Gutzon Borglum- Enigmatic Sculptor of Mountains
How could an artist responsible for two of the most iconic and massive works of art also be a member of the K.K.K.? His mountain sculptures at Stone Mountain and Mt. Rushmore are achievements worthy of the same timelessness as the pyramids or Stonehenge when considering the possibility that once our civilization has been all but forgotten- these images will be forever carved into the mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota and the granite of Stone Mountain, Georgia. Gutzon Borglum is a study in the dichotomy of human contradiction and understanding; as in all things human, there is more to the story of this irrascable genius who pioneered the procedures and concepts of engineering necessary to accomplish such an amazing work of art and the mastering of two mountains that will ultimately trancend time.
Gutzon Borglum (March 25, 1867 – March 6, 1941) and his younger brother, Solon, also a sculptor of renown, were born to Danish immigrants in Idaho Territory. Gutzon’s early experiences with horses made him a master of equine sculpture. He is represented in Washington, D.C. by a magnificent sculpture of General Phillip Sheridan placed in Sheridan Circle (Mass. Ave and 23rd St N.W. W.D.C.). Borglum was understandably quite proud of the statue— he had beaten a score of better known sculptors and won the commission. Teddy Roosevelt declared it a masterpiece; but it was his giant sculpture of Lincoln’s head—now in the Capitol Rotunda, that led him –ironically- to his first mountain. The Atlanta Chapter of the Daughters Of The Confederacy contacted Borglum and offered him a challenge never before attempted in the United States or Europe. The proposition was this: come to Georgia to the Stone Mountain and figure out how to carve a sheer granite cliff and adorn it with the portraits of Gereral Robert E. Lee, General “Stonewall” Jackson, and President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. The Daughters Of The Confederacy had less than two thousand dollars to offer, (minus Borglum’s travel expenses to Atlanta from his home in Stamford Connecticut.) The first meeting did not go well.
Borglum summarily dashed the hopes of the DOC by declaring that a 20 ft. head of Gen. Robert E. Lee would look like “a postage stamp on a barn door.” Seeing that he had deeply disappointed the committee he relented and asked for 3 more days to reconsider the mountain before giving his final answer.
A quote by Borglum, upon his first trip to Stone Mountain to consider the project of The Confederate Memorial.:
‘The thought of drawing upon its face was linked with a terror I think all men must feel who are about to do something which probably will destroy them.’
With the invaluable assistance of J.G. Tucker, his fearless assistant, his crew of brave African-American workers— and the equally fearless Cliff Davis, his explosives expert— Gutzon Borglum began an engineering marvel that had never been attempted in North America. (It must be noted that not one life was lost in this endeavor.) Borglum, Tucker and Cliff laid out and completed the head of Robert E. Lee and much of T.J.“Stonewall” Jackson’s head until a 4 -foot fissure in the otherwise perfect granite face was discovered precisely where Thomas J. Jackson’s nose would be carved. Borglum hastily reworked the granite face and began the needed revision.
The monument was not to be completed, reportedly due to a mounting corruption within the DOC committee; accusations of pilfering from the massive influx of funds raised by the sale of a commemorative coin minted halted the project — it got ugly-before taking flight with his assistant, J.G. Tucker to avoid being jailed for a trumped up charge of felony- Borglum smashed his model—not out of spite, but because he knew any sculptor who replaced him would refer to the model and carve Stonewall Jackson’s nose over the fissure and ultimately destroy either the granite face or his sculpture.
The entire debacle is chronicled by author Gerald W. Johnson in his book about The Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial – The Undefeated published in 1927—
‘WHETHER or not Borglum could ever have interpreted this dream in stone, can only be conjectured. It is to be assumed that he would have failed in part, for the artist never lived who made his work as great as his dream. As long as the spirit is greater than the flesh, every masterpiece must be a partial failure in that it does not, and can not, express all that the artist felt. But when an artist goes further toward expressing his dream than others have succeeded in going, that artist becomes from our point of view a master, although he may be far indeed from mastering his ideal.’
~ Gerald W. Johnson
As to the undeniable fact that Borglum was an avowed white supremacist and member of The Ku Klux Klan: his business connections and the funds raised within such an organization at this time in American history seemed entirely justified in his world view. The K.K.K. was becoming increasingly powerful in American politics, reaching an apex with the shameful display of August 9, 1925 when 30,000 members marched down Pennsylvania Ave. in the nation’s capital. This is particularly shameful and ironic considering most of the brave men who labored faithfully and courageously to sculpt this granite mountain were African American.
It must be assumed, therefore, that genius- no matter how audacious and formidable- is by no means synonymous with perfection, or morality.
Borglum and his son, Lincoln, began work on Mt. Rushmore in 1927. It was completed by Lincoln Borglum after his father’s death in 1941. One of the most comprehensive books on the man and his projects is: Great White Fathers: The True Story of Gutzon Borglum and His Obsessive Quest to Create the Mt. Rushmore National Monument-by John Taliaferro.
Borglum has several sculptures on display in Washington, D.C.- his sculpture- Rabboni was created as a grave site for the Ffoulke family at Rock Creek Cemetery.