Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Martin Luther King: Stone Faced

This week’s observance of Martin Luther King Day is the first to be overseen by the man himself. That is to say, by a “Stone of Hope,” the nation’s official memorial to the great man, towering 30-foot over the Tidal Basin on the National Mall.
George Tames/The New York Times
Named for a line in King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, the 46-ton granite face of the statue was carved by Chinese master sculptor Lei Yixin, and for all its power to stir both memory and emotion, it has stirred controversy from the very beginning. Critics have found the face too steely, squinty, Chinese; the expression too stern, or lacking the “soft eyes” and “open face that conveys the blessed assurance of a man who walks by faith.” Charles Krauthammer wrote that this “flat, rigid, socialist realist King does not do justice to the supremely nuanced, creative, humane soul of its subject.”

Sculptor Lei at work on Stone of Hope
Bob Fitch/Courtesy Ed Jackson
Over years of research, 53-year-old sculptor Lei covered the walls of his studio with pictures of Martin Luther King, and researched hundreds of hours of King’s speeches and letters. Finally choosing as the model for his sculpture a famous 1966 photograph of King standing at his desk with arms folded, Lei's interpretation was to be of Martin Luther King, Jr., "a great man who was also an ordinary man". Still, he acquiesced repeatedly to requests to soften the facial expression in his likeness of Dr. King. In the end, King's children all chose this, the final of four different facial expressions that Lei produced, as looking most like their father. And a majority of viewers will likely find with Krauthammer that withal, “you cannot but be deeply moved.... There is no denying the power of this memorial.”

Ultimately, of course, any quest for a single facial expression to  capture the whole of the human presence is doomed from the outset, and is the bane of the monumenaltist’s mission (think Mt. Rushmore). For the face, any face, is recognized most profoundly, and identified best by the way it moves—and it is always in motion.

In What the Face Reveals, for example, Paul Ekman, et al, identify literally hundreds of specific facial expressions and “microexpressions” that occur in direct relation to muscular contractions. Using the renowned technical classification system known as the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) Ekman categorizes facial behaviors based on the muscles that produce them. More on this in a future post.

For now though, this is my bid to cut a little slack to sculptor Lei Yixin, whose monumental King was never intended to supplant the magnificent face of the man, in all of its ordinary and splendid expressiveness.