I haven't seen it in reality, but from photographic and video evidence, Rory Breslin's new statue of Terry Wogan in Limerick seems to deserve much of the derision it has provoked. It doesn't work as a portrait.
It doesn’t work as an expression of the man’s spirit – Wogan’s public demeanour was much cooler and more sardonic than the anxious-to-please enthusiast in the statue. And it doesn’t work as a piece of art in its own right: the overdone attempts at animation result only in a weirdly posed artificial life form, a cheesy cyborg.
But why do we end up with something as bad as this? A comfortingly simple answer would be that the sculptor, Rory Breslin, isn't up to much. But this is not so: Breslin has made some fine public monumental sculptures, like the ones of James Fintan Lalor outside the county hall in Portlaoise or of Michael Davitt in Straide, Co Mayo.
If you look at Breslin's Lalor and Davitt monuments, you can see that they have a confident visual language
This, in a way, makes the Wogan debacle more interesting. A good artist producing bad art is telling us about something more than the existence of poor taste and the appetite for kitsch. What I think it’s telling us in this case is that the primary problem isn’t with the “art” bit of public art: it’s with the public bit.
If you look at Breslin's Lalor and Davitt monuments, you can see that they have a confident visual language. It's a 19th-century language and it's one that was spoken superbly in Ireland.
If you want to get a good sense of it, all you have to do is walk from one end of Dublin's O'Connell Street to the other. The street is bookended by the work of two of the greatest monumental sculptors of the 19th century, both, as it happens, born in Dublin. On the northern end, there is Augustus Saint-Gaudens's monument to Charles Stewart Parnell; on the southern end, John Henry Foley's tribute to Daniel O'Connell.
Parnell is backed by a gigantic quotation from one of his speeches that actually deals with nationhood itself
When these artists went to work, they knew that they were creating heroic images that were not merely individual. There’s no real “personality” in the Parnell or O’Connell statues – there’s not meant to be. The likenesses of the great leaders are literally placed within larger national narratives.
Parnell is backed by a gigantic quotation from one of his speeches that actually deals with nationhood itself. O’Connell, visually, is held aloft by Erin breaking her chains and complex representations of the “Irish people”. Both Parnell and O’Connell are highly posed, the former pointing the way to Ireland’s destiny; the latter in Napoleonic mode with his hand across his chest.
These sculptors knew above all that a public commission was a political act. They were, indeed, important servants of ideologies that far transcended Irish concerns. Saint-Gaudens is the essential American public sculptor because he gave permanent visual form to its most heroic republican age in the aftermath of the Civil War and Emancipation.
His greatest work, the Robert Gould Shaw memorial on Boston Common, with its groundbreakingly dignified depiction of black soldiers, is so powerful that it inspired one of the great American poems, Robert Lowell's For the Union Dead, which notes that "at the dedication,/William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe".
You can see it in Breslin's Lalor and Davitt monuments – 19th-century political figures being embodied in the 19th-century political way
Foley, somewhat ironically in the context, was one of the major visual propagandists of monarchy and empire: his best work is the Albert memorial in London and his equestrian statues in Calcutta.
Public heroic sculpture, as both Saint-Gaudens and Foley could attest, is ideological. (This is precisely why heroic sculptures are, like Foley’s in Ireland and India, in danger of obliteration when ideological power shifts.) And there’s a way of doing this ideological work. You can see it in Breslin’s Lalor and Davitt monuments – 19th-century political figures being embodied in the 19th-century political way.
There’s no real problem with posing: monumental figures take on monumental poses. And there’s no hang up about a detailed facial likeness – the personal is subsumed into history. The body is less important than the idea of embodiment. It doesn’t much matter that Breslin’s Lalor is much sturdier than the frail man it depicts: what is being represented is an idea of resistance.
But what do you do when there’s no ideology to be expressed, no larger national or imperial narrative to be given a sculptural form? Terry Wogan was an infinitely amiable broadcaster but he’s not a hero in the sense of a Parnell, an O’Connell or a Robert Gould Shaw were.
There's a fundamental mismatch between form and content of the kind that can end only in kitsch
We’re trying to take both the monumental and the public out of our public monuments, to make them personal and chummy. And these qualities don’t really go with bronze and stone and the eternity of memory they are supposed to guarantee. There’s a fundamental mismatch between form and content of the kind that can end only in kitsch.
The root of the problem is fame and celebrity. Public heroic monuments were statements about fame in the old sense – the confident belief that this person will matter to future generations. Now, we’re trying to make them about celebrity – a shallower, more evanescent, dehistoricised concept that comes with a compulsory sense of personality and apparent intimacy. We literally don’t want to put our new heroes on a pedestal. So perhaps statues are not the right way to remember them.