"The reason for building any work of art can only be for the purpose of fixing in some durable form a great emotion, or a great idea, of the individual, or the people," wrote Gutzon Borglum, the man whose name is now synonymous with his greatest creation, Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. (Borglum appears above with a model for Mount Rushmore around 1930.) Born March 25, 1867, Borglum thought big and literally needed a mountain to convey his personal convictions about what America as a nation and an idea truly meant. In 1909, Borglum first gained attention with a monumental head of Abraham Lincoln that Theodore Roosevelt himself admired. Years later, Borglum depicted those two presidents along with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on Mount Rushmore. (Women’s civil-rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony almost appeared alongside those gentlemen, but conservative politics thwarted that effort in the late 1930s.) Mount Rushmore represents America in many ways, good and bad, as its finest and yet most overwrought monument to itself.
Mount Rushmore wasn’t the first mountain Borglum sought to conquer with his sculpture. In 1915, he accepted a commission to sculpt a monument to the Southern soldier of the American Civil War on Stone Mountain, Georgia. Borglum had actually begun work on the memorial that remains there today, grossly unfinished, before walking away because of a dispute with the managers of the site and beginning work on Mount Rushmore. The Ku Klux Klan reportedly contributed heavily to the funds for the commission, hoping to use the monument for their own purposes. (A nighttime laser-light show at the site helps liven up Borglum’s fragmentary work today, showing that the South will rise again and again and again.) It’s unclear whether Borglum, who was born in Idaho, sympathized with the Southern “cause,” but he later did a smaller monument (above, from 1929) now at the Gettysburg battle site for the North Carolina soldiers killed in the infamous Pickett's Charge. The flurry of activity between these different soldiers in the heat of battle recalls the work of Rodin, whom Borglum knew and studied with while in Paris.
Another Rodin-esque work by Borglum is his The Aviator (above), placed on the campus of the University of Virginia for James R. McConnell, an American pilot who flew with the Lafayette Escadrille for France before the United States entered World War I . McConnell’s heroism in the name of the democratic ideal and with the idea of “repaying” Lafayette’s aid to America during the American Revolution, undoubtedly appealed to the romantic idealist in Borglum. When Borglum died in 1941, his son Lincoln Borglum supervised the Mount Rushmore project to completion, leaving it pretty much as his father had left it—unfinished. Borglum originally dreamed of carving the presidents from the waist up, but his death and insufficient funding left us with his magnificent monument to America. On one hand, Borglum’s foursome represents all that is good about the American experiement—Washington’s bravery and leadership under fire, Jefferson’s visionary expansionism, Lincoln’s bold holding of the union together, and Roosevelt’s populist battles for the little guy. On the other hand, Mount Rushmore also celebrates two slaveholders and a war-instigating colonialist, excludes women and people of color, and remains incomplete thanks to the shortsightedness of politicians and the public. Like the America it represents, Mount Rushmore is a work in progress that may never be completed.