Ulysses S. Grant Memorial
Sculptor, Henry Merwin Shrady
Despite our amazing museums, we don’t much think of Washington, DC as a real capital of art or culture. That is more the business of New York or perhaps LA (depending on just what we think counts as culture). It’s plenty enough to be the capital of politics and political power. Architecturally, Washington is largely a conservative, and even kinda dull, place that has eschewed most of the challenges and thrills of modernism. It is largely a city of pseudo-classical exteriors and pseudo-Georgian interiors, the preferred mode of our ruling classes and wannabes. Still, there is one medium practiced especially here that does connect with larger artistic currents and goes beyond a narrow conservative audience: monumental sculpture. For it to thrive at all, this very public artform needs, natch, to connect to the larger public. Maya Lin’s groundbreaking Vietnam Veterans Memorial is perhaps the most recent example of a monument that listened to its constituents and refused to go through conventional motions, but it is not the only one. Another is Henry Shrady’s Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, the product of twenty intense, draining years of work. He died, exhausted, two weeks before the sculpture’s formal dedication in 1922. And two years before its ultimate completion.
The Grant memorial is far more than the conventional 19thcentury man on a horse. Instead it gestures toward the required form of homage, while also changing and subverting it, especially by confronting the viewer with far more to see, and requiring real movement, and thought, to apprehend it all. The monument is a long, rectangular platform consisting of three separate sculptural groups. At the center, on a high light-stone pedestal, is the mounted general himself, in a still, detached pose of watchfulness. Crouching lions surround the pedestal on all four sides, guarding the flags of the nation and US Army. This alone might have satisfied the casual viewer or governmental overseer. But at each end of the platform are two other large and compelling sculptural groups, placed at eye level to the viewer and made of far more bronze, with its flashy, reflective, eye-catching surfaces, than the central grouping. Even more important, the distant, formalized and sedate imagery of the pedestal could not be more different from the disordered, powerful and violent actions of the side groups, which are quite visually challenging even just to decipher. Between the side groups and the center pedestal is open space for viewers to walk, turn their heads and probe the actions depicted. There are horrifying things to discover.
Quite radically, the Grant Memorial has no single master viewpoint. The side groups especially are true sculpture-in-the-round and present very different views from different places. Here we see highly detailed Union soldiers of the Civil War, doing battle against an undepicted enemy. The northern group presents a cavalry group in the process of charging, while the southern group consists of artillerymen moving a cannon. Both groups repay sustained attention, even as they unsettle the initial impression one might have of them. From afar, the cavalry group seems a resolute, ordered heroic company. The scene is dominated visually by the tip of their officer’s sword held high and his mouth open wide to order a charge, as well as a flag held slightly behind by another and at rear a soldier bent over his charging horse. On closer inspection, it is nothing of the kind. The horses are on a path to collide with one another and the riders are not bent on a reaching a common destination to attack as much as each is absorbed in negotiating his own perilous pathway. With a bit more searching, we can find the source of this disorder. Just by the leading officer, a horse has fallen. The officer’s own horse is shifting ground now that its path is partly blocked. The tight formation of the riders to the rear may well be completely brought down by the fallen horse before them. From some angles the fallen horse seems to have dropped by itself, but with some more movement one can find a forearm or a booted foot coming out from beneath it. From another perspective, we can find the head of the soldier trapped beneath the horse, his body quite close to the charging hooves of the leader’s horse, and his life clearly endangered.
This is surely an astonishing thing to put in a monument to one of America’s greatest military heroes: a scene of unfolding tragedy amid (now seemingly) mock-heroic gestures. It is a statement of the atomization of individuals during combat and perhaps even of the futility of war. The artillery group on the south side of the monument carries the same theme. Here three horsemen at front pull a wagon with mounted cannon on which three artillerymen are riding. The viewer looks upward at the faces of the horsemen, who seem to be straining and barely in control of their rearing horses. Meanwhile, the riders in the cart are passive and even dejected. One leans forward, bracing against the wind that blows his garments. Another nestles his head against a downcast comrade, who merely looks away.
Shrady’s amazing and largely unprecedented war monument thus impresses most of all on the viewer the lived experience, and palpable suffering, of soldiers in battle. Further, it distinguishes absolutely the difficult lives of the “grunts” and others who do the work from the distant generals on their pedestals. Indeed, the only image of soldiers assembled in the expected conventional form are those assembled in a line on the low-relief panels just below the mounted general on his pedestal. (These, in fact, are not the work of Shrady at all. They were inserted two years after the formal dedication by the sculptor Sherry Fry, clearly influenced by an older paradigm of civil war monument, that of Augustus St. Gaudens). War, this monument suggests, looks one way from headquarters and quite another on the battlefield. And it isn’t pretty. Shrady’s departure from convention here is all the more amazing then one realizes he was also working on another monument at the end of his life, which was similarly completed by another artist, namely the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA that is at the heart of the modern infamy of public monuments.
The Grant Memorial sits at the edge where the grounds of the US Capitol merge into the long expanse of the Mall. On the very same year it was dedicated, another monument arose at the very opposite end of the Mall, where it meets the Potomac: the Lincoln Memorial. Thus while the nation’s symbolic expanse may be centered on its founder, via the Washington Monument, it is precisely delineated at both ends by the two primary figures who oversaw the union’s Civil War victory: Lincoln and Grant. More generally, the primary trauma of the Civil War is thus fundamentally inscribed in American self- identity. Yet just as strikingly absent from this monument is any acknowledgement of Grant’s two terms as America’s 18th president, in which he pushed vigorously, and unsuccessfully, for the racial equality promised in reconstruction. But perhaps that too is readable in the deep ambivalence of this commemoration of victory.