Statues and monuments tell us about ourselves mostly, what we hope to remember and be remembered by.
Last May, on the night before the anniversary of Joan of Arc’s martyrdom, three friends and I visited her Manhattan monument. The sculpture sits on an impressive plinth in a little grassy park foisted above the West Side Highway, called Joan of Arc Island.
I got to the monument first, and sat on a bench, staring at her. As usual, Joan is astride her horse. She’s in full body armor, but she pushes up against the stirrups, prostrate, weightless, her smooth face turned skyward and her sword waggling in the air, in a hopeful, awkward way. The horse is muscular, distressed, whinnying and braced against some fifteenth century wind. Joan, on the other hand, looks serene, victorious, though the fight hasn’t even begun.
I was reminded of watching The Passion of Joan of Arc when I was nineteen, the painstaking close-ups of her own nineteen-year-old face, laying in the bed of a guy I’d had a long, terrible crush on. Mostly we made out the whole time, while the movie played across our bodies, but every once in a while, I’d catch her eyes in the dark, weeping.
It was a cool, damp spring evening. My friends showed up, one-by-one. Grace rolled in extending a nylon witch hat—she’d brought enough to share. She was also holding a copy of the zine, On the Animation of Statues by Brian Cotnoir, and an astrological chart; in honor of Joan’s martyrdom, Grace had done a Venus-centered reading of Joan’s birth chart. Sofi and Dee Dee showed up later, bringing fruit, candy, flowers. We all sat on the stone benches and quickly came up with a ritual.
First, we galloped around the plinth, four revolutions. We threw flowers. We threw cake. I read a poem standing near the rear of the horse while Sofi performed a spontaneous dance at the head. Grace interpreted the birth chart out loud, offering a vision of Joan’s life had she survived into adulthood and lived in the twenty-first century; her Venus was in Leo. Maybe she could have been a Barnard girl, made art and films, thrown the most memorable parties, innovated a fashion trend.
Joan, we called, Joan! To us, she was a badass teenage girl, a mystic, who was destroyed by the patriarchy. She is a monument to women who sacrifice all, then get beaten up for it—killed. Sure, she was all about France, but if you’d asked her, it wasn’t about her nation, or her city, so much as it was about the angels’ command to resist tyranny, to disrupt the British Empire’s destruction, to model what it looks like when a girl stands up to Goliath, so that others will know to do the same when their time comes.
After the ritual, we sat there in the darkening evening, eating the remaining strawberries and snap peas. I rolled cigarettes, one after another, for each person upon request. We looked up at her.
I thought it was funny that she sits above the West Side Highway—the road being the work of New York’s own twentieth century Goliath, Robert Moses. Jane Jacobs, the sociologist and community organizer who famously thwarted the construction Cross-Manhattan Expressway,was perhaps a Joan of her time. She wasn’t martyred, but she did experience a similar brief moment of triumph and then an exile—to Canada—once she realized that America was not going to meaningfully try to save itself.
I walked up to the plinth and squinted to read the inscription: Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington, 1915.
Later, I learned that this is the first public sculpture by a woman in New York, and that it is also New York’s first sculpture of a real historical woman (versus a mythological one). Huntington had one of those extraordinary lives at the time—a woman with a bustling, successful career as an artist until she died at almost one-hundred-years-old in 1972. Of course, there was the usual backlash: For instance, in 1910, this very sculpture received an honorable mention at the Paris Salon, a distinction that was later revoked on account of suspicion of authenticity. The judges didn’t believe that such artistic mastery could have been the work of a woman.
I figured that there was a public Joan of Arc statue in most American cities—that it was as common as, say, a statue of Lady Justice or Abe Lincoln—partly because her legacy is so city-specific and partly because I had grown up not far from a Joan of Arc statue myself, in Portland, Oregon. It turns out, though, that there are only five public statues of Joan in the US.
