The American Spirit by Clyde Du. V. Hunt of Vermont; Placed in the front courtyard of Bennington Museum, Vermont. (photo source)
The three ton, eleven foot high bronze statue placed in the courtyard of Bennington, Vermont’s official Museum (formerly known as the Historical Museum and Art Gallery) provides a fascinating look at the relationship between public and vernacular memory, as well as the changing historiography of our nation. Constructed by Clyde Du Vernet Hunt of Vermont, “The American Spirit” has a long and complicated history that incorporates Hunt’s own personal narrative into a Lincoln-centered jingoism characteristic of both the sculptor and the nation he represents.
There is small amounts of information scattered throughout public archives on the sculptor and his work; however, the conception of Hunt’s chef-d’œuvre is well documented, as is his own role as an American. Hunt’s work – titled “The American Spirit” or “The Spirit of America” – is a highly classical piece of academic art infused with a blinding sense of patriotism. Interestingly, its narrative starts with the creator himself. Hunt “was born in Glasgow, Scotland,” in May of 1861 shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War. Hunt descended from a long lineage of high-ranking Vermont politicians: his father was a colonel; his great-grandfather served Congress as a state representative, and his great-grandfather was Lieutenant-governor of Vermont. His father married into the Jarvis family, one of the wealthiest and influential families in Vermont, and shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, Clyde’s parents returned to the U.S. in order for his father to serve in the War Department.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Clyde’s earliest memories were “of the stories he had heard…about Lincoln and the Civil War.” It is here that the meta-narrative of Lincoln’s legacy is imparted on the young Clyde. As he grew up, he moved to Paris, France “but never became an expatriate.” As the text devoted to his chef-d’ouvre “The Spirit of America” explains, although he worked “better in the cultural atmosphere of France,…[he] was an ardent American and loyal son of Vermont,…[preaching] incessantly…that the inspiration and guide of every American should be the interpretation of American life and the American spirit.” Fascinatingly, he stated that “there are…qualities and forces…inborn in every real American,” – the essence of America – that “the American artist should strive to express.” He felt “that the American artist [is] at [his] best when they are most profoundly moved by American impressions and experiences.” The text explains he “rejoiced in the combination of great simplicity with vast unmatched power that marks our American life.” The image depicted by such a description is highly compatible with Schwartz’s Lincoln types “The First American” and “The Self-Made Man”.
The sculpture’s text elaborates on Clyde’s “childhood and youth” being “steeped in the Lincoln tradition”, with the “apotheosis of Lincoln” as coincidental to Clyde’s “own growth to maturity”. This rhetoric aligns Hunt within the mythic narrative of Lincoln, and continues to state “it is not strange at all that throughout his artistic career, [Clyde] had under contemplation the attempt to create a great and worth statue” of the man he idolized as “the humanitarian,” and a “man of infinite compassion”.
After serving his country in the pre-Spanish War era, Clyde went back to Paris, where in 1928 he completed a heroic statue of Lincoln he had lamented on for years. This statue – highly praised as a “masterful portrait reflecting [Lincoln’s] gentle and compassionate nature” – was intended to stand alone; however, “there came the inspiration to expand the work” into a “trilogy symbolizing…the elusive and mystical Spirit of America which he had praised and championed for so many years.” Hunt chose to combine a bronze tribute memorial to France’s invasion in the First World War called “Fils de France (Child of France),” which features a “Young France gazing upward and outward toward the future,” as the “symbol of the eternal victor” with another marble work entitled “Nirvana” – Hunt’s homage to the Buddhists’ ideal of “perfect faith”. He saw the juxtaposition of Lincoln, Fils de France, and Nirvana as the equivalent of “faith, hope, and charity” – the “primal Christian virtues” that “constitute the spiritual compound” of the American Spirit. As the text explicates, Hunt conveniently combined three works “individually conceived and executed” into “one work” that symbolizes the spiritual entity of American-ness.
