America’s Greatest Muse <br>Is Ignored by Arts Elite <br>In an Era of Abstraction
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
June will mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of Audrey Munson, the greatest artist’s muse of the 20th — or maybe any — century. New York boasts at least 15 statues of her, including two flanking the entrance of the Brooklyn Museum.
So who’ll be honored at the Brooklyn Museum’s annual dinner for the Elizabeth Sackler Center, which is dedicated to “feminist art — its past, present, and future”? Marxist professor Angela Davis.
That announcement touched off an apoplectic e-mail from Barry Popik, a one-time city parking judge who has made Audrey Munson a cause. For decades he’s been nudging the Brooklyn Museum to do an event on her.
Not that the Brooklyn Museum is alone in ignoring the magnificent muse. No major museum, so far as Mr. Popik can tell, has plans to mark Munson’s moment. Neither the City Council nor Mayor de Blasio has stepped up.
Yet statues of Munson personify the city’s glory. Wearing gold-plated robes she stands atop the municipal building as “Civic Fame.” It’s the largest statue of a woman in the city save for the Statue of Liberty.
As the goddess Pomona, Munson, balancing a basket of fruit on her hip stands at Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza. As “Columbia Triumphant,” she’s atop the memorial to the USS Maine. She’s “Alma Mater” overlooking Columbia University’s