Getting to grips with the history

Getting to grips with history

Almost every day we see examples of people who have forged an impressive career, but who subsequently fall out of favour for a variety of reasons; politicians, presidents, industrialists, bankers and so on. It was no different in the past.

Earthly power is transient. ‘Statues to the mighty are erected as permanent monuments, but those regarded as heroes by one political regime are often denounced as villains by the next. Their statues are left unloved or toppled and carted off to the wilderness’.   This is true for all ages. From ancient Rome, where with the exception of Marcus Aurelius, no equestrian statue survived, up to recently in Iraq, where equestrian statues of Saddam Hussein were toppled.

The quote in the previous paragraph is from the article Where statues go to die by David Cannadine, about a place in New Delhi where statues as symbols of imperial rule were banished to the old Coronation Durbar or ‘The final graveyard of the British Empire’ as he calls this place. Something similar happened to the equestrian statues in Kolkata, which were moved to the inaccessible garden belonging to the Bengal Governor in Barrackpore.

 I dare to suggest that the majority of the portrayed equestrians were unpleasant people, to put it mildly. In quite a number of cases, they would nowadays not survive a hearing at the International Criminal Court unscathed.

Countries in Central Asia, such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – once part of the Soviet Union – felt the need to rewrite their history. They replaced the statues of Lenin and other former communist leaders by those of new heroes. To find them, they had to go far back in time. In Tajikistan, a 24-metre tall statue of Lenin was replaced by an equestrian statue of Ismoil Somoni, a Persian king who, in the tenth century, ruled a territory that now encompasses Iran, Afghanistan and much of Central Asia. Uzbekistan now venerates the fourteenth-century Timur, better known in the Western world as Tamerlane. This is a little unsettling, because although Timur was known as a cultured and religious man, his military campaigns led to the deaths of an estimated one million people. He is said to have built walls from the severed heads of defeated armies, just to remind the conquered peoples of his power and to keep them in a state of fear.

The question is what to do with the statues of people once highly esteemed and celebrated, but now profoundly detested as a result of changing times, norms and ideas.

It is a fact that these were almost always destroyed or removed. There are abundant examples of this.

Let us imagine Rome around 200 AD, with its temples and triumphal arches, and its statues and monuments honouring gods, goddesses and the city’s illustrious people. Among those statues, according to late imperial descriptions of the town, were more than twenty equestrian representations, most of them probably gilded. It must have been a magnificent sight. Only one of those equestrian statues has survived, that of Marcus Aurelius, thanks to the misunderstanding that this statue represented the first Christian emperor: Constantine the Great. All the other statues were destroyed.

Some statues were unwanted almost from the very beginning. Dublin and equestrian statues, for instance, proved not to be a good match, as no equestrian statue survived there. They were blown up (William III and George II) or sold (George I and Gough). Also, today an equestrian statue can give rise to much dispute, as proven by the removal of a foot from the statue of Don Juan de Onate, the first conquistador, in 1998 in New Mexico.

Revolutions were (and still are) critical moments for statues. The oldest equestrian statue in the UK, that of Charles I in London, survived the civil war in 1642 thanks to a smart metalsmith. The statue was re-erected on a site where Charles I now looks down upon the scene of his own execution.

The French Revolution was the end of the statues of kings, which were seen as symbols of absolutism. The famous statue of Henri IV by Tacca (1614) was destroyed in 1792. However, the tide turned and a replica had already been produced in 1818, using bronze from two sculptures of Napoleon and one of his generals, Louis Desaix, melted down for the occasion. Statues of Louis XIV in Paris, Lyon and Montpellier were thrown into the furnace to produce cannons and bullets, although for a short time, the revolutionaries in Montpellier considered not melting down depictions of horses, because the animal could not be blamed for having to carry a tyrant.

In Spain, the statue of Philip III, a famous work by Giambologna and Tacca (1616), had a narrow escape. Staying in Spain, I have to mention the controversial Law of Historical Memory (2007), based on which all the statues of Franco had to be removed from public spaces. In contrast to other examples of the removal of detested rulers’ statues, the Franco statues were not destroyed, but instead have been stored, most probably in military barracks.

Revolution also took its toll in Russia. Many statues, seen as a representation of the loathed tsardom, were destroyed. Fortunately, this did not happen to the equestrian statues of the former tsar Peter the Great in St Petersburg, although a number of them were dismantled. The statue of Nicholas I in St Petersburg also survived the Soviet period virtually intact, because the Bolsheviks did not dare to demolish this unique statue, as it was seen as an example of technical proficiency.

It should be noted that the destruction of a statue is not always without risk, as was proven in Kutaisi (Georgia), where in 2009 two people were killed as the result of the incorrectly executed demolition of an equestrian monument.

The regime change in Iraq meant not only the end of Saddam Hussein himself, but also of the statues portraying him.  It is interesting to note that the tumbling of the large statue in Baghdad was not so much a spontaneous expression of hate, but instead a meticulously prepared event, aimed at a large TV audience.  There is a lot of symbolism involved in the destruction of images of hated people, and even some old magic. A quote from The Guardian July 2003: ‘The head of the statue (of Saddam Hussein) was taken to 4th Infantry division headquarters in Tikrit as a trophy, with the rest of the bronze to be shipped to Fort Hood, Texas, where it will be melted down and turned into a memorial “for all of Task Force Iron Horse who contributed to this war, and especially those who died”. So what’s new?

