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Revealing A Famous Brooklyn Statue’s Link to Confederate Monuments

By BETH HARPAZ

The sculptor who created a well-known statue in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery was a white supremacist who also designed multiple Confederate monuments, according to an article by Professor Michael Lobel (Hunter College, The Graduate Center).

Green-Wood’s statue of Minerva, the goddess of war, was sculpted by Frederick Wellington Ruckstull. Ruckstull’s other works include the Confederate Soldiers Monument in Arkansas (1905); the South Carolina Monument to the Women of the Confederacy (1912); and the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Baltimore (1903), Lobel wrote in ArtForum. The Baltimore memorial has been taken down.

Ruckstull also wrote widely about the “degeneracy” of modern art, attacking Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Degas among others. The Nazis staged a notorious exhibit called “Degenerate Art” in 1937 in “a massive cultural propaganda” campaign against avant-garde work. Two decades earlier, Ruckstull used language that was “nearly identical” to Nazi rhetoric while writing under a pseudonym in The Art World, a reactionary journal he edited. 

“Ruckstull thus offers a conspicuous link — one in need of further examination — between the production of Confederate monuments in the U.S. and Nazi cultural policies in their overlapping engagement with the rhetoric of racial supremacy, idealizing sculptural forms, and the anti-modernist discourse of degeneracy,” Lobel said.

Ruckstull, who lived in New York City, also used “racist tropes” and terms from eugenics and phrenology, saying that Van Gogh’s self-portrait revealed “a deformed Neanderthal skull, degenerate ears, Choctaw cheeks, Chinese eyes, hobo beard, and insane glare.”

Lobel notes that contemporary debates over Confederate monuments rarely name their creators. But that “implicitly absolves them—and the institutions that comprised the art world of the time—of complicity,” Lobel says.

Minerva, unveiled in 1920, is part of a memorial at Green-Wood to the Battle of Brooklyn, fought in 1776 as the Revolutionary War got underway. Minerva is mainly famed for its location: Perched on a hill, facing the Statue of Liberty, the two female figures appear to exchange salutes across the harbor with upraised arms. To preserve the sightline between the statues, the city once banned construction of a building that would have blocked the view.

Ironically, Lobel says, the Statue of Liberty “was initially conceived by the French to commemorate the abolition of slavery.” An early version of the Statue of Liberty had the figure holding broken shackles; those chains were ultimately placed at the statue’s feet.

Lobel sees the relationship between Liberty and Minerva “as a microcosm of American history, in which celebrated ideals and values cannot be separated from the repressive and destructive impulses that have shaped the nation as well.” Ruckstull’s statue is a “diminished echo of its distant counterpart, fittingly relegated to the land of the dead.”