Sunday, November 11, 2018
Armistice Day, 2018
The small town where I grew up had a triangle downtown instead of a square, and at its center was a statue honoring those who served in the Civil War, the typical Union Army soldier standing at attention upon a plinth, holding his rifle. When World War I came around, many memorials echoed that alert soldier, with doughboys at attention, ready for action, eternally.
George Julian Zolnay took a different approach when commissioned by the Kiwanis to commemorate the fallen of Davidson County, Tennessee. His statue features a corpse, a dead doughboy, covered protectively by his mother. It's located in Nashville's Centennial Park, not far from their very odd scale beige concrete reproduction of the Parthenon in Athens, complete with 42-foot statue of Pallas Athena—Zolnay sculpted some 500 feet worth of frieze figures on that displaced pagan temple.
Born in Hungary in 1863, he came to the United States to participate in the 1893 Columbian Fair, fell in love with this country, and stayed, becoming a favorite sculptor of the Southland—he sculpted the statue of Jefferson Davis that adorned his grave. Zolnay also returned to Chicago, becoming director of the Chicago School of Fine Arts there.
The Armistice—the end of hostilities after the first World War—took place at 11 a.m., Nov. 11, 1918 (the famous "11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.") But Armistice Day wasn't established until a year later, President Wilson's declaration echoing the indifference to lost life that allowed the war to drag on in the first place. There's nothing in it about horror or futility, rather smug self-congratulation at the "splendid forgetfulness of mere personal concerns" with which our country threw away its young men and capital. The tens of thousand dead and maimed is a source of "solemn pride."
Armistice Day was expanded to honor World War II veterans after 1945, and in 1954 Congress, seeing that the wars would just keep rolling on, changed it to "Veterans Day" to save themselves the trouble of legislating each new crop of war-weary survivors. It is technically different than Memorial Day, as that holiday is designed to honor those who died, while Veterans Day honored those who served, though those two purposes get muddled. Most soldiers never see combat, fortunately, yet their very real contribution to our nations are not exactly highlighted today. There are no statues to stateside quartermasters, though I imagine a lot of grateful troops on the front lines wish there were.
And to give the final dusting of dreary practicality to what started out as a spiritual event, observance of the holiday was kicked to Friday, if Nov. 11 fell on a Saturday, or to Monday, if it fell on a Sunday like today, with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1971. In other words, no mail tomorrow, not that anybody cares about the mail much anymore.
So not great art by any stretch of the imagination. What redeems the statue, for me, is the look of stunned grief on the woman's face, a kind of hollow-eyed yet fierce grief. It is true that no war monument matched the true nature of its subject until Maya Lin's radical black granite gash of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. But lesser artists groped toward it. I wouldn't group this statue among fine statuary, even judging by the lowered bar of public monuments. But glorify war it does not.