As the crane slowly lifted off the top of the plywood box, revealing Longwood’s newest monument to its patron hero, Joan of Arc, sculptor Alexander “Sandy” Stoddart bounced around the construction site, buzzing with excitement.
Unable to keep himself from pitching in, he grabbed a drill and helped unscrew braces that held the magnificent heroic-scale sculpture in place during its weekslong journey across the Atlantic. He leapt about the soft ground surrounding the granite-and-limestone exedra, measuring and marking holes to be drilled.
He brings a strong sense of the power of public monuments and their place in society to his work, which is displayed in the Vatican and museums around the world. He holds many honorary titles, including Queen’s Sculptor in Ordinary for Scotland—the highest honor a Scottish artist can hold, which also makes him part of the Royal Household—and Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
We spoke with Stoddart after the installation was complete on Monday about his vision and inspiration for the monument, and public art’s place in society.
That’s what I wanted. It’s even better than I imagined.Alexander “Sandy” Stoddart Tweet This
When you first heard of the project, what went through your head?
I was instantly inspired by the subject matter. When I first read the prospectus, I got a complete vision of the monument instantly, and very little has changed since that moment. It’s similar to a melody that a composer hears in his head—it comes out intact, and the composer tries to catch up to what already exists.
Personally, it was a tremendous opportunity. It’s the first monument I’ve been asked to make of a historic woman, and it’s high time there were more of them around. This is a great honor for me. It’s dream-come-true stuff.
How did Longwood react to your initial vision for the monument?
I found very much a kindred spirit in President Reveley. He and I share a similar sense of what it means to be a member of a community—not only what we get out of it but what our responsibilities are. I think often of the Latin word civitas and how we are to behave like grown-up, responsible members of society.
In sculpture, I take on serious subjects and put the figures on big pedestals, guiding people to think big, look up and aspire to be something greater than themselves. That’s why this vision of Joan of Arc has the posture she does and stands as she does looking down along the central promenade of campus, both watching over students and also demanding that they think about what she stood for.
I found very much a kindred spirit in President Reveley. He and I share a similar sense of what it means to be a member of a community—not only what we get out of it but what our responsibilities are.Alexander “Sandy” Stoddart Tweet This
She strikes quite a heroic figure, which is in strong contrast to the beloved but gentler image of Joan of Arc on campus.
Well, let’s first establish that Henri Chapu’s sculpture [known on campus as Joanie on the Stony] is a sensational piece of work. But Joan can be anything you want her to be—she’s something to everyone—which is why her legacy has endured for half a millennium. Plenty of opposing groups of people still use her as symbolic inspiration today.
This image is of Joan at the prime point in her marshal campaign, raising the siege of Orleans in 1429. She’s right in the middle of the job, and she’s not meant to be cute or sweet. She’s meant to be a daunting figure. I think of her as Joan of the move-on.
I wanted to make her what we Scots would call a bit gallus. There’s no real English equivalent, but it’s sort of self-confident, daring, even cheeky. Think Steve McQueen or James Cagney from those old movies. But if you think about it, she was a teenage girl in command of 5,000 men. She had to have been more than a bit gallus to pull that off.
In some ways, you’re a bit gallus in your own right as a strictly neoclassical sculptor at a time when post-modernism is all around us.
It’s high time we did stuff like this again—everything nowadays is kitsch sentimentality. We need to tap into a level of rhetorical power and make art that stakes its claim. I have always been drawn to art that doesn’t suck up to the viewer—the viewer has to appeal to it. This Joan of Arc isn’t your friend. She’s up on a high pedestal where you are forced to look up at her, to consider her rather than the other way around.
It’s very important, by the way, that she is the size she is on a pedestal. Bernini famously said that the sky can eat a sculpture—that is, that the vastness of the landscape can overwhelm a monument. But this version of Joan seems to expand to fill the space on Brock Commons. She beats back the sky.
Every time you look at her, seemingly another detail shows itself. What was your vision for the meticulous detailing of her figure?
The key is her armor. I drew a lot of inspiration from the Aeneid, in which Aeneas has a shield that bears images of what will happen in his life and the consequences of his actions, but he can’t decipher them. Joan of Arc’s armor has that same prophetic quality. At the bottom of her cuirass (breastplate), we can see the Duke of Burgundy receiving money from the King of England as he betrays Joan of Arc. That image is flanked by flames, as she will be burned at the stake. Amid the flames, there are several howling faces, some benign and some malignant, that represent the voices she heard in her head. In fact, at the top of the flag staff is an image of Joan at the stake in agony. So these images surround her at the height of her military power, foretelling her demise, but she doesn’t know what they mean.
Looking at her face and arms particularly, she has some quite masculine features. What went into that decision?
Again, this is complete fantasy. She is androgynous quite on purpose. I pored over transcripts from her trial for heresy and found it fascinating that the one crime they kept going back to, no matter the actual charge, was that she wore the clothing and armor of the opposite sex and refused to change. I felt strongly that aspect of her personality had to come through in this version of Joan, which as you said previously, is starkly different from the Chapu on display under your fantastic rotunda.
The arms particularly represent this duality. The sword arm is what I think of as the male arm—it’s covered in armor. The arm holding the flag you could term the female arm—it’s still covered in chain mail, but not the heavy plated armor, and is more delicate than the other.
You have been working on her for more than three years in your studio. Has she made an impact there?
My studio is in the middle of the University of the West in Scotland on the Paisley campus. Students, faculty, visitors often stop in to say hello or see what I am working on, but they have been dying to see Joan. There is an aspect of her legacy that refuses to fade, and I hoped very much to capture that sense in the monument.
Speaking of Scotland, your native country plays a large part in the monument. Can you explain the significance?
There are really two main connections. First, Joan’s bodyguard was a small band of Scottish mercenaries who were quite eager to fight against the English during the Hundred Years War. They are depicted in the two friezes on the east and west sides of the pedestal, holding Scottish flags. I took as a measure of inspiration the great John Duncan’s painting of the Scots Guard surrounding their French heroine.
Secondly, my first encounter with a powerful monument was as a child gazing at a memorial to William Wallace, the great Scottish hero, in Elderslie, where I spent many formative years. At the base of the monument was Wallace’s helmet with no head in it, and I spent countless hours staring at it—what a formative image in a young boy’s life! So I borrowed heavily—stole, really—from that memory to place an empty helmet at Joan’s foot.
In some ways this represents a bit of a departure from your previous strictly neoclassical work.
This is a curveball in my career. It’s not a classical sculpture, belonging more to the European-style symbolism tradition. The figure is actually reminiscent of work from the turn of the 20th century in the low countries—Holland, Belgium and France. It’s very different from work I’ve previously done, but when I first saw her sit on the pedestal, I thought, “That’s what I wanted. It’s even better than I imagined.”