Portland’s Joan sat in the center of a giant traffic circle at the intersection of 39th and Glisan, surrounded by roses and rhododendrons. She was, in my memory, that copper green color for most of my childhood, and then when I was fourteen, she was given a gold-leaf restoration and became gleaming, garish. She was suddenly bright, too bright, Vegas-bright, communicating visually a power she was not granted in this lifetime, a kind of show woman’s sheen, or the way a king would have wanted to be portrayed, but a type of power that God is ambivalent to, and God was not ambivalent to Joan.
I’d see her every day on my bus rides home from middle school. I would take the #19 from 28th and Burnside to 39th, and then I’d wait at the traffic circle for the #75 to come and take me the rest of the way down 39th Avenue (later Cesar Chavez Blvd) and I would wait for that bus, eyeing her. Unlike New York’s statue, this was Joan post-battle, her sword resting in its sheath, one hand on the reins and another holding taut a victory flag. She was also in her armor, but her head is uncovered, and her hair is hanging down her back. She is looking forward and not up:fierce, stony, wizened, old, shoulders square and high, facing down her opponent.
It tells a very different story than Huntington’s sculpture, whose Joan looks like a legit adolescent girl, soft-faced, excited but not fully prepared, with a Pippi Longstocking-like jauntiness, communicating with angels. It turns out that Huntington’s portrayal of Joan is singular: The other US public statues of Joan are replicas of ones in Paris, three of which, including Portland’s, are exact casts of the original 1870 Fremiliet version that sits today in the Places des Pyramides, where Joan was wounded during the siege she led on Paris.
The night I returned home from Joan of Arc Island, I got an email from a friend in Portland. He was mourning the swift and near complete renovation of that small city, which has been undergoing massive reconstruction and in-fill during the decade I’ve lived away. For instance, the squat, charmingly dumpy commercial district of Division Street I grew up in has been razed for a solid half-mile of six-story uniform glass and steel mixed-use buildings, the same kind that are going up in every American city right now. The ubiquity of that architecture creepily suggests that this alone is the aesthetic of progress, revitalization, good days ahead, when more often than not, it really signals a poverty of civic imagination that literally impoverishes the people who were already there.
In his email, my friend mourned the loss of the city’s visual texture, saying, “There is so little that has any age in buildings in America, and so anything that could possibly serve in our peripheral glances as invoking history and the sorts of buildings pre-world war Americans walked among really interests me, regardless of architectural notions about materials and tools and innate vitality . . . ”
I agreed. I told him about the Joan of Arc statue I’d just been to, and I thought about the four US cities that also host her sculpture—New York, DC, New Orleans, and Portland—each of which, for different reasons, are sites of rampant gentrification and reconstruction at this very moment.
That thing he described, that cultivated absence of “age” in cities is such an American aspiration, and such a dangerous one. It mirrors the tools of totalitarianism—in that totalitarian city planning, like totalitarian national politics, seek to erase texture, layer, history, complexity, so that we, the city’s or the country’s denizens, exist only in a simple unified present, with fictions of purity and continuity that serve to exclude great swaths of people, to inoculate against critique, so that those who “belong” or are invited to feel belonging will yield to becoming part of the machine.
Statues and monuments are interesting because they tell us about ourselves mostly, what we hope to remember and be remembered by. But memory is a failing thing. In those American cities where Joan now appears in particular, her presence seems important: Four cities changing at lightning speed, faster than most people can fathom, faster than memory can keep up with. Folks just disappearing into the ether. Entire neighborhoods swallowed by someone else’s, some company’s, some developer’s, some committee’s, imagination.
These days in New York, it seems like we are living out the imagination of the very rich and very powerful—the city feeling and looking, more and more, like a gated community that you earn your way into, or struggle bitterly to survive on the margins of. But New York, unlike the others, has always had density on its side. It is physically difficult to fully erase the material traces of the past in New York because everything is so tightly packed. (Though Robert Moses’ reign showed us that such erasing is possible.)
