That is exactly right. I’ve said the statue looks like an Oriental despot. But it’s more than that. It looks like a statue from one of the ancient cosmological empires, in which the pharoah, the god-king, personally embodies the all-ruling forces of the cosmos. Specifically, King’s hostile posture and facial expression are reminiscent of the ferocious statues of the kings of Assyria, that empire that crushed every nation it conquered until it was conquered and crushed itself.
There is always an element of kitsch in monumental memorials, a built-in grandiosity that exaggerates the physical and spiritual statures of their human subjects. That is one of the purposes of turning flesh into imposing stone. We can feel it when standing at Lincoln’s toe level in his Grecian memorial on the Mall. It is unavoidable, too, in the Pantheon-like gazebo that houses the towering figure of Jefferson at the edge of the Tidal Basin.
So it should be no surprise that something similar happens to Dr. King. But his statue, by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, goes even further. Those of Jefferson and Lincoln are a mere 19 feet tall; Dr. King looms 30 feet up, staring over the Tidal Basin. And he isn’t decorously posed in a classical structure; he isn’t contained in an ordered space with Greek or Roman allusions. His form emerges halfway out of an enormous mound of granite so heavy that 50-foot piles had to be driven into the ground to provide support.
We don’t even see his feet. He is embedded in the rock like something not yet fully born, suited and stern, rising from its roughly chiseled surface. His face is uncompromising, determined, his eyes fixed in the distance, not far from where Jefferson stands across the water. But kitsch here strains at the limits of resemblance: Is this the Dr. King of the “I Have a Dream” speech? Or the writer of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech?….
…. It turns out that these towering mounds at the entrance are supposed to represent something from the “Dream” speech: a “mountain of despair” and, in the rock slice from which Dr. King emerges, the “stone of hope.” The slab is inscribed: “Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
But do these mounds of granite, which are given an almost artificial appearance with their sketchy, cartoonish contours—do they evoke anything at all like a “mountain of despair”? And the unattractive slice supposedly pushed into the center of the memorial: is that really a “stone of hope”? Certainly not, judging from the expression on Dr. King’s face.
The metaphor is not one of Dr. King’s best, anyway, but to center an entire memorial on it, and then to do so in a way that makes no real sense, is baffling. Moreover, the original context of the line from the speech is quite different. Dr. King, after the demonstration in Washington, was going back to the South, his faith intact.
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” he proclaimed. “With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
It is an active phrase; Dr. King and his followers hew the stone from the mountain. Here it is just the opposite; the stone of hope is sliced away and apparently pushed to the center. Dr. King is pushed along with it.
As for the portrait of Dr. King, it seems to have been based on a photograph by Bob Fitch that shows him with crossed arms, engrossed in thought. But here, the crossing of arms is a sign of something else: determination, perhaps. Or command. Monumental, not human.
And the mound’s isolation from any other tall objects, its enormity and Dr. King’s posture all conspire to make him seem an authoritarian figure, emerging full-grown from the rock’s chiseled surface, at one with the ancient forces of nature, seeming to claim their authority as his. You don’t come here to commune with him, let alone to attend to the ideas the memorial’s Web site insists are latent here: “democracy, justice, hope and love.” You come to tilt your head back and follow; he, clearly, has his mind elsewhere.
It is difficult to know precisely why all this went wrong, or why this memorial never alludes to the fundamental theme of Dr. King’s life, equal treatment for American blacks. It strives for a kind of ethereal universality, while opposing forces pull it in another direction.
The failure may also have a larger cause. Many recent memorials proliferating along the Mall have trivialized or mischaracterized their subjects. The World War II memorial seems almost phony, with its artificial allusions to antiquity; the Roosevelt Memorial diminishes that president and even implies that he was a pacifist (featuring his words “I hate war”) instead of a wartime leader responsible for building up the “arsenal of democracy.” Why shouldn’t Dr. King, too, be misread—turning the minister into a warrior or a ruler, as if caricaturing or trying too hard to resemble his company on the Mall?