Thomas J. Brown: Rumors of War in Richmond

Today we welcome a guest post from Thomas J. Brown, author of Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America, out now from UNC Press.

This sweeping new assessment of Civil War monuments unveiled in the United States between the 1860s and 1930s argues that they were pivotal to a national embrace of military values. Americans’ wariness of standing armies limited construction of war memorials in the early republic, Thomas J. Brown explains, and continued to influence commemoration after the Civil War. Brown shows that distrust of standing armies gave way to broader enthusiasm for soldiers in the Gilded Age. Some important projects challenged the trend, but many Civil War monuments proposed new norms of discipline and vigor that lifted veterans to a favored political status and modeled racial and class hierarchies. A half century of Civil War commemoration reshaped remembrance of the American Revolution and guided American responses to World War I.

Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America is now available in print and ebook formats. The book has recently been named the winner of the 2020 Tom Watson Book Award by the Society of Civil War Historians.

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Rumors of War in Richmond

Recently announced plans to remove memorials on Monument Avenue in Richmond mark a climax in the critique of Confederate monuments that gained traction after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and accelerated after the Charleston massacre of 2015 and Charlottesville bloodshed of 2017. Ironically, this event comes shortly after a well-publicized attempt to leverage rather than clear the Confederate landscape of Richmond, the December 2019 installation of Kehinde Wiley’s equestrian statue Rumors of War. Wiley’s work reanimates as it mocks the equestrian statues on nearby Monument Avenue, particularly the statue of J. E. B. Stuart on which Wiley based his composition. Rumors of War certainly draws meaning from its location, but it is also the capstone of a series on which the artist has been engaged since an early stage of his meteoric career, long before Confederate monuments stirred wide controversy. The overall project suggests important aspects of its extension to Richmond.

Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War in Richmond (2019). Steve Helber / AP

Rumors of War was Wiley’s title for a 2005 gallery show that featured young African American men wearing street fashions in paintings modeled on equestrian portraits by Rubens, Velázquez, David, and Charles Le Brun. Only one of these paintings depicted a field commander, but Wiley underscored that the equestrian format dramatized the relationship between military power and other forms of royal power, including the power to set aesthetics of masculinity and dispense patronage to artists. The prediction of “wars, and rumors of war” in Matthew 24 is a starting point for Jesus’s warning that misleading signals will precede the end times and “many false prophets shall arise.” Wiley identifies the historical sitters and canonical artists as false prophets, empowered by the glamor of war.

His alternative to the ancien régime was contemporary capitalism. Wiley has declared, in the Warholian tradition, that “I make really high-priced luxury goods for wealthy consumers.” The market now empowered stylish young African American men to redefine national practices of masculinity, celebrated by one of the most financially successful artists of his era. Wiley has returned often to the equestrian well, but the logic of the series may have reached fullest expression in a 2010 portrait of Michael Jackson that adapted Rubens’s portrait of Philip II.

Kehinde Wiley’s Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares (2005). Courtesy of the Rubell Museum.

 

Wiley’s proposal to make a Rumors of War sculpture for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) involved some compromises in his formula. He could not open a dialogue with one of the great masters. The Lost Cause inspired no Velázquez. That problem connected to a design conundrum. The decision not to base the new work on the signature Monument Avenue statue of Robert E. Lee by Beaux-Arts sculptor Antonin Mercié–perhaps the most distinguished artist to make a Confederate monument–indicates the challenge of aligning the Lost Cause and Wiley’s art politics. Mercié wanted to depict Lee with a Napoleonic magnetism, but the Virginia sponsors instructed him to use the still pose that Kirk Savage has brilliantly analyzed as a crystallization of white supremacism. That precedent exercised influence across the North as well as the South. It became one of the templates through which Civil War commemoration updated an Old World metaphor for hierarchical ideology. But the rise of realism did not suit Wiley’s interest in Baroque and Romantic forerunners of contemporary flamboyance.

