Monumental confidence: restored Roosevelt murals

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2013 |

One hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, the act of monumental commemoration was a relatively simple affair. A victory in battle or the founding of an institution was seen, at least as re­garded the monument in question, to be completely good. A massacre or natural catastrophe was assumed to be completely bad. Anyone deserving of a statue in the first place was implicitly viewed as a model of fortitude, phi­lanthropy, or whatever other virtue attached to that spe­cific act of commemoration.

Today, of course, all of that has changed. Western civilization, having passed through Eliot's Wasteland and lived through Auden's Age of Anxiety, has come out the other end shorn of the capacity to espouse an unalloyed belief in much of anything. The very act of commemoration hangs like a compulsory burden over our contemporaries, one that sorts ill with that reflexive, defensive hedg­ing that is the only language we now speak, the only mood that-at an official level-we permit ourselves to feel.

And so the recent reopening of New York City's Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda and Memorial Hall at the American Museum of Natural History, at a cost of more than $40 million, was a source of a certain un­easiness even for the institution itself. To begin with, TR would not have had much use for most of us. This outspoken advocate of imperial expansion, social Darwinism, and a muscular, manly way of life would not have appreciated our mediated, nuanced propensity to doubt ourselves and to worry about how the rest of the world feels toward us. As he expresses himself on one of the walls of his memorial, "Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life." Simply put, nobody talks like that anymore.

At the press opening, one of the jour­nalists felt it incumbent upon him to dismantle the legend. Wasn't it odd, he predictably asked, that although Roosevelt was being lauded as a conservation­ist, he was an avid hunter who killed thousands of living things on three continents. Visibly uncomfortable with the question, the mu­seum's representative responded-quite correctly-that values had changed and that each man and woman must be measured according to the standards of the time and place in which they lived. You must be pre­pared to accept such reasoning if you are to get anything out of the splendidly reborn Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda.

One of the curious things about it is that, even though it is among the biggest monu­ments in the city, if not the country, few visitors experience it as a monument at all: it is simply the museum's main entrance, the admit­tedly grandiose passageway that leads past the ticket stands to the stuffed animals. Certainly there is evidence all about concerning the man in whose honor it was raised. As you approach the museum along Central Park West, you are greeted by an entrance in the shape of a triumphal arch, before which rises an equestrian statue of our twenty-sixth president flanked by two stand­ing male figures, one African, the other Native American (Fig. 2). Spreading out on the building wall behind the statue are friezes of gazelles, deer, and other mammals, together with the sundry titles to which Roosevelt could lay claim: Schol­ar, Explorer, Ranchman, and the like.

The building itself, which abuts two earlier Victorian buildings, opened in 1935 and was designed by one of America's greatest architects, John Russell Pope, who was also responsible for the older wing of Washington's National Gallery of Art and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. The eight magnificent Corinthian columns that stand in pairs within the rotunda will remind some visitors of Pope's equally expert use of columns in those two projects in Washington, not to men­tion the garden court of the Frick Collection in New York. While the expansive ashlar walls of the rotunda contain inspirational passages from the president's writings, the Memorial Hall on the lower level displays presidential memorabilia connected to the museum's mission, as well as dioramas and a new life-sized seated statue of the president himself in explorer's garb (Fig. 3).

But the most stunning element of the Roosevelt monument is a series of three enormous murals that have occupied the rotunda since 1935 and have now been restored to the chromatic brilliance of their prime. These are the work of an unfairly forgotten American muralist, William Andrew Mackay, who was selected from among twenty-five artists competing for the commission. A native of Philadelphia, Mackay studied at the renowned Académie Julian in Paris and the Ameri­can Academy in Rome. His murals adorn the Library of Congress and the Minnesota State House of Representatives, in addition to the American Mu­seum of Natural History.

