Tuesday, April 6, 2010

On Free Soil Among a People Free


 
When the world went to war in 1914, the population of Chicago was about 2.5 million people.  Of that total only 752,111 citizens were second generation Americans.  Germans were by far the largest ethnic group in the city, comprising 399,977 first and second-generation residents.  That was over a quarter million more people than the next largest ethnic group, the Irish.

So it is hardly surprising that a statue to honor the greatest German of the nineteenth century – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – would be proposed for the city.  The first such proposal came before the turn of the century. 

The Chicago Tribune reported on March 14, 1896, “The Lincoln Park Commissioners had granted permission to the North German society, ‘Schwaben-Vereins,’ to place in the park this summer a statue of Goethe.  The place selected is the north end of the park, on the lake-front, north of Fullerton avenue, and at the foot of Lake Shore drive.”

For almost twenty years nothing was done to move the project along, despite the fact that the 1896 article mentions that over half the cost of the $12,000 statue had already been raised. 

The park commissioners felt that far more money was necessary for the project than the original proposal set aside, and it took more than a decade to raise the amount.  Finally, in September of 1910 it was announced that Professor Herman Hahn, a young Munich sculptor, had won the competition for the Lincoln Park statue.

Karl Bitter, a member of the selection committee from New York, said of the choice, “It is equal to the best products of Saint Gaudens.”

The conditions of the competition specifically prohibited a “portrait statue.”  Speaking of this, Harry Rubens of Chicago, a representative of the Goethe Monument association and a jury member in the competition, said, “. . . the sculptors have given rein to their imaginations in  the forms of fountains, temples, and allegorical and symbolical fantasies of all conceivable kinds.”  [Chicago Tribune, September 10, 1910]

 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 
in front of Mies van der Rohe's Commonwealth Plaza

It didn’t take long for criticism to roll in.  Harriet Monroe, writing in the Chicago Tribune on February 12, 1911, said, “The model accepted by the committee in charge of the proposed Goethe monument in Lincoln park looks like another sad infliction upon a long suffering community.  Why the poet should be shown poised insecurely with one leg at a right angle with his body, and with a singularly wooden bird – is it a decoy duck? –perched squarely on his knee, is one of those mysteries which will puzzle the wiser heads as long as the threatened statue stands, and bronze is sometimes too durable.”

The Tribune reported on September 22, 1913 that an advanced unveiling of the statue would take place the following week in Munich.  The article promised, “Chicago art lovers who admired the graceful lines of the youthful figure of the creator of Faust when the cast was exhibited at the Art Institute in 1910 will be delighted with the finished product in enduring bronze.”

Bronze . . . sometimes too durable or enduring?  The Chicago unveiling would be the true test.

 Goethe's Buns of Bronze

The big day came on June 13, 1914.  On the night before the womens's auxiliary of the Goethe Monument association held a gala attended by 2,000 people at the Auditorium theater, with speakers representing the German republic, the state and the city.

 Goethe:  A Rainy Day

Unfortunately, the following day brought an all-day drizzle.  Still, a crowd of 20,000 people showed up for the unveiling of the statue in Lincoln Park.  Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the United States spoke at the unveiling, pleading for mutual understanding between the United States and his nation.  Governor Edward F. Dunne and Mayor Carter H. Harrison also attended.

Mayor Harrison said, “I have been asked especially to speak of a German race as it has affected the life, the progress, the development of Chicago.  Enough to say that none of the many people which have contributed their quota to the making of the twentieth century Americanism in this representative city has given more bountifully than the Germans.” [Chicago Tribune, June 14, 1914]

The fanfare had hardly died down when, two weeks later Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, and war was on.  In short order Germany invaded Belgium, Luxembourg and France. 

Almost immediately Chicago took sides.  By August 3 seven hundred reservists had reported to the ninth floor offices of the German consulate in the People’s Gas Building, volunteering to fight for Germany.  Business leaders – among them brewer Charles Wacker and meat packer Oscar F. Meyer, helped raise money for the German Red Cross.
[Pacyga, Dominic A.  Chicago:  A Biography]

Even the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was divided. The majority of the orchestra was made up of musicians of German descent, and at a Ravinia concert in August, at which several nationalist songs were part of the program, their French, Belgian and Russian associates rebelled against playing “The Watch on the Rhine.”  In retaliation the German musicians played sour notes during the French anthem “Le Marseillaise”.  [Pacyga]

With the United States entry into the war in 1917, tension grew even greater.

Little wonder, then, that Goethe got dragged into the mix.  On the night of May 17, 1918 the statue was attacked by “Two Americans”.  Yellow paint was spread from the knees to the base of the statue, and a placard was left against it.  

The placard read, “An emphatic protest from a free people against the retention of what always has been an offense against art, and now is a challenge to loyalty.  Shall this park, named for the illustrious Lincoln, continue to harbor such an enormity or will the people of Chicago insist on its immediate removal!”  [Chicago Tribune, May 8, 1918]

 Goethe as seen through a pair of Mies's pilotis

Goethe made it through that war untroubled by further abuse – and another war after that one.  Then, in September of 1951, lightning struck the statue and the great artist’s foot was shattered.  Three years passed before the damage was repaired with $6,000 collected for that purpose from the German-American Monument association.

The re-dedication of the monument took place on August 29, 1954, the 205th anniversary of Goethe’s birth.  A male chorus of 25 different German-American singing societies in the city took part in the program. 

On the monument are written lines from Goethe’s Faust:


The last result of wisdom stamps it true
He only earns his freedom and existence
Who daily conquers them anew.
Thus here, by dangers girt, shall glide away
And childhood, manhood, age, the vigorous day
And such a throng I fain would see --
Stand on free soil, among a people free. 

Chicago sculptor Lorado Taft remarked in 1921 that "One pair of bronze trousers is not very much more interesting than another pair."  His comment was really a plea for sculpture to memorialize more of the natural wonders of the world than the dead heroes who had left it.  

 Goethe wears no trousers.  Just a skimpy classical robe, some great abs, the calves of a weight lifter, and an impossibly large eagle, its talons resting lightly on his bulging thigh.  He looks very much like The Mastermind of the German People.


 

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