Independency was another critical moment for many statues. Existing statues were seen as the symbols of the former colonialists, not only in India, but also in the US, North Africa and the Far East. On the occasion of the Declaration of Independence, and only six years after its unveiling in 1770, soldiers and the patriotic populace of New York destroyed the statue of George III, the first equestrian statue in the US. The statue was cut into pieces, which were shipped to Litchfield where they were cast into bullets, to be effectually fired later at his majesty’s troops.

After Algeria’s independence in 1962, equestrian statues of Jeanne d’Arc were repatriated to France (where they can now be seen in Caen and Vaucouleurs ) as well as the statue of Ferdinand Philippe, which is now in Neuilly. When Morocco gained independence in 1961, a monument of a Moroccan and a French cavalryman shaking hands – thus representing the French-Moroccan brotherhood – was moved from Casablanca to Senlis. The statue of the Portuguese Governor of Macau, Ferreira do Amaral, assassinated by the Chinese residents, was sent back to Portugal as soon as Macau became part of China in 1990.

War is a third critical moment for equestrian statues, as proved by World War II once again.

The Germans destroyed the equestrian statues of Lafayette in Metz, of Haig in Montreuil sur Mer, of Kosciuszki in Krakow and of Jagiello and Poniatowski in Warsaw, to name just a few. All these statues were re-erected after the war, most in the same places, with the exception of the Jagiello statue, now in New York City.

A large number of statues were destroyed in Germany itself, in and after World War II. Out of the 66 equestrian statues of Wilhelm I once existing, only 15 remain. The huge statue in Koblenz was heavily damaged in the last days of the war and the remains were subsequently removed and melted down. Thanks to a large private donation, the monument was able to be reconstructed and was re-installed in 1993

The statue of Friedrich Wilhelm in Cologne has a stormy history. It was badly damaged during the war and melted down in 1959, with the exception of Friedrich’s head and the horse’s tail. It was restored and re-erected in 1985, only to be blown down by a storm in 1990 and repaired again.

Many equestrian statues in Germany, the UK and Russia, survived the war only because they were protected with sandbags and the like or were hidden in caves. Dresden’s Goldener Reiter for instance survived the bombing of the city as it was hidden in a cave in Pilnitz. The huge monument to Friedrich der Grosse in Berlin was walled in during World War II and thereby survived the bombings. After the war, this monumental equestrian statue narrowly escaped destruction by the communists.

Another famous equestrian statue in Berlin, that of Friedrich Wilhelm by Schlüter (1703), the oldest such statue in Germany, was returned after the war by boat to Berlin from the place where it had been taken for safety during the conflict. The boat with the statue sank in the harbour of Tegel. In 1949, the statue was recovered and erected at its present site, the courtyard of the Charlottenburg Palace.

The question remains: how to cope with our history?

As I have explained, the facts are that emotion, anger, hate and frustration in the moment very often result in the destruction of statues. This is very unfortunate, as it sometimes concerns irreplaceable monuments or works of art. However, it is not only for that reason unfortunately.  In my opinion, it would be better if we could learn to live with our history, no matter how ugly this history may be, if only to become wiser from it.  Notable in this context is the story that the Germans wanted to blow up the Kyffhäuser monument, but a Russian officer is said to have prevented this, stating: ‘The Germans should learn to live with their monuments and their history’.

Moreover, as history shows, the hero of yesterday may be detested today, but it would be no exception if he or she were proven to be valued again in the future.

So there are enough reasons to save statues, no matter how hated those portrayed may be at a given moment. We should not bury our heads in the sand, but instead we must become accustomed to living with our history. Moreover, this would preserve valuable monuments and sometimes, real works of art.

Near Budapest, I once visited a park where a lot of the monuments from the communist period are gathered. It is quite understandable that people simply no longer wanted to be confronted with that period on a day-to-day basis, so the removal of items to a separate place was a good solution. The stroll through the park with those impressive monuments from the past was inspiring. A quote by Áko Eleöd, the designer of this Memento Park: ‘This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described and built up, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy can provide the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship’.

Argentina provides a good example of living with the past. Former adversaries as well as people with a recognized bad reputation still have their monuments, although they sometimes have to be fenced off to prevent damage.

Another example: not that along ago there was a discussion in The Netherlands about the fate of the statue of the founder of Jakarta, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, a hero from the past who on further consideration – and judged against present norms – can also be seen as a criminal. In the end, after heated discussions, it was decided to leave the statue where it was, but with a plaque on the pedestal giving a nuanced picture of the person portrayed. It may be a typical Dutch solution, but in my view it is a good one.

Time also plays a role. Nobody, with the unfortunate exception of Islamic State, thinks about destroying the images of the old Assyrian or Babylonian rulers, no matter how despotic and cruel they may have been.

So, whatever happens now and may happen in the future, I would like to argue for the conservation of the equestrian statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, unveiled in Pyongyang in North Korea in 2012. Whether we like it or not, they are part of our common history.