The museum's murals depict Roosevelt's mul­tifarious doings in Africa, Asia, and South Amer­ica. Although the continents of Europe and North America were equally relevant to Roosevelt's life and presidency, if not more so, the selection of Africa, Asia, and South America appears to have been rooted in the role they played in Roosevelt's support of the museum, of which his father had been a founder in 1869 and to which he himself, a biology major at Harvard, began contributing scientific specimens in his early teens.

The ambitions of the three murals, each rising up over thirty feet, dwell somewhere between high art and illustration, with a bias toward the latter. But their illustrational aesthetic bears little resemblance to anything produced today. Rather, these murals enshrine the values of il­lustration's golden age in the first third of the last century, the age of Maxfield Parrish and Howard Chandler Christy, of Norman Rockwell and Winsor McCay. As befitted a medium de­signed to be replicated in the millions, this aesthetic sought out the beauty of instantly leg­ible patterns and overripe colors, rather than the textured surfaces and chromatic subtleties of traditional fine art.

The over-all effect of the murals recalls, perhaps intentionally, the hieratic stiffness and formality of ancient Assyrian wall carvings. Yet the multi­tudinous actors and forms that teem across their surfaces (Roosevelt and his family, historical and mythological figures, the native inhabitants of the three continents, and all the relevant flora and fauna) are registered in the spare positivism that the age required. The central work, which faces you as you enter on Central Park West, is Roosevelt's Exploration in Africa (Figs. 1, 4). To the right is The Building of the Panama Canal (Figs. 7, 8) and to the left The Signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth (Figs. 6, 9, 10), which commemorates the presi­dent's role in ending the Russo-Japanese War, for which intervention he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906.

If the murals register in the minds of most visitors as a brilliant, parti-colored blur, that is because all three works are well nigh exhaust­ing instances of "horror vacui," of all-over patterning. Although each of the murals, di­vided into five sections, occupies as large a surface as the floor plan of a good-sized Man­hattan apartment, every square inch is super­charged with a relentless, saturated array of plant and animal life, of allegory and history, of ethnography and mythology.

A moment's inspection is all it takes to ap­preciate that, both in tone and substance, these murals could never have been created today. Consider this description of a scene in one of the African panels, from a booklet on the murals written by the artist himself in collaboration with Andrew A. Canfield of the New York State Department of Public Works: "Theodore Roos­evelt stands above a Nubian lion and lioness, flanked by his gun bearers. In this group are several birds which were added to the collections of the American Museum and the National Museum in Washington. The trophies are being studied by a Girl and Boy Scout. Theodore Roosevelt was one of the organizers of the Boy Scouts. Science is represented by a man in aca­demic gown [see Fig. 1]." Elsewhere we find the depiction of "a typical African native chief of the Kikuyu tribe, clad in a lion skin and blue headdress. At the left of this chief is Kermit Roosevelt [the president's son]."

We need to get beyond the quaintness, the political incorrectness of Mackay's murals, in order to appreciate the vi­sual feast that they represent. Surely one would need a hard heart not to feel some measure of enchantment before Mackay's depiction of the Goddess of the River, enthroned amid a blizzard of orchids and palm leaves, as she showers down the dew of the rainbow on our twenty-sixth president (see Fig. 7). There is likewise something of giddy symphonic hyperactivity in the cranes and derricks and excavating machines that rise up before a map of the Western Hemisphere, bifurcating its two continents at precisely the point of the Panama Canal. Hard by stand a bevy of South American beauties in traditional garb, as well as the robed and bearded figure of Father Time, holding up, naturally, an hour glass. One of the most stunning visual effects of all is found in two separate depictions of zebras and giraffes that blend in with the flora of their natural habitats. These last were a matter of special inter­est to the artist since he had been a pioneer in the development of ship camouflage during World War I.

It is one of the testaments to how well Mackay did his job, how effectively he carried out his commission, that, for all the boisterous Technicolor variety of the murals, they per­fectly coexist within the architectural context that John Russell Pope created. But now, having been faithfully and flawlessly restored, they can finally be seen and honored in their own right.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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