The great sculptor, Michaelangelo, who created some of the most beautiful figures ever to be carved from marble was once asked about his method. He replied, “I simply work on the block of marble, removing all that is not part of the sculpture until only the sculpture remains.”
Nowhere is this process more in evidence than in his unfinished ‘slave’ sculptures. Michaelangelo was commissioned to create them in 1505 by Pope Julius, for the Pope’s own tomb – there were supposed to be thirty in total, but the Pope died soon after planning his own tomb, and the project was never completed. If you ever go to see Michaelangelo’s famous and very perfect statue of David, as you walk through the gallery leading to it you will pass some of these unfinished slaves, exhibited precisely because in their unfinished state, and in the shadow of David, they seem to say something profound about humanity.
They seem to emerge from the rock, some gracefully, some full of struggle, desperate to gain their freedom. And in them we can see Michaelangelo’s process at work. His own expressed intention of freeing the figures that already exist within the stone is reflected in his technique. Almost all sculptors who work in stone tend to block out the main shapes of the whole sculpture roughly, and then gradually fill in the details. Michaelangelo, though, chiselled away at the stone, bringing individual parts of the sculpture to a perfect finish before moving on. That’s what makes the unfinished slaves seem to be freeing themselves from the rock that keeps them captive.
So, on the way to see the chiseled, muscled, perfect, naked manhood of David, you walk through the corridor of the half-emancipated, equally muscled and naked, slaves.
Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Washington D.C. and was able to visit some of the monuments there.
All the capital’s memorials are designed to impress: Lincoln and Jefferson, in particular, are vast figures, and the long view down the mall to the National monument is an exercise in grandeur. You can practically hear the Copland fanfare playing in the background.
And, of course, there is the more recent memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. And this is just the famous ones, in the capital. There are plenty of others, including Mount Rushmore’s faces emerging from the stone of the cliff. All of these memorials set in stone something of the past – figures whose importance was such that their likenesses were considered worth preserving in keeping with their influence – a lasting and substantial tribute to match their lasting and substantial impact. The real shocker is that it took so long for the memorial to MLK Jr to be commissioned, funded, and installed in its rightful place alongside the others.
But there is more to the MLK mem0rial than simply a matter of saying ‘about time!’ The shape of the sculpture reflects words from his “I have a dream” speech: ‘Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope’. The larger rock stands behind the statue, and indeed the figure himself is still emerging from the smaller rock in which it is carved.
It can be no accident that the ‘mountain of despair’ is part of the finished monument, and the figure of MLK Jr, the great champion of equality and civil rights, appears still part-trapped in the stone from which he emerges. Like the unfinished slave sculptures of many centuries before, those parts of the figure that have emerged from the stone are perfectly finished, but much remains to be done. If MLK had lived, he might have echoed that sentiment: freedom and equality have started to emerge, but there is much to be done.
And just as Michaelangelo’s unfinished slaves line the path to the completed David, and, like him, are naked and muscled even in their emergent state, so also the MLK statue occupies a place on the pilgrimage-like route through the many D.C. memorials, and like his fellows, Lincoln and Jefferson, Martin Luther King emerges from the rock as a statesman. His memorial, at least to my eye, portrays him as the greatest president that the USA never had.
A memorial such as this sets something in stone, quite literally. But in this case, what is set in stone is something unfinished, something dynamic, something of the struggle which is still, many decades after MLK’s assassination, ongoing. What better way to celebrate a man’s legacy than in a way that draws our attention to the continuing responsibility on all of us to work on making his dream a reality in our own lifetime.