AAJ Press
Art & Public Space, Commissions, Sculpture

Ronald Reagan: Political statuary in central London

Walking around Grosvenor Square I came across what I took to be a promotion for the next series of Mad Men but which turned out to be a 3-metre high statue of Ronald Reagan. Dressed in a Brooks Brothers style suit Reagan looks like he is on his way to a works conference. The style does not quite match up to the declarations on the accompanying interpretative plaque incorporating a block of the Berlin Wall that outlines Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War and destroying the Soviet Bloc. ‘The Man in the Grey Suit’ look does chime with the statue of Eisenhower on the opposite corner who is dressed in a uniform that looks like garage mechanic overalls – defeat Nazism and McCarthyism and clean the windshield while you are at it. The dress of both figures is low key by comparison to FDR in the middle of the square who is imperial in his toga like rain cape.

The sculptor Chas Fagan has already knocked out a couple of Reagans in the US pretty much identical to this one. Apart from the likeness of the head its all fairly generic – a production line bronze very much like the statues of the dictators Reagan opposed or some times supported. The dias and plinth the statue are built on and the attached landscaping are incorporated into forecourt of the US Chancellery such that it is difficult to look at the statue from most angles without also getting a glimpse of a security camera or an armed guard. The visa booths reinforce the impression of this being a checkpoint. Groups of tourists stop to read the panel with its banner headline of ‘tear down this wall’.

Reagan had a starring role in the culture wars of the 80s being the subject of numerous works by contemporary artists including Joseph Beuys and Hans Haacke. His administration was contemporaneous with Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc and attempted to block Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Unveiling the statue Condoleeza Rice said that she doubted President Reagan could have imagined the world today. Judging by the cultural conservatism and lack of imagination represented by the Reagan statue if he was given the chance to play George Bailey and look down on the world he created Ronnie would be reassured by how things have turned out.

In July 4 2011 a 10-foot bronze statue of Ronald Reagan, President of the USA from 1981-1989 on a 6-foot Portland stone plinth  was sited outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. Margaret Thatcher’s words about the former president winning the Cold War “without firing a shot” are etched into the statue’s plinth. The statue was created by Chaz Fagan, who also made a statue of Ronald Reagan for the Capitol in Washington. The inauguration by the British Foreign Secretary William Hague, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the current ambassador, Louis Susman was attended by 2,000 guests who paid to attend.

It was part of a year-long “Reagan Centennial” programme to mark the centenary of Reagan’s birth through unveiling statues and convening conferences convened in Krakow, Poland; in Freedom Square  Budapest, Hungary a 2-metre (7-foot) sculpture sited near the US Embassy was fabricated by Hungarian Istvan Mate. Strangely, Reagan never visited Hungary although this is his second memorial statue in the country. In the Czech Republic, Prague also has a new statue and a street was named Ronald Wilson Reagan in his honour.

There is a long tradition of private groups honouring their heroes with public memorials. The Ronald Reagan statue, however, did not grow out of a broad public desire for a fitting memorial. The lobbying campaign and  $1m cost of the Westminster statue was met through private fund ‘Reagan Memorial Fund Trust’ The fund raising, publicity events and unveiling of the sculpture were organised and stage managed by the ‘Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation’ whose declared mission is “to preserve and promote the president’s legacy”. The campaign must have presented a powerful and persuasive marketing campaign as Westminster City Council contributed £50,000 as a maintenance budget, and also made an exception to its rule refusing permission for statues to be erected until after 10 years have passed since the subject’s death. In his address, Mr Hague said: “Statues bring us face to face with our heroes long after they are gone.”  The statue is within the tradition of christian and military triumphalism that populates the city with the heroic, victorious and glorious symbols of the powerful who subliminally continue to control the physical cultural environment.

Images: Ronald Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Theordore D. Roosevelt – in Grosvenor Square  –  Eisenhower and Churchill in Bond Street

Text by Piers Masterson


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