400 workers, 450,000 pounds of rock removal, and 14 years later, he died, and the few remaining bits of his masterwork were completed that same year by his son, Lincoln Borglum.
Gutzon Borglum was born in St. Charles, Idaho Territory, on March 25, 1867. His father was a woodcarver who later established a homeopathic medical practice, and the family moved around the American West throughout Gutzon’s youth. The boy became interested in art at a young age, and with the help of some family friends and a few commissions, was able to leave the United States and study in Europe for two years in his early twenties. During this time, he became acquainted with, and forged a close friendship with, August Rodin, sculptor of The Thinker. Borglum returned to the United States from England in 1901.
His art could be controversial, as evidenced by the ruckus that erupted over an early project, his statues of angels for the church of St. John the Divine in New York City. Many of the clergy objected that Borglum had feminized the angels’ features too much, and required him to re-cast some of them with a more masculine look. A spirited public debate ensued as to whether angels were masculine or feminine (a prefiguration of today’s “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” or perhaps even “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”):
The clergy were admiring them when the up-State clergyman stopped before two statues, and broke the silence with this
“Whoever heard of a woman angel?”
The clergy gasped: then the truth dawned upon them. For hundreds of years all over the world art had been depicting angels as female and in no place in the Bible could it be ascertained that angels were other than male.
Having unsettled the spirits, and ruffled the feathers, of his clerical friends, Borglum moved on and began to develop a growing interest in monumental art and the “emotional impact of volume.” One of his first efforts in this regard, his marble carving of the head of Abraham Lincoln is now in the United States Capitol.
In 1923, at the request of the Daughters of the Confederacy, Borglum began work on a new commission, a plan for a massive carving of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and a column of Confederate soldiers on the side of Stone Mountain in Georgia. Controversy followed him again, however, and he was dismissed from the project. None of Borglum’s original work remains in the Stone Mountain carving today.
But his work at Stone Mountain garnered him some notoriety, and he was soon contacted by the State of South Dakota and asked to carve a new monument into the side of a mountain in the Black Hills.
The rest, as they say, is history. For now.
Gutzon Borglum was a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan (his dismissal from the Stone Mountain project probably came about because of political infighting within the Klan, who were largely underwriting the cost of the sculpture). But even without that inconvenient and troubling part of his history, some of his sculptures have come under fire in recent times because of their commemoration of events that many contemporary citizens would rather ignore, forget, or pass over entirely.
Even Mount Rushmore, Borglum’s crowning achievement, and one that might be expected to be set in stone forever, is not immune from these depredations. What began (some think) as a rhetorical question posed by the Right (“What’s next? Mount Rushmore?”) is now being taken seriously by the Left, which sees it as a monument to white conquest, Manifest Destiny, and the patriarchy. Exercises in self-loathing abound, both in country and with the able assistance of the
Baghdad British Broadcasting Corporation, abroad. Read a few of these articles, and it’s hard not to conclude that it’s only a matter of time before the monument itself is history, and the men it commemorates are reviled, if not forgotten entirely. (To this point, though, the campaign to remove the carvings on Mount Rushmore has not garnered nearly the steam of the one to remove the Stone Mountain carvings, which is heated and gaining traction despite the admittedly overwhelming cost of removal, and the state law forbidding it.)
The only question, it seems sometimes, is whether the outcome is inevitable, and if so, how long it will take.