Archive for Saturday, March 2, 2002

Naked truth: Capitol full of nude statues

March 2, 2002


— Some were mortified, others tickled, when a bare-chested statue of George Washington sat on Capitol Hill long ago, one arm outstretched, the other raised.

People joked that he was lunging for his clothes, on display at the Patent Office several blocks away.

Like that man of stone, some people at the Justice Department think no nudes is good nudes.

So they drew blue drapes over two scantily clad statues in the department's Great Hall. Now, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft can speak there without risk of a breast showing behind him on television or in photos.

That cover-up has not done much to change the flesh tone in Washington, however. This is a city of many exposed rear ends, bare breasts, what's-the-point fig leaves and even no fig leaves at all.

From barely wrapped bronze ladies by the Memorial Bridge to the revealing discus thrower outside the State Department in Foggy Bottom, north to writhing nudes on the National Cathedral and east to the starkly immodest fountain figures outside the Library of Congress, the capital is quite the tease.

Youthful outlook

Susan Lineberry of Hampton, Va., remembers strolling past a nude Washington statue with her son, then 5, some years ago.

"My son looked at it and looked at me and said, 'I see his butt."'

"I said, 'Well, Kevin, that's art. Often the human body is used as art because the lines and curves are pretty.'

"And he said, 'I still see his butt."'

There's more. Outside the White House Cabinet Room, paces from the Oval Office, there is full frontal male nudity in the painting "A Flathead Chief and His Family."

In the august chamber of the Supreme Court, reflective justices look upon the figure of a topless woman holding a mirror in one hand and a rose in the other. A robe is wrapped around her waist.

She represents Truth.

Even the U.S. Capitol, where art tends toward the tame, has an eye-popper or two.

A woman in nothing but a gown dropped to her waist looks out languidly from a wall of the committee room where House members carve up the budget.

This painting is called Good Government.

At the Library of Congress, the sizzling scene did not escape Billy Collins, America's poet laureate, who has an office there.

He wrote praying that Father Time, on the great clock inside, would set down his scythe and hourglass and check out the "two bare-breasted female figures who have always been there, waiting adoringly right by his side."

Collins took poetic license; one lady is merely provocatively clothed, the other is spilling out of her dress.

But the library is lined with the unveiled and thinly veiled.

"They almost look like showgirls," observed Capitol curator Barbara Wolanin. She said a committee in the late 1800s debated whether to allow nudity in the library's art and decided to go for it.

"They wanted it to be very classical, and of course the nude figure is an important part of classical art."

The George Washington statue was moved to the Smithsonian in 1908 and can be seen now in its American history museum. The museum says people objected to the partial nudity when the statue resided at Congress.

Behind closed doors

There was no such outcry over the 12-foot, 6-inch aluminum Great Hall statues at the Justice Department  public art the public rarely got to see.

Still, drapes that had been occasionally rented for $2,000 per use were bought outright for $8,000 and have been left hanging.

Now the female Spirit of Justice and male Majesty of Law are under indefinite wraps, her arms still raised in exultation, his left hand raised in tribute to the authority of God, now all in prim privacy.

"That a government official would do something like that, it seems partly comical and partly tragic," Arthur C. Danto, art critic of The Nation magazine, said in an interview.

"I think it means we've reached a new stage in prudery."

Justice officials are so sensitive about the matter they stopped talking about it.They also denied permission for The Associated Press to film or photograph the public art in the building.

Earlier, a spokesman said the curtains make a nice TV backdrop and were hung "for aesthetics."

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