As I continued to dig into the histories of these Joan statues, I came across an image of the Portland replica in the Smithsonian image archives. The image notes said that the original, the one that this and the other US statues are based on, was commissioned in 1870 by none other than Napoleon III.
Napoleon III! I mean, speaking of sanitizing the past to create a continuous present! Napoleon III began his reign as a popularly elected president, and then once his time was up, staged a coup d’etat to become emperor, ushering in what is known as the Second Empire, quickly waging wars on the free press, sending opponents to penal colonies, exiling and assassinating dissenters, and—most notable for our purposes—hiring city planner Baron Haussmann for the reconstruction of Paris. Haussmann razed huge sections of the city to build the Boulevards, flattening its ancient, craggy corners, stymieing the architecture of peasant rebellion, showing the world what urban modernity would look like—a model for other authoritarian city planners for centuries to come, not least of which was Robert Moses. And at the end of his reign, Napoleon III, the chief author of that program, has this statue made? This statue of this badass superhero girl? This statue that now sits as a beacon of hope in four American cities that are getting materially and culturally flattened by the Goliaths of today, symbolizing the resistance to authoritarianism? It’s a typical twist, but still a surprising one.
Today, those in France who celebrate Joan of Arc’s martyrdom and throw festivals at her statue in the Places des Pyramides are not witchy young women, but the vanguard of the far right, the nationalists.
Reading Joan as simply a symbol of national pride seems like a thin, ungenerous, if not diabolical analysis—given that her orientation was mystical. And it was this mystical understanding of Joan that Anna Huntington’s New York sculpture seeks to highlight, envisioning the saint’s “spiritual rather than the warlike point of view”. Unveiled just a few months into WWI, Huntington at least tried to create a statue that would undermine a nationalist narrative.
I recently found out that Anna Huntington is buried in the 400-acre Woodlawn Cemetery, several blocks from my house. A lot of heavyweights are buried there: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Herman Melville, Miles Davis, even Robert Moses. I walk to the cemetery from my house on a hot May day, and I use a mobile app to guide me to her grave, which is not far from the entrance. I arrive at one the largest crypts in Woodlawn. It’s fifteen feet tall and girded with dark ionic pillars, emblazoned with the name HUNTINGTON. A descending staircase, with two landings, leads up to it. There’s a sculpture on the door of a woman surrounded by flowers, though the artists’ signature is a man’s. I peer through cracks in the crypt door. Light shines through stained glass from the opposite end. I see names I don’t recognize: Cloris, Robert, Catherine. No Anna.
I’m sweating now under the sun. I wonder if the crypt keepers got it wrong, or if Anna herself has just been absorbed into the landscape of her in-laws, gone to ashes in an urn out of sight nesting next to her husband’s, a “wife of.”
There are many ways that the disappearance of women’s contributions from historical record rhyme with the disappearance of a city’s historical depth. Both engender a belief in a perpetual present, where men have always been the leaders and innovators, where Disney has always been the sponsor of Times Square, where homogenous suburban architecture has always been the Platonic ideal we’ve been erring towards, where even a sculpture highlighting the experience of revelation could, if we forget who made it and why, one day be claimed, as the Paris statue has, as just another symbol of imperial power. God knows a great deal of Americans, right now, are seeking salvation through an allegiance with a death-dealing government, appropriating even the most explicit monuments, like the Statue of Liberty, into symbols that justify draconian anti-immigrant policies. It doesn’t take much to forget. I wonder if nationalists will begin to gather at Joan of Arc Island. I wonder when.
Adrian Shirk is the author of And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy, a hybrid-memoir exploring the lives of American women prophets and mystics, named an NPR ‘Best Book’ of 2017. She's currently working on a manuscript about utopian communities. Shirk was raised in Portland, Oregon, and has since lived in New York and Wyoming. She's a frequent contributor to Catapult, and her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, among others. Currently, she teaches in Pratt Institute’s BFA Creative Writing Program, and lives on the border of the Bronx and Yonkers with her husband Sweeney and Quentin the cat.