The Stuart equestrian mimicked by Rumors of War illustrates the conjunction of prestige and style. It is the work of the little-known Frederick Moynihan, who spent much of his career embellishing battlefield parks. His Richmond equestrian is closely based, perhaps in plagiarism but perhaps in homage, on John Foley’s monument in Calcutta to General James Outram (1874), dubbed “the Bayard of India” for his suppression of resistance to the British empire. (The Chevalier de Bayard was the prototypical Renaissance knight.) The application of the pose to Stuart recalled the élan of the plumed Virginian cavalry commander around the same time that the comparably dashing George Armstrong Custer was consigned to bronze dignity in prominent equestrian specialist Edward Clark Potter’s monument in Monroe, Michigan (1910).

Protesters on June 1, 2020, at the J. E. B. Stuart Monument in Richmond. Bob Brown / Richmond Times-Dispatch

 

As Wiley has adjusted to the constraints of the Confederate memorial repertory, he has shrewdly exploited the opportunities it presents. The hoodie of the rider in the statue, featured in one of the original Rumors of War paintings, evokes Trayvon Martin in the new work. Wiley’s turn to a professional muse from Charleston, South Carolina, as a model for the sculpture recalls the Emanuel A. M. E. Church murders. The prophecy of Matthew 24 that “then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you; and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake” has special relevance to the false prophets of the proslavery republic and the lynch mobs that revered it.

The grandest of these opportunities is of course the site of Rumors of War. The quintessential Lost Cause promenade began at the Stuart statue, passed the Lee and Jefferson Davis monuments, and turned at the Stonewall Jackson equestrian to walk by buildings of the Lee Camp Soldiers’ Home, the “Battle Abbey” shrine, the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Confederate Memorial Chapel, and the Home for Confederate Women. Rumors of War provides a much more satisfying endpoint to a subversive stroll along this route than Richmond’s attempt to achieve the same goal in the alternative path west on Monument Avenue beyond the Jackson statue, passing the Matthew Fontaine Maury monument installed in 1929 and concluding at the Arthur Ashe statue dedicated in 1996.

Rumors of War is more powerful than the Ashe statue because it engages the martial vocabulary of social hierarchy on Monument Avenue. The Ashe statue typifies what Dell Upton has called the “dual heritage” response to Confederate commemoration, an attempt to dilute rather than repudiate dishonorable icons. Wiley’s impudent equestrian is reminiscent of Allison Smith’s performance piece Hobby Horse (2006) or the bronze statue of a boy astride a rocking horse (Powerless Structures, Fig 101) that Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset placed on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth in 2012 or, in a more somber vein, Krzystof Wodiczko’s video projections of war refugees telling their stories onto the Farragut Memorial in Madison Square earlier this year. All these works challenge confidence in military command as a model for political leadership and military organization as a model for democratic society. In that iconoclasm, as in its rejection of white dominance, Rumors of War resonates with protests against the militarization of police as a system of community order.

Rumors of War is also more provocative than the Ashe terminus because it exposes the complex ownership of public space. The sculpture is on the property of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which invites reflections on the relationship between the city streets and the state museum as Wiley’s paintings juxtaposed the royal court and the market place. The public setting, funded by the wealthy supporters of the museum, builds on the artist’s investment in capitalism. The equestrian statue was commissioned for the attractive price of $2 million, was made in China, and previewed for three months in Times Square. Wiley’s agreement with the VMFA authorizes him to make two more full-size copies, and his gallery is also selling smaller reproductions. To apply a museum term borrowed from military bombing, the heavily promoted VMFA installation promised a blockbuster both in its popular appeal and its ideological impact on the cityscape.

Wiley did not begin Rumors of War with the Confederacy, and its implications reach well beyond the Lost Cause. This venture into public sculpture proves the artist to be no mere one-trick pony. Events have outpaced him, however, and his equestrian statue may soon stand alone in Richmond.

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Photo by Joel Elliott

Thomas J. Brown, professor of history at the University of South Carolina, is the author of Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America (University of North Carolina Press, 2019), which received the Tom Watson Book Award presented by the Society of Civil War Historians.