For my money (being a famous art critic), the finest work of art in Rockefeller Park is M. Frico Motoska’s 1924 statue of General Milan R. Stefanik in the Slovak Cultural Garden.
Stefanik (1880-1919), Slovak national hero, was a true renaissance man: astronomer, physicist, philosopher, pioneering airplane pilot, and, above all, Slovak patriot. He is considered one of the four founders of the modern state of Czechoslovakia in 1919. He was also an remarkable traveler, visiting Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti (where he rescued some Gaugin woodcuts), Japan, the USA (where he traveled with the future first president of Czechoslovakia, lobbying for the creation of that independent state), Brazil, the Galapagos Islands, and trips to Russia which included jaunts in Siberia, diplomacy in St. Petersburg, and a visit with the wise old grouch, Leo Tolstoy.
The man died in an airplane accident in 1919, and the broken wings at his feet in this sculpture are an evocative lament. It’s also an Icarus echo: the pioneering aviator who flew too high; the astronomer who peered into the heavens too deeply. The wings also provide a sort of cup or fountain, out of which the human rises.
But within the cradling wings, the man rises also out of a rock, a detail which emphasizes his strength and solidity. The rock also unites the art’s form with its subject in a satisfying way, giving the whole work a natural, organic feel. Art rises out of the earth. Or, rather, the earth rises into art.
I assume that the rock also represents Europe’s highest peak, Mt. Blanc. Stefanik, at the time working for France’s premier astronomer, Jules Janssen, climbed this mountain in 1905 to make astronomical observations. He stayed in an observatory built 12 years earlier by Janssen himself—a rickety wooden structure that would collapse the next year. Stefanik’s expedition had intended to stay for two weeks, but due to bad weather ended up being there for three: still the record for Mt. Blanc, as far as I can learn. He was quite hungry, reportedly, when he staggered back down to the village of Chamonix.
Stephanik’s sculpted hands are oversize. A slightly more famous statue with the same intentional disproportions is of course Michelangelo’s David. Art critics believe that the reason is that David was intended to be atop an elaborate pedestal outside a palace. He would have been viewed from distance, and Michelangelo wanted this expressive body part to be visible and prominent. If you put your own hand on your face, with the heel of the palm resting against your chin, your longest finger will reach about half-way up your forehead. David’s middle finger would touch the crown of his head. Stefanik’s hand is not quite so exaggerated. But Motoska’s masterpiece relies on the same theory of sculpture.
And these hands are full of character. Not only are they too big for the body, but they are too old for the man. He died at 39, but the hands belong to a much older man. I believe that Motoska was nodding to Stefanik’s precocious wisdom as well as the burdens of his responsibility. It’s a lovely touch. They clench the binoculars too tightly, as if they betray a fear or worry that the stoic face seeks to hide. They humanize the national hero.
The binoculars themselves are an apt symbol for a founder of an infant nation: lowered, as he would never witness up close the future of the state he foresaw from a distance. The combination of mountain-like rock and binoculars remind me of MartinLuther King Jr.’s magnificent “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, delivered the day before he was assassinated. “I may not get there with you,” King prophesied, but “I’ve seen the promised land.” His binoculars too were lowered on that fateful night. King died almost 50 years after Stefanik, but he and the Slovak patriot’s sculptor were both alluding to Moses,who was told: “Get thee up into this mount of Abarim, and see the land which I have given unto the children of Israel.” It is particularly poignant that Stefanik, who had not been home in many years, was literally seeing the promised land of his own people’s free state, when his plane crashed just inside the border.
Trying to look at the eyes, with my own imperfect pair, I’m frustrated. My cell phone’s camera has a similar weak zoom. I had to bring my own binoculars to take the measure of the man’s face. It’s a strong face: angular, with a sharply-defined chin and deep ridges, and high Slavic cheekbones. The eyes are penetrating. When you stand in their line of sight, he’s a bit intimidating. It’s not a handsome face. Not kind either, but not cruel. Not a man you’d want to tell that you screwed something up. But there’s great intelligence in the face, and strength of character.
And the expression is sad. He is looking down in resignation. He has just taken the binoculars from his face. Has he just realized that he is about to crash? Has he taken on the weight of the country on his shoulders, and just now realized that it is too much for him to carry? Has he seen that his fate is fixed, and now he must accept his death? The hands may show terror, but the face accepts fate.
The hat is historically accurate. Portraits and contemporary photos of Stafinik tend to feature this French military “kepi.” It was part of his uniform as a pilot for the French in World War I. To my mind, it’s not a terribly expressive hat: slightly more interesting than the most boring piece of headgear ever invented, the American baseball cap. But Motoska makes evocative use of it. With the downward slant of the head, the brim of the hat leaves Stafanik’s eyes in shadow pretty much all day. It has the feel of a symbolic echo of his fate. Or maybe it’s a part of the resignation and acceptance of the statue. The shadow of death is already upon the man.
There is a band of leaves on the rock where Stefanik’s body begins. They wind around the statue from a tree trunk on the back. Going by the distinctive, heart-shaped leaves, I was able to identify them as linden—which should have been easy because that’s the national tree of Slovakia. Significantly, the trunk of the linden tree at the back of the statue forks into two main branches, and one of them is cut just above the fork. That’s Stefanik, I suppose—chopped down when he was young and his nation even younger. The bark has peeled back below the cut, suggesting a traumatic wounding.
This statue is the work of a master, and it was done with great care and attention. I imagine Motoska motivated equally by love of art, love of country, and mourning for the man.Interestingly, this sculpture was a controversial addition to the Cultural Gardens. He’s the only soldier. One volunteer tour guide explained to me: the gardens represent different peoples who often have long and bitter histories together. One country’s military hero is another country’s war criminal. That’s why these gardens focus tightly on culture. General Stefanik was originally up the road a couple miles, and when they moved it here they added a granite block highlighting Stefanik’s achievements in astronomy.
The sculpture has flaws, in my opinion. The pedestal is too big, too heavy, too blocky; it diminishes the human figure upon it and contradicts the naturalness of the man rising out of the rock. Any sculpture of a national hero is inherently political; here the pedestal is shouting the national anthem and threatening to drown out the artist’s sweet song. Also, the clothing is too heavy, rigid and unexpressive. That’s partly a problem with modern clothing. What can an artist do with an overcoat?! Thomas Jefferson, in his magnificent memorial, had the good sense to dress as an 18th century gentleman–complete with knee breeches, waistcoat with lots of buttons, the works. But these are minor faults to Motoska’s masterpiece. In this sculpture art and politics harmonize; art and nature harmonize; humanity rises from the rock and takes flight!
Note: the pictures I didn’t take myself come from a website about the Czech artist Tavik Frantisek Simon. He was a good friend of Stefanik’s. The website, tfsimon.com, edited by Catharine Bentinck, has a wonderfully detailed page about Stefanik, with many excellent pictures. The above pictures show Stefanik on both Czechoslovak and French postage stamps, Stefanik the astronomer working in France, and the wreckage (you can read the Czech word “katastrofe”) of his airplane crash.