Monument Men: Constructing Likenesses

Creating commemorative likenesses – statues, wax figures, paintings – is no easy feat. The way an individual is remembered could have repercussions for years to come, so how does creativity factor in?

By Serena Ypelaar

When we visit a wax museum, we’re usually prepared for a couple of duds that look nothing like they’re supposed to. Perhaps it’s due to the levity of such a space – after all, what purpose do wax museums serve apart from the fleeting amusement of seeing celebrities’ likenesses up close?

However, with commemorative likenesses such as statues, busts, or paintings meant to immortalize public figures, there’s a lot more to it. A grossly inaccurate portrayal could be damaging to a person’s public image, and depending on the nature of the commemoration, may be seen as unflattering or even disrespectful.

Take footballer Cristiano Ronaldo’s infamous bust, which was unveiled at Madeira Airport in Portugal last year. The bust was mercilessly ridiculed and made the subject of numerous memes, to the point that the artist had to redo it.

ronaldo
Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo was commemorated with this bust by sculptor Emanuel Santos in 2017. Public opinion ensured that it was replaced by a new, “more accurate” version, which can be seen below. Photo: Know Your Meme

Admittedly, famous individuals like these are exposed to these depictions by the very nature of their existence – they’re well-known, so people are going to make fun of them, whether it’s creating unflattering portrayals or vocally enjoying such parodies. That doesn’t make it right or excusable, especially if the public figure is a good person (if they aren’t, well, have at it!). Nevertheless, the fact remains that famous people lose the ability to regulate their public perception. The same goes for unauthorized biographies and the like – there isn’t much that can be done to prevent these interpretations unless someone wants to sue for libel.

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Photo: Bleacher Report

The new, sleek Ronaldo statue reflects what we’re conditioned to expect when it comes to commemorative statues, though – a public monument is no hokey wax figure. We seem to expect accuracy and a display of strength or nobility in these types of depictions, which is why more gutsy interpretations often get shot down. Yet we can’t pull the plug on artists’ interpretations altogether. To do so would be to rob artists of their style and create a mild form of censorship that could inhibit creative thinking. (Whether we want to foster “creativity” when it comes to portraying likenesses for public commemoration is another question altogether).

Still, that won’t stop me from expressing my dislike for what I call the “Paper Airplane Portrayal” of Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. Cristiano Ronaldo is one thing – as an athlete, he doesn’t carry the same kind of significance that a former national leader might. So King’s statue on Parliament Hill in Ottawa seems even more bizarre to me, since I would expect him to look a bit less cartoony and more like the other statues on the Hill. Sculptor Raoul Hunter was aiming to convey King’s forcefulness as a leader, according to this page on the Government of Canada website explaining the interpretations of the statues. The other monuments on the Hill portray their subjects more proportionately, whereas King can only be described as abstract. His monument makes me laugh at him a little, which, applied in the context of public office, is surely a less desirable outcome.

king
You don’t need a picture of King to know that nobody is shaped so angularly. Nor did King’s head appear so oblong in life. I will add, however, that this statue was created in 1967 when this style was in vogue, which could raise another fascinating discussion about how aesthetic standards affect portrayals during a given era. Photo: Flickr

Of course, I’m sure it’s all a matter of personal opinion – I know people who like the King statue (above). And that 81-year-old Spanish lady who famously “touched up” Jesus’ face in the “Ecce Homo” fresco clearly thought his makeover looked fine…

Irrespective of whether we can gauge the accuracy of monuments beyond personal preference, discussing the issue tells us what we value as a society on a surface level. Commemorative monuments rely on context and setting to construct a noble or attractive memory of a person (often a man, statistically speaking) and their contributions in life. Let’s just hope that if we do anything noteworthy, the sculptor chosen to portray us won’t get too weird with it.

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