The purpose of statues in public spaces has recently become a matter of controversy. In this post, Pippa Catterall considers how and when a statue may be read as appropriately situated in public space, and when and how it is not. This ‘rightmindedness of a statue’ (to draw on a phrase from Paul Nash) is primarily determined by the ways in which public authorities and local elites authorise the use of public space.
Yet authorities’ understanding of the fit between a statue and public space can vary over time, and can likewise be deliberately subverted.
This placing of statues in ‘a state of surrealism’ in turn goes beyond mere relocation. It requires additional disruption to a statue’s artistic language and / or spatial syntax, as Pippa argues in ‘Statues, Spatial Syntax and Surrealism: ‘History’ and Heritagescapes in Public Space’, her new article for Transactions of the Royal Historical Society.
Where would you expect to see a statue? Perhaps in a public square, or outside a government building? And what would you expect to see? A representation, usually of a male figure and probably rendered in stone or bronze.
The ways in which statues have been historically deployed to populate public space conditions how we come to read them. Yet the locations in which statues might be expected to be found have changed over time. In medieval and early modern Europe statues were primarily either memento mori or objects of veneration, to be found in sacred spaces known as churches. Any other statues in public space were invariably of royal personages and served, as had those of Roman emperors in the past, as markers of power. They could also carry other explicitly political messages. Consider the various statues erected during the eighteenth century to William III celebrating, as the plinth of his statue in Hull puts it, the role of ‘Our Great Deliverer’ in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.
During the Victorian era these were increasingly joined in newly laid out civic squares across the country and empire by arrays of statues, often including the queen herself. A similar statuomania took place across Europe as an element in building national and civic identities. It is this Victorian practice that principally came to shape public expectation of where statues are found and what they should look like.
It should be obvious that this throng of nineteenth-century statues tells us more about the history of memorialisation than about the events or people they purportedly celebrate. That is, if they are noticed at all. Even during the Victorian era there were complaints about the unmemorable nature of many of these memorials. For instance, The Times on 7 March 1861 described the statue of Sir Henry Havelock in Trafalgar Square as:
one of those uninteresting statues with which London is crowded, and of which we have nothing to say except that we never look at them twice, never think of them, never care to remember them.
These statues are so conventional as to be sub-real. This raises the question, for me at least, of what might instead render them surreal, expressing a super-reality, rather than an occluding laudatory veneer?
The British landscape artist and surrealist Paul Nash in the 1930s suggested that:
A statue in a street or some place where it would normally be found is just a statue, as it were, in its right mind, but a statue in a ditch or in the middle of a ploughed field is then an object in a state of surrealism.
Yet there is nothing surreal about a Roman statue dug up in a field. Nor was that of James II (in Roman garb) surreal when it spent a year in the 1890s on its back in a garden off Whitehall. From there it was rescued by the authorities and, a couple of moves later, now stands outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.
Those public authorities determine if statues should be in a public space. They also generally adjudicate where they are located and what they should look like. Bodies like Historic England decide whether, as with James II’s statue, they should be listed. These public authorities also determine whether statues are maintained or, like that to the radical parliamentary reformer Henry Hunt in Manchester in the 1880s, pulled down as unsafe.
It is relatively rare that the public have much say in whether a statue is, in Nash’s terms, in its right mind. It was an unusual act of protest in Bristol in 2020 which removed the Victorian-era statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader of the Royal Africa Company of which James II was the head. Subsequently, the relocation of Colston’s statue to a museum has changed its meaning to one marking anti-racism and anti-colonialism, but it has not rendered it surreal.
Nor is there anything surreal about the deliberate chipping off the nose of the Victorian-era statue of William III in Brixham. This type of statue mutilation can be traced back to ancient Egypt and likely reflects in milder form the hostility his statue in Dublin provoked before it was blown up by the IRA in 1928. Instead, this is better seen as a monument on a monument, a small act of resistance to the authorised narratives such statues proclaim in public space.
Surrealism is more an attempt to reveal the realities most public statues hide beneath their celebratory patina. Notwithstanding Nash’s view, this does not necessarily involve relocation of the statue. Yet it may invert the spatial syntax of a statue, literally in the case of Charles Robb’s upside-down rendition of Charles La Trobe at his eponymous university in Australia.
This changing spatial syntax is one of three ways in which, I argue, a statue can be rendered surreal. A second is indeed by changing its location. For instance, David Cerny’s ‘Man Hanging Out’ in the Czech town of Olomouc places Sigmund Freud suspended by his arm precariously high about the street. It thereby references the impact of Freud’s ideas on the twentieth century and the fragility of the mind he examined far more effectively than Oscar Nemon’s right-minded portrayal outside his final home in Hampstead.
The third means of rendering a statue surreal is by changing its artistic language. Take the statue of ‘Bloody’ Cumberland, so named for the sanguinary nature of the vengeance wreaked upon Jacobites after his victory at Culloden in 1746. The statue erected in his honour in 1769 became a victim of Victorian cancel culture in 1868 when it was quietly taken down, ostensibly for repairs. The original statue was melted down, yet its simulacrum returned in 2012, recreated by Meekyoung Shin, only this time in soap symbolically washing the blood Cumberland had shed.
Whether by changing the expected materials, colours or representation, alterations in artistic language can thus render a statue surreal. In such a state, it can speak more provocatively and eloquently to the discourse of public space.
About the author
Pippa Catterall is Professor of History and Policy at the University of Westminster. She is also chair of AIDS Memory UK and the George Lansbury Memorial Trust, a trustee of the Heritage of London Trust and co-edits National Identities.
Recent publications include her 2021 co-authored report on Queering Public Space and her current research continues to focus on the history and inclusivity of public space.
Pippa’s article, ‘Statues, Spatial Syntax and Surrealism: ‘History’ and Heritagescapes in Public Space‘, was published in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society in August 2023.
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