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AT THE GALLERIES

Park's Buffed-Up 'El Cid' Remains Lackluster

July 06, 1990|LEAH OLLMAN

SAN DIEGO — "El Cid Campeador" has never been a controversial work of art. The equestrian sculpture, made by one of America's most accomplished academic artists, was unveiled in Balboa Park 60 years ago to great acclaim. Far from being problematic, "El Cid" has become all but invisible. For all of its human passion and animal energy, the work has become blandly familiar.

This week, "El Cid" was rededicated after a thorough cleaning. The brief flurry of fanfare accompanying such an event should prompt longtime city residents to take another look at what is presumed to be San Diego's first public art work. The questions that press upon current administrators of public art apply, even in retrospect, to "El Cid," and their answers may help the city come to grips with its expectations of art in public places.

Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973), an American artist best known for her sensitive but hardly innovative animal studies in bronze, sculpted "El Cid" in 1927. The larger-than-life sculpture was installed as a monument in the city of Seville, Spain, in that same year, and additional casts found homes in New York, San Francisco and Buenos Aires. On July 5, 1930, the local version was unveiled in Balboa Park's Plaza de Panama, between the organ pavilion and the San Diego Museum of Art, then called the Fine Arts Gallery.

Though equestrian statues have a long, revered tradition in art, they were never the domain of women artists. Huntington's large sculpture of Joan of Arc, shown in Paris in 1910, was reputed to be the first such work made by a woman, and it brought her wide acclaim. She went on to make over a dozen equestrian works, the last when she was 90.

Huntington chose the theme of the 11th-Century Spanish warrior El Cid--Arabic for "lord"--for her second such work. A faithful realist, she emphasized the physical strength of both horse and rider tensed in battle. The steed, marching gallantly, arches its neck and curls its tail in a furious flip. El Cid, with furrowed brow and stern, determined face, raises a lance and shield. He wears a long chain-mail garment typical of medieval warriors. El Cid spent time in the service of both Christian and Moorish masters, but he is shown here wearing a large crucifix around his neck.

Huntington's interest in the subject of El Cid was due, no doubt, to her husband. Archer Huntington, a wealthy financier, had published a scholarly translation of the 12th-Century "Poema del Cid," and in the early years of the century had established the Hispanic Society of America in New York. His enthusiasm for things Spanish, especially the Spanish-style architecture of San Diego's new Fine Arts Gallery, prompted him to donate "El Cid," in the name of the Hispanic Society, to the city.

When the sculpture was dedicated in 1930, city representatives expressed their hopes that the work would set a precedent, that it would be only the first of many sculptures to ennoble and adorn San Diego. Unfortunately, "El Cid" did set a precedent for public art in San Diego, a precedent of staid traditionalism and resistance to the new.

Even recent additions to the city's landscape have remained faithful to the academic realism of "El Cid." Like Huntington's work, the Port Commission's monument to Charles Lindbergh at the airport and the Tunaman's Memorial on Shelter Island convey static images of the past. Stiff and remote, they fail to relate to the dynamism and flux of the contemporary world.

Huntington's peers in the 1920s, the modernist sculptors William Zorach, Elie Nadelman, Gaston Lachaise and Alexander Archipenko, had begun to look to the present and the future for their imagery and style. Artists today continue to redefine sculpture, especially sculpture in the public arena. The memorial, monumental function of public sculpture is shifting in favor of an experience far more active and intimate for the viewer, an experience that prompts rediscovery of a place or that helps to define and distill the nature of that place.

"El Cid," a symbol of military strength in a setting dedicated to art and culture, relates only superficially to its site, and far less so to its audience. Despite the artist's attempt to vivify the massive bronze, a pedestal over 10 feet high successfully removes the horse and rider from the viewer's own space. Reginald Poland, then-director of the Fine Arts Gallery, saw this as obligatory.

"I feel, as no doubt you all do," he wrote to Archer Huntington regarding the pedestal's design, "that a statue should look like a statue, and not too much like living flesh-and-blood beings."

"El Cid" has little to say that is moving or relevant to a contemporary audience. It shouldn't be assumed, however, that it had more eloquence 60 years ago, when it was installed. An undated poem by Raymond White Madden, printed in a local paper apparently not long after the sculpture was placed in the park, puts the issue of relevance in succinct, comic form:

They've planted his statue

In Organ square

Shows a guy on a 'hoss'

Stuck up in the air. . . .

They say it is Spanish

And maybe it is,

But you never could tell,

By the cut of his phiz;

And if Spanish trimmin's

'Twere needful to show,

Why not Senor Cabrillo,

Or Mr. Balboa

Or the gentle Fra Serra

And the wonders he did,

We could then understand,

But who is El Cid?

There is Queen Isabella

Who did a great deed,

Or Don Miguel Cervantes

With Rosinante for steed,

Or that father of proverbs,

Sancho Panza, the small,

The glory of Spain,

Beloved by all.

To enshrine them on high

Would be fitting, instead,

Of this gallant they call

By the name of El Cid. . . .

Truly these mean something,

And I don't mean 'maybe,'

But this CID, whatta kid,

He means nothing to me."

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