The most striking aspect of Hunt’s sculpture is not the materiality of its form, but instead the way in which its display and reception has morphed in time. It is this change that reveals the processual Palimpsestism of memory. Furthermore, the alignment of Hunt’s life with the national meta-narrative is indicative of the need to contextualize this now foreign and highly suggestive sculpture, which reflects the particularities of placing the past within the present. When Hunt’s work was completed and displayed in the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, reception was highly positive. 11 years before the Fair, Welles Bosworth stated that Hunt “succeeded in expressing Lincoln’s…great humanity,” humility, and the “three great Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity,”. At 1939 World’s Fair, The New York Harold Tribune remarked Hunt’s statue was “impregnated with an unusual sentiment of dignity,” distinctly within the Christian tradition. Remarkably, the Tribune saw Lincoln and Nirvana as “a mass,” while the “nude boy, Young America, as hope,” marking the sculptor’s work with the “humanity and universal charity,” characteristic of the fallen president. Fascinatingly, the sculpture’s devoted text, written by John Spargo – the first director of the Bennington Museum who titled Hunt’s work “The Spirit of America,” concludes his commentary in a defensive manner that almost foreshadows future interpretations of the work. He states, “in view of the foregoing quotations, who can doubt [Hunt’s] aim…to depict Lincoln as he conceived him,” and “to create a symbol of the Spirit of America [.]”
On the accessible web, there is little official documentation of public or critical reception to Hunt’s chef-d’oeuvre since its placement in the front courtyard of the Bennington Museum; however, in the Age of the Internet, the most abundant media on Hunt’s work is almost exclusively vernacular. When Googling “The Spirit of America sculpture by Hunt”, the first result is the museum’s digital site with a description of the work and it’s symbolism; however, the second most visited link is a post authored by Kevin Kelley for Seven Days – an alternative weekly newspaper – asking “What’s wrong with this picture?” Within the article, Kelley quickly (within the first paragraph) assigns the title “Abraham Lincoln: Child Molester” to the work, asking the story behind “the 16th president clutching the head of a nude boy, while seemingly about to receive oral sex from a topless girl swooning at his feet”. Kelley’s perception of the work is mirrored by numerous other posts. One is a Flickr image by Dan Portman entitled “Strangely Suggestive Abraham Lincoln Statue,” in which he remarks that while the statue is “supposed to represent faith, hope and charity,” to him “it just says, Abe Lincoln: President and Perv.” Furthermore, he remarks that not only did “someone affixed chewed gum to Nirvana’s face…making her look as though she’s sticking out her tongue [;]” but that Facebook also censors the work for “what could be considered [its] pornographic content.” Interestingly, the Bennington Museum’s Facebook page includes a note from April 9th, 2012 entitled “A question from the Gallery Network: ‘Why the naked people with Lincoln?'”, in which they acknowledge that question as “by far the most common question.” The museum gives an explanation of the figures as academic nudes – “an idealized figure…[representing] an idea the artist was trying to convey,” and follows that explanation with a situational “nudes have been an essential focus in Western art since….” to contextualize the work. Even more striking the museum comment on its own note in first person: “even after writing that description, I still scratch my head and wonder ‘What were you really thinking, Clyde? Academic nudes??? Was that representation really necessary?? Really????”
It is this discordant nature of engagement with Hunt’s sculpture that is truly reflective of the Palimpsestism model of memory, in which one society erases past societies memory constructions like a re-use of a manuscript page. Furthermore, Schwartz’s “History, Commemoration, and Belief” paper – an investigation of the changing perception of Lincoln, is highly useful in understanding this discord. It seems as though Schwartz’s work is elaborated in the processual engagement with Hunt’s work. Not only does it appear that the archetypes of Lincoln’s image have changed; but the public’s engagement with the role and aesthetic representation of any President has shifted dramatically. Exemplary of this is the fact that such a classical and historically abundant form of public sculpture is markedly foreign to present understanding. Given the recent infamy of the Clinton affair, and the growing skepticism towards the righteous absolutism of the Presidency, this shift in perception is perhaps understandable. This issue begs the question – “what has changed?” – is it our reception of classic forms of art? Our stance toward the patriarchal view of nationalism? Or, is it our entire conception of what constitutes a nation? Furthermore, the proliferation of such a salacious reception is reflective of the seemingly radical changes in both our aesthetic values and conception of Lincoln from the 1920s to the present day.