Magazine article New Criterion

The Scars of Lorelei

Magazine article New Criterion

The Scars of Lorelei

Article excerpt

New York has no shortage of public statuary, though perhaps not so ubiquitous as in other cities: think of Buenos Aires's various squares and Paris's places. But, as any occasional visitor to the city can tell you, Shakespeare and Walter Scott are in Central Park, Bolivar and Jose Marti just outside it, and of course Columbus sits atop his eponymous circle's column. And yet there is another notable sculpture within city limits that both tourists and habitues alike would find it difficult to name. But this forgotten monument is more than a mere commemorative objet. It is a metaphor for the city itself.

New York City's little-known Lorelei fountain commemorates Heinrich Heine, the most important figure in nineteenth-century German literature after Goethe. In German legend, the Lorelei was a siren whose entrancing songs sent sailors to the depths of the Rhine. Heine's lyric poem "Die Lorelei" casts the siren in the role of the poet's beloved, and the fountain and its accompanying statues honor the honor. In the center of the fountain sits a round pedestal supporting a statue of the Lorelei, looking out and slightly downward, presumably towards those ill-fated sailors. The pedestal itself features bas reliefs of Heine, a man slaying a dragon, and a sphinx embracing a woman. At its base are three mermaids: Lyric, Melancholy, and Satire. Between the mermaids are three raised carved shell basins, from which the water flows into the main basin. The statuary group is one of New York's few public sculptures carved out of white marble, possibly quarried from the Tyrol region of modern-day Italy or Austria.

It shouldn't be surprising that New York, America's cultural capital and a city of immigrants, would commemorate Heinrich Heine. Indeed, as the architectural historian Francis Morrone once noted, the city has done a much better job honoring great foreign authors such as Shakespeare and Robert Bums than its own. (Henry James, Herman Melville, and Edith Wharton are still waiting for their just tributes.) But many would be surprised to learn that the Lorelei fountain makes its home in the South Bronx. When the work was dedicated in the late nineteenth century, the surrounding Grand Concourse neighborhood was populated by middle-class Americans of German extraction. It is now poor and black and Latino. After being vandalized more severely than any other public sculpture in the city during "the bad old days"--whose specter now haunts the city again--philanthropy and government patronage restored the work to almost its original glory in the late 1990s. The Heine monument has become a symbol of the Bronx's own rebirth.

Sculptures installed as part of the streetscape always run a greater risk of being taken for granted, and consequently abused, than museum pieces. But, in the view of Jonathan Kuhn, the director of art and antiquities for the Parks Department, New York's public collection of monuments and masterpieces has "never looked as good and been cared for as consistently" as now. New Yorkers are now living through a golden age of public sculpture in the city, though they may not realize it.

The Heine monument's marble constitution reflects the work's late-nineteenth-century European origins. Germany's 1871 political unification led to more cultural unification through the creation of public memorials to distinguished native sons. A Berlin sculptor named Ernst Herter (1846-1917) crafted the fountain at the behest of some leading citizens of Dusseldorf, Heine's hometown. The Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who ardently admired Heine, offered to pick up the bill. Dusseldorf, though, wound up rejecting the fountain. Despite the popularity of his lyric verse, set to music by Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, Heine was not necessarily a beloved figure in Germany. He lived in Paris for most of his adult years, he was Jewish, he led a dissipated personal life, and he held liberal views on topics such as Napoleon, German nationalism, and the cravenness of the aristocracy. …

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