A powerful federal arts commission is urging that the sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. proposed for a memorial on the Tidal Basin be reworked because it is too "confrontational" and reminiscent of political art in totalitarian states.
The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts thinks "the colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed statue recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries," commission secretary Thomas Luebke said in a letter in April.
By law, no project like the memorial can go forward without approval from the commission, the federal agency that advises the government on public design and aesthetics in the capital.
A model of the statue has been built in China. The project's chief architect, Ed Jackson Jr., huddled with advisers this week in Ann Arbor, Mich., to discuss ways to address the commission's objections before sculpting of the granite statue begins.
"We said: 'Okay, this is what the commission said. How best can we achieve that and retain what we have accomplished thus far?' "
It is the second time in recent months that the memorial to the slain civil rights leader has come under fire. Last year, critics complained after a Chinese sculptor known for his monumental works of figures such as Mao Zedong was selected to create King and other elements of the memorial in China.
The $100 million memorial, which is being built largely with private donations by the Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, is planned for a crescent-shaped four-acre site among Washington's famed cherry trees on the northwest shore of the basin. Construction is expected to start this year and end next year.
The centerpiece is to be a 2 1/2 -story sculpture of the civil rights leader carved in a giant chunk of granite. Called the Stone of Hope, it would depict King, standing with his arms folded, looming from the stone. At 28 feet tall, it would be eight feet taller than the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial.
Vision generates criticism
The King memorial has been authorized by Congress, and a groundbreaking ceremony was held in 2006. Its general design was approved by the seven-member federal commission that year, based on drawings of the Stone of Hope that showed a more subtle image of King, from the waist up, as if he were emerging organically out of the rock, the commission said.
But since the drawings have been developed into detailed models, the vision has generated criticism. The latest round came with the commission's April 25 letter to the foundation, which followed an April 17 hearing on the project.
Commission members said the sculpture "now features a stiffly frontal image, static in pose, confrontational in character," Luebke wrote. They "recommended strongly that the sculpture be reworked, both in form and modeling" and cited "precedents of a figure emerging from stone in the works of sculptors such as Michelangelo and Rodin."
The commission objected to what it perceived as the loss of the subtle way King seemed to be coming out of the stone in the drawings, Luebke said.
"I think that the metaphor of Dr. King being merged with the natural forces of this stone is absolutely essential to avoid colossal monumentalization," commission member N. Michael McKinnell said at the April 17 meeting.
Jackson, the executive architect, said his design team had aimed for a powerful yet reflective representation of King.
"The image of Dr. King had to be inspirational," Jackson said yesterday. "It had to be an image that projected this man as an intellectual. It had to be an image that projected Dr. King as someone in thought."
As for the idea of King materializing from the stone, Jackson said he met this week in Michigan with the project's artistic consultants, James Chaffers and Jon Lockard of the University of Michigan, to consider modifications "to even more enhance that concept of the individual emerging out of the stone."
The team wants to hold on "to the power and inspirational image" of the current version, he said.
The sense of confrontation in the sculpture is not a coincidence. "We see him . . . as a warrior," Chaffers said yesterday. "We see him as a warrior for peace . . . not as some pacifist, placid, kind of vanilla, but really a man of great conviction and strength."
"It's hard for me to put my arms around" the criticism that the sculpture smacks of Social Realism, Jackson said.
"When you look at something of this scale . . . things are bolder because of the scale of the project itself," he said. "Artists, either in Russia or China or other places where they actually do have a history of this, those artists have a common understanding of the material and what you can and cannot do," he said.
Sculptor's foreign background under fire
Last year, the foundation selected Chinese master sculptor Lei Yixin to work on the memorial. He was banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution but is now considered a national treasure with a lifelong stipend from the government.
Critics said that an African American artist, or any American, would have been preferable. And at least one black sculptor, Ed Dwight of Denver, has said Lei's models do not resemble King.
"Everybody has this problem with how Dr. King is represented," Dwight said this week. "You can't satisfy anybody, because everybody remembers him in a different way."
The memorial foundation has said that Lei is internationally renowned and was selected for his experience with large public sculptures.
On May 1, members of the National Capital Planning Commission, who must also approve the project, voiced other complaints about the design.
"My image of Dr. King is of him leaning forward in anticipation, holding his chin or raising his arm," rather than standing with his arms folded, Commissioner Michael McGill said.
Commissioner Jose L. Galvez III said he thought the sculpture lacked a sense of King's power. "How do you get that power better portrayed?"
Jackson said the depiction of King with his arms crossed comes from a photograph.
"Deliberately we chose an image of Dr. King when he is standing in front of his desk with his arms folded," Jackson told the planning commission.
"We were hoping to give an image of Dr. King that was thoughtful, that . . . projected an image of someone who is really wanting America to give serious thought to the information and ideas that he wanted to pass on to us in his lifetime."
As for the sense of power, "I assure you the power is there," Jackson said. "It will take your breath away."