By Dr. Leslie Lindenauer
Joyce Munro’s “Let Evening Blush to Own a Star” ranges across time and space. By turns soaring through the heavens and bouncing off the earth, the piece takes us on a journey, tracing the story of a statue (or many statues?), her artist (or his minions?) and her owners, the art patrons who coveted her. She is Merope, “The Lost Pleiad,” in her earthbound form sculpted by the American neo-classical artist Randolph Rogers.
The Rogers sculpture “The Lost Pleiad” that inspired Joyce Munro rests in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Other versions of the statue grace the collections of well over a dozen museums and private homes.
Joyce Munro’s piece reveals the layers of meaning that adhere to “The Lost Pleiad,” both the earthbound statue and the myth. Munro’s ability to peel away the layers, to draw readers in to the multiple strands of the story is what museum exhibits aspire to. “Let Evening Blush…” intersects with fundamental ideas about objects and our relationship to them, in and out of the museums that are their custodians.
We imagine ourselves the possessors of what we see. “How much is that worth?” we ask. We imagine a work of art – or a spectacularly important document, or book – in our own homes. We imagine what it would be like to caress it. To circle around it. Where would I place that statue in my house? We want to own our own star. (Indeed, there are several “Name a Star” gift registries though which people can lay claim to a heavenly body by naming it after themselves or a loved one). In Munro’s piece, however, when we gaze too long, or too longingly, at the components of her story, visual and textual, we notice something a bit elusive. Star, artist, and patron are present at one turn, while at the next they escape our grasp. “The Lost Pleiad” is bright, but she is invisible.
If we cannot own it, we at least want to know that what we see is “real.” “Is it original?” we ask of furniture in a historic house and of a statue in a museum (multiple editions of which might exist, by virtue of clay molds). Can we rely on this object to help us find a connection to the artist, to the historic person, to a specific time and a particular place? Years ago museum theorists rather glibly called this phenomena the search for a “piece of the true cross.” In the twenty-first century, as museums increasingly explore the role of digitized collections and electronic exhibits, do “real” and “original” carry the same meaning? Or is it storytelling that steps in to shoulder the weight an object’s significance?
Munro’s “Let Evening Blush…” reveals the centrality of stories that build a connection to the object. For most of us, it will be the stories alone that connect us, the stories through which we make a museum object our own. If we cannot possess it, at least we will see it through our own eyes; our own stories contribute to the fabric of its meaning. Do we enter Merope’s world as stargazers? Does her story resonate with us because through her we tap in to feelings of longing? Or loss? Or do we access her through her artist? Randolph Rogers’ work includes “The Genius of Connecticut,” a statue that graced the capitol dome in Hartford from 1877 until 1938, when it was damaged in the Great New England hurricane and melted down for scrap. (A plaster cast is in the capitol in Hartford.) Rogers’ massive “Soldiers National Monument” (1866-69) dominates the landscape of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, considered by many sacred ground. That statue and that cemetery rest as a reminder of a Civil War fought over the issue of slavery, the legacy of which continues to shape our nation.
And so we return to the heavens. The North Star is at the heart of stories shared by those who escaped slavery and their descendants, bound for freedom, guided by a star. For the North Star remained, unlike Merope, fixed in the night sky.
Leslie Lindenauer, PhD, is a Professor of History specializing in museum studies at Western Connecticut State University.