Maureen O’Hara, latest victim of the bronze statue treatment

Donald Clarke: It’s hard satisfy fans with an old-fashioned, vaguely naturalistic statue

At time of writing, we are not certain what is going on with the statue of Maureen O’Hara in Glengariff, Co Cork. On Wednesday, the Daily Mirror reported that the artwork – the village’s second attempt to thus honour Ireland’s greatest movie star – had, just 48 hours after its unveiling, been removed “because people felt it didn’t look like her enough”. We can say with some certainty that the Ranelagh Liberation Front was not involved. Though born in that Dublin suburb, Ms O’Hara spent many of her later days in balmy west Cork. They have every right to immortalise her in bronze.

The story does remind us, however, how hard it is now to satisfy admirers of a personality with an old-fashioned, vaguely naturalistic statue. Only having seen the piece in photographs, we are in position to judge its merits, but the Mirror herded together a familiar clutter of discontent. “Maybe because the statue is bronze it is difficult to make it so real life and to portray all of her natural beauty,” one apparently reasonable local said. Just so. But is that what a statue is for? We still have the movies.

Barely a month goes by without a degree of eye-rolling at an apparently unsatisfactory attempt to place a stony or metallic version of some great figure in a public place. Sometimes genuine misunderstanding intervenes. In November 2020, veteran iconoclast Maggie Hambling had to explain that her tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft in a north London square did not depict the pioneering feminist as a nude sprite. That image represented a general spirit of womanhood.

Positively weird

No such excuses explained away Ian Rank-Broadley's positively weird statue of Princess Diana in Kensington Palace. Unveiled last July, the piece shows the late royal standing between two apparently needy children, neither of which is her own. Even without the implications of sainthood, the statue deserves opprobrium for a lifelessness that surprises even for something cast in cold bronze. The princess's alleged informality and high spirits could hardly have been more comprehensively concealed if the image had been draped in black velvet

Somewhere between those two is the famously quirky bust of Ronaldo that once sat in Madeira airport. Few would have rated Emanuel Santos’s work alongside Michelangelo’s David, but the asymmetric, grinning image had a merry eccentricity entirely lacking from the bland, demon-eyed statue that, following complaints from the family, eventually replaced it. The new piece looked more like him. It wasn’t “weird”. That was all that mattered.

You can't move in London, Paris or Vienna for statues of imperialist murderers on horseback

Over the last 80 years, genuinely successful statues of real people – as opposed to merely tolerable likenesses – have sprouted up here and there. Oisín Kelly's statue of Jim Larkin, unveiled on Dublin's O'Connell Street in 1979, captures the expansiveness of the man's spirit without giving in to slavish representation. Vera Klute's head of Luke Kelly on Sherriff Street eschews the grey conventions of classical statuary and embraces a mixture of media that leans into off-centre realism.

Struggled

Yet, since the end of the second World War or so, the representational statue has struggled to seem of its time. In an article following the erection of the Diana statue, Jonathan Jones, art critic of the Guardian, described the genre as an "archaic art form". He went further. "It is as if all our public debates fixated on scrimshaw, the madrigal or some other lost art."

Around for millennia, the form had, by the end of the 19th century, taken the flavour of equestrian hagiography. You can’t move in London, Paris or Vienna for statues of imperialist murderers on horseback. They had a great many of those in the American South. They have fewer since the good people of that locale began tearing them down. Long before such questioning set in, the proliferation of photography, cinema and television provided the sculptor of tributes with problems that have still not gone away.

Visual artists responded, in the early 20th century, by moving towards cubism, futurism, vorticism and competing modernist sects, but the sculptor, commissioned by the good burghers of Squareville to produce a likeness of the local hero, did not dare take such liberties. The politician, writer, philanthropist or brave general was still figuratively sitting on a horse and gazing hopefully towards his nation's proud new dawn. Good luck doing to him (less often her) what Picasso had done to his Weeping Woman. The public have the magazine photographs. They have the movies. They now have the YouTube videos. "But it doesn't look like him!" they will repeat until they get the blandest imaginable iteration of the artist's original vision. This is seeming like an increasingly hopeless field of endeavour.

Still desirable routes

And yet. As recently as last September, Mark Richards’s tribute to Roger Casement, mounted above Dún Laoghaire Baths, demonstrated there are still desirable routes through the more familiar territories. The statue does not tarry with the avant-garde, but its imaginative conversation with surrounding maritime space confirms the “archaic form” may yet have breath in its lungs. And not a horse in sight.