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Friday, July 19, 2013

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore is, first of all, a mountain, long before it became one artist's masterpiece.
Gutzon Borglum
Sometimes, an artist becomes so identified with a single masterpiece it's hard knowing whether to write about the art or the artist. That's definitely the case with Gutzon Borglum, the Danish-born sculptor, whose art has far overwhelmed his personage as an artist. Part of the problem is the name--not exactly unforgettable. He was also a sculptor, an art which has always taken a seat in the back of the bus insofar as name recognition is concerned. I've written on quite a number of them, sculptors whose work has become iconic--Bartholdi, French, and other monument carvers. Invariably, like Borglum, mention of their names in conversation usually brings a blank stare or the one-word question, "who?"

Mount Rushmore before 1927.
Washington took shape at the
highest point, slightly left of
center in the photo.
If the artist is not exactly a household name, certainly the story of Mount Rushmore has begun to approach the level of national folklore. The mountain was named for a prominent New York banker in 1885. At least he was prominent then, today...not so much. The Lakota Sioux tribe in the area had long called the mountain "Six Grandfathers." A sculpted tourist attraction was first proposed for the Black Hills area in the early 1920s, though the intent was for the site to be a mountain range called the Needles nearby. However Borglum quickly rejected that site because of the poor quality of the granite and the slender "needles," which he found too slender to accommodate his concept. Original backers had intended the memorial to honor western pioneers and explorers. Borglum rejected that too, in favor of a more national theme.

Even the model was monumental.
Abe emerges, wart and all.
As any artist will tell you, a lot can happen between inspiration and consummation. Borglum's original plaster model (above) shows the figures of Washington and Lincoln from the waist up, including hands and arms. A shortage of funds intruded upon that idea. Still, a lot that could have happened didn't. With minor refinements, the fourteen-year project managed to arrive at completion just before Pearl Harbor and without a single casualty or major conflict. Such a project has the bonus element of lifting an artist to a level where his talents are in demand for other projects. Marietta, Ohio, near my hometown, boasts a Borglum monument from the same period as Rushmore. (Hey, an artist has to eat.) Titled The Start Westward, and dedicated by President Roosevelt in 1938, it commemorates the 150th anniversary of the pioneer landing on the shores of the Ohio River at Marietta to begin "the start westward." Carved from native Ohio sandstone, despite efforts at preservation, 75 years have not been kind to Borglum's noble, frontier visages. Ohio sandstone is a wretched substitute for South Dakota granite.

The Start Westward, 1938,
Gutzon Borglum
The Start Westward,
(looking eastward).


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