At a TimeHoward and
(The Center for
Western Studies)Gutzon Borglum sounds like one of those peculiar diseases that the research doctors keep coming up with, but actually Borglum is the man who sculpted or blasted (or whatever you want to call it) the four presidential faces at Mount Rushmore.
Now, with all its details about a singularly joyless and brain-challenged man, the real pleasure of a book like this is that the authors don't know what they have. They're acting like this is the story of one of those super artists who fought the good fight against all the philistines, politicians, and homunculi --- and who finally won and got to scoop visages out of rock in such a way that they would be there forever --- the ultimate art massif as it were.
But then you read into the book, and look at the pictures for awhile, and begin to wonder what kind of a man would be wanting to tear whole faces out of the side of a hill, what kind of a mahout would think that the highest art form is to go after solid rock, I'm talking basalt, with blasters and dynamite and jackhammers to create these eight eyes (or eyesockets), four noses, four mouths, four chins, one moustache, one baldspot, but no ears (maybe he had a thing about ears) and then he sits back and thinks Well, now I've done it. Now I've created the damndest art work in the whole world. I saw the blank rockside of a mountain in South Dakota, and I conquered it. I must be a genius.
The truth of the matter is that Gutzon Borglum was no genius. Actually, he was worse: he was one of those Joe Blow types who figured he was The Compleat Misunderstood Artist. They always come off as the most juvenile, petulant, suffering, martyred, and intolerable types in the world. The bas reliefs, statuary, sculptures that Borglum set loose in the wilds of Princeton, Washington, D.C., South Dakota, El Paso, and Newark make it apparent that he was a klutz when offered hammer and chisel. His real talents were in other fields.
He was a lionizer; he was a womanizer. They say he could raise $25,000 from a Ladies' Club faster than you could say "gimme kiss." Not content with the ladies, he cuddled up to several presidents --- how in God's name do you think Theodore Roosevelt, of all people, ended up next to Jefferson and Lincoln? Most of all, he was an infighter who could write vicious letters of complaint to the mayor of New York and simultaneously release them to the newspapers (one mayor asked that he give him a few days to reply to his complaints before he mailed the letters to the press). Finally, he was a master money squanderer, eternally in debt, never paying on his notes, what one of my friends called the "waste-a-lot-
It takes a while, looking at Rushmore, to figure out the problem. The scope is all wrong. The whole of it is poorly defined, and wretchedly executed. Being so massive, we think it is artistic per se. The physical size of it overwhelms us, makes us say "Wow!" and "How did they do that?" But the truth of the matter is that Borglum wouldn't know good sculpture if it sat on his lap and stuck its tongue in his ear. The placement of the four heads is all wrong. Why is Teddy looking so hard at Lincoln's non-existent ear? Why does Jefferson look to be stoned, as it were? Why does Washington appear to have just eaten a bug? Most of all --- what's with the scale of it? Despite its massiveness, it has a vague ill-conceived feeling, a feeling of tentativeness that tells us that the artist was not quite an artist, but rather, a dandy political string-puller and fund-raiser (for Gutzon Borglum).
This is confirmed when we look at some of the other works that Borglum conceived and executed before he got hold of poor old Rushmore. In them all, we see a similar tentativeness (or, better) a missed-
the-boat feeling. There is, for example, a fifteen-foot statue of Woodrow Wilson, complete with robe and supplicating gesture. It was sent off to Poznan, Poland in 1931 and eight years later, in one of their few sane acts, blown to an untimely and richly-deserved death by the Nazis.
Or, let's study, I mean really study, the Wars of America statue in Veterans Park, Newark, New Jersey. It's one of those crowded statues, with horses in bronze straining against reins, rearing against the soldiers in front of and behind them, soldiers trying so hard to restrain them. In all this confusion, we're supposed to see the tension of man against beast, but, in truth, it's no better than a junkbox, all at sixes and sevens. We see horses straining to escape, and getting nowhere, cluttering up the park, making it a piece of statuary that most certainly deserves Newark, and all the Newark pigeon-shit that marks its littoral.
# # #
We have in Six Wars at a Time, extensive, exhaustive, mind-frying details about Borglum and his family and his family feuds and his various, extended, extensive, on-going, never-ending battles with patrons, politicians, other artists, his brother, Jews, and the entire state of Georgia. He was a card-carrying, devoted fan of the Ku Klux Klan --- which says as much about his stupid politics as it does their willingness to take in any ne'er-do-well. Fortunately, his membership in the KKK helped to abort a similar (and equally hideous) upchuck that was to have desecrated Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Borglum subsided in glumness and terminal artistic febrility in 1941. He was convinced, in his typical low-brow artistic rage, that everyone was out to steal his ideas, money, dreams, and, presumably, to rob him of stacks of unpaid bills left over from all his other aborted projects. Gutzon was for war, all sorts of war, six wars at a time said justice Felix Frankfurter, a jurist with toleration above and beyond the pale, who somehow put up with Borglum, despite his vicious anti-Semitic railings. People weren't wrong said Frankfurter, when asked about him. They were crooked. People didn't disagree with him; they cheated him. Gutzon's last words to his wife was that his doctors were killing me. Given his personality (and his unwillingness to pay any and all bills, even to those saving his life) it is to be hoped that some sensible medico pulled all the plugs from this addled brain just in time to save us from any further blights of the landscape.
And after reading this all-too-
detailed life of Yet Another Pained and Tedious Artist, we are suprised that they didn't inscribe these words on his gravestone:
I'm not dead.
It's just a rumor.
Spread by my enemies.
So they can steal my ideas from me.
--- Leslie Havers