old-fashioned, recalling the strident, muscular artwork commissioned by the federal Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Its figures also echo expressionistically those of the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial in Washington, D.C.

On the face of the new memorial, life-sized depictions of leaders of the Virginia civil-rights movement -- Barbara Johns, a 16-year-old Prince Edward County high school student; the Rev. L. Francis Griffin, a civil-rights organizer; and lawyers Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson -- and a supporting cast are fashioned realistically in the classical tradition (although the figures of Griffin, Hill and Robinson on the ends of the monument are noticeably flattened). The piece celebrates everyday citizens taking social and legal action.

On the southwestern side of the four-sided monument, teenager Johns' left arm is outstretched in defiance and leadership. Extended arms and hands have long been a sculptural device to engage the viewer. It's a tradition dating back to the ancient Roman Marcus Aurelius statue on the Capitoline Hill in Rome or, more recently, to the Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue or the equestrian Washington nearby in Capitol Square. The ploy at the civil-rights monument should work to attract viewers like a magnet: It won't become part of Capitol Square's visual background.
But while the figural sculpting is stylistically conservative, if one steps back and looks at the composition as a whole, something unexpected is noticed: The piece looks unfinished. The 8-foot-high granite wall unifies the 18 figures under carved quotes by Johns and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. But we are accustomed to seeing a large, vertical assemblage of granite serving as the base for a celebrated figure -- a leader on horseback or an impassioned orator. Here, the granite platform seems to await its crowning figure. In an iconographical switcheroo, the honored cast of heroes and heroines is at ground level.

This design feature probably wasn't intentional, but it suggests that there's no overriding savior -- civil rights was, and is, an ongoing struggle. No one gets to sit atop the pedestal.
So pedestrians will stand eye to eye with the figures of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, and symbolically a torch will pass from an earlier generation into the present. S

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