Despite the fact that this is the second consecutive post to be illustrated by a statue in Stalingrad, I’m not poised to turn ‘the Telegram’ into a blog dedicated to Soviet sculpture. Rather, using the iconic image of the Barmaley Fountain in the shadow of the carnage from one of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare reminded me of a statue erected as a monument to Russia’s war dead in the same city. The strange juxtaposition of joyous children dancing hand-in-hand while surrounded by burning buildings is a chilling reminder of how the ordinary and extraordinary sit cheek-by-jowl when the boulevard becomes the battlefield. Long-gone, though recently superseded by a new version standing in roughly the same city centre location, the Barmaley Fountain became a symbol of the Soviet Union’s resistance to Nazi Germany by default. High above the city formerly known as Stalingrad stands a statue erected with that resistance in mind – The Motherland Calls.
Unveiled in 1967 as what was then the world’s tallest sculpture, the Motherland dominates the Volgograd skyline, standing 279 feet atop the Mamayev Kurgan hill; the towering figure of a Boudicca-like warrior woman wielding a sword that itself measures 108 feet is the centrepiece of a memorial complex dedicated to the Battle of Stalingrad. Not only is the statue a jaw-dropping edifice due to its immense size, it also serves as a masterpiece of structural engineering, a mix of prestressed concrete and wire ropes kept in place on its plinth solely by the strength of its colossal weight. Recent reports that the Motherland has moved as much as 20 centimetres, however, have led to work aimed at preventing the statue from collapsing. It wouldn’t be the first such collapse. Accustomed we may have sadly become to man-made destruction of statues courtesy of aesthetic vandals such as the Taliban and ISIS, but nature sometimes intervenes as it did in the granddaddy of all giant figures on the landscape – the Colossus of Rhodes.
Although nobody knows for certain what the Colossus of Rhodes looked like or precisely how tall the bronze representation of the Ancient Greek Sun God Helios actually was (estimates reckon around 98 feet), the legend of the goliath that bestrode the harbour of Rhodes proved so alluring that it was enshrined as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It allegedly collapsed during a devastating earthquake in 226 BC and various literary sources thereafter claim its remains were a local tourist attraction for the best part of 800 years.
For most of their existence, what are now referred to as ‘public works of art’ were largely stone or bronze facsimiles of mythical Gods and Goddesses, with the odd real-life King or Queen thrown in for good measure. They tended to be the centrepiece of temples and then progressed to becoming detached monuments in their own right. Over the centuries, the statue gradually established itself as the definitive civic tribute to a significant public figure, especially those who had played a pivotal military role in the history of a nation. In Britain, the Victorian era was the true golden age of the outdoor statue, though the victory of Protestantism over Catholicism ensured these were mainly secular, with the only real ‘religious’ ones being the spooky angels dotted around grandiose Gothic graveyards. Elsewhere in the world, the likes of the Statue of Liberty also epitomised the move away from overtly religious iconography in stone. However, the majority of gigantic statues commissioned in the past century have surprisingly maintained a spiritual tradition, with most appearing in the Far East. Buddha retains quite a fan-base over there.
I confess to a lifelong fascination with stone figures. It began – as it did with many, I suspect – with pre-school exposure to the unforgettable scene in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ when Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation blew life into a huge statue of Talos. That scene also seemed to breathe life into statues surrounding me – including a white one of Christ on the cross attached to the exterior of a nearby church, one that seemed luminous when seen at night; it didn’t take much imagination to picture him coming to life when nobody was looking, ala Looby Loo on ‘Andy Pandy’. I used to wonder why all statues were old, but their age appeared to bestow some supernatural magic on them. It’s hard to feel the same about the sudden glut of statues that have appeared in the last thirty years or so.
The more esoteric, such as the Wicker Man-like Angel of the North, have tended to succeed and have become beloved of both locals and tourists; it is the newcomers sticking to the traditional template that disappoint. It’s not too outlandish to say there are some truly terrible statues that are so facially unlike the figures they’re supposed to depict one cannot but wonder if sculpture really is a dying art. The less said about the appalling ‘Di and Dodi’ abomination in Harrods, the better; but statues such as the one of Charlie Chaplin in Leicester Square, the one of John Lennon at Liverpool Airport, the one of Ernie Wise in Leeds or the one of the Queen erected at Runnymede to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta are especially bad.
The only saving grace is that they’re not on a comparable scale to The Motherland Calls. Then again, few are. I must make a date to see her one day – while she’s still with us. She may be safe from Islamic philistines, but changes in groundwater levels provoking movement in the foundations make me wish Ray Harryhausen had sculpted her; then she could simply get up and walk away. But we know they all do that when our backs are turned, anyway…don’t we?
PS This video of a drone’s eye view of the Motherland Calls gives a good indication of its sheer scale…
© The Editor