Reader in Anthropology
On 7 June 2020, angry protesters, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, pulled down the Edward Colston monument in Bristol. Objections to the depiction of someone who had been involved in the Atlantic slave trade had been made as early as 1920, but had become increasingly strong from the 1990s onward. At the time of its toppling, plans to add a plaque with information about Colston’s controversial background were being discussed by the Bristol City Council. While to some, the toppling of the statue was a victory after many years of protest, others, including Home Secretary Priti Patel, denounced it as an act of vandalism. London-based artist Marc Quinn, by contrast, saw the iconoclastic act as an opportunity to side with the protesters. On 15 July 2020, without Bristol City Council’s permission, he placed a depiction of the Black Lives Matter activist Jen Reid on the plinth. Within a few hours, the Council carefully removed it.
The events in Bristol show that attacks on public statues and artistic interventions can send out strong political messages, calling for societal change and the re-evaluation of past events. As Øivind Fuglerud, Kjersti Larsen and Marina Prusac-Lindhagen argue in the forthcoming book, Negotiating Memory from the Romans to the Twenty-First Century: Damnatio Memoriae, this is a widespread phenomenon. The editors use the term ‘Damnatio Memoriae’ not only to refer to its original meaning, (a modern Latin term for a practice in Ancient Rome whereby those in power posthumously erased widely known individuals from official history), but also to draw attention to the ways in which the production, destruction and in some cases re-production of material artefacts has been used to evaluate past events. In the case of Bristol, both statues will be put on display in a museum setting. Together with Black Lives Matter placards and personal accounts by people who participated in the protest, the exhibition will engage audiences in current debates about slavery, colonialism and racism.
Colston’s memorial will be kept in the state it was in when retrieved from the harbour: damaged and covered with graffiti. According to John Finch, Head of Culture at the City Council, museums need to ‘respond and engage with social issues and current concerns’, so the exhibition will recontextualise the work, presenting a narrative of racial inequality from a present-day, critical perspective.
It seems highly unlikely that Colston’s statue will ever be re-installed on its pedestal in Bristol’s city centre. But how sure are we about that?
As digital photographs and film footage of the falling statue started circulating on the Internet, I was reminded of a photograph, taken in 1918, of another toppled monument. In this case, it was a sandstone Baroque victory column, created by the seventeenth century Bohemian sculptor Jan Jiří Bendl, and pulled down by Czech nationalist radicals, not long after the establishment of independent Czecholosvakia. The sixteen meter tall column carried a statue of the Virgin Mary, and had been erected in 1650 in Prague to commemorate the 1648 victory of the Habsburg army over invading Swedish troops.
The destruction of the Marian Column was a highly symbolic act that marked the start of a new political era. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Czech revivalists had already begun to perceive the column as a symbol of political, cultural and religious oppression. The region had been under Habsburg rule for many centuries. A large monument for the church reformer and martyr Jan Hus, unveiled in 1915 on Old Town Square, reflected the new understanding of the past. Hus, who was burnt at the stake for anti-Catholic heresy in 1415, was anachronistically regarded as Czech national martyr.
The toppling of the Marian column was not approved by all citizens. As Cynthia Paces notes in Prague Panoramas: National Memory and Sacred Space in the Twentieth Century, various organisations, including the Charles-Ferdinand University and the art assotiation Mánes, accused the radical nationalists of pseudopatriotic sentiments, and objected to the destruction of what they saw as a high-quality baroque work of art that had embellished the city centre for 332 years. Prague City Council decided, however, to side with the protesters and sent the remains of the broken statue to the Lapidarium of the National Museum, presenting them as relics of a bygone political era.
One might think that that was the end of the story. In May 1990, however, a group of heritage supporters and representatives of the Catholic Church established The Society of the Recovery of the Marian Column and started to call for the return of the monument. In November 1993, the Society placed a plaque on Old Town Square that read ‘Here stood and will stand again The Marian Column of Old Town Square’ (Figure 1). The words ‘will stand again’ were soon cemented over by protesters (Figure 2).
This did not, however, discourage members of the Society. In 1996, they commissioned the sculptor and restorer Petr Váňa to create a full-size replica of the monument. Váňa travelled to India to source sandstone and completed the copy of the Virgin Mary statue in 2003. It was temporarily placed in the Church of Our Lady before Týn. As the work progressed, and the Society tried to convince the City Council that the monument should be erected, numerous proponents and opponents made passionate public statements. In an interview with radio Prague in 2013, the architect Zdeněk Lukeš explained that the Marian Column should return because it had been a ‘very important monument from a historical point of view … a wonderful example of Baroque art’. Others argued that the column would draw the attention to a relatively unknown moment in Bohemian history, namely the Swedish invasion, or that it was important not to boil down Catholicism to oppression. According to art historian Ludvík Hlaváček, the planned resurrection was an uninspiring, revisionist gesture that would not add any aesthetic or historical value to the already crowded square.
For decades, the reconstruction of the column was fiercely discussed and rejected several times by Prague City Council. To the surprise of many, the proposal eventually passed by a majority of votes in January 2020. Interviewed by Dnes, atriumphant Váňa claimed that the replica itself had persuaded the members of the council.
I am glad that we managed to bring the column to Prague by boat so that people could see it with their own eyes. I also invited all the deputies to whom I explained the story of the statue and what it would look like. Before that, everyone was talking about something no one had seen, and it was assumed that it didn’t even exist.
Perhaps the original sculptor, Jan Jiří Bendl, would have agreed that the work itself had persuasive power. From an anthropological perspective, however, objects and works of art gain meaning and impact in specific social and political contexts, as they are interpreted in specific ways.
Work on the re-erection of the victory column started on 15th February, and was completed during the quiet days of the Coronavirus Pandemic lockdown. Because of the quarantine, I was not able to travel to Prague photograph the process, so asked a friend, the artist Tadeáš Kotrbá, to send me a photograph of the reinstalled monument (Figure 3). It seems to, once again, have been built for eternity.
Art historian Hlaváček was still underimpressed. When I asked him for his opinion, he wrote that:
It was nonsense to place the column on the square, but they voted for it for populist reasons. I was there yesterday to see it. The square looks now overcrowded, both materially and ideologically. People still talk about Catholicism and Protestantism, as if it has some relevance today. So far, four angels are missing that were part of the original work, which probably shows the difference between Baroque and contemporary sculptural language.
Returning to the question whether the statue of Edward Colston will ever reappear on its pedestal, the history of the Marian Column suggests that the answers can only be: we don’t know. The column was destroyed more than three centuries after its construction. A replica appeared 112 years after its disappearance. In that time period, unforeseeable political transformations occurred: The Second World War, the Cold War, the Velvet Revolution, the rise of populism, and so on.
Who knows what will happen in 112 years time in Bristol, and for that matter: in the world at large? 2132 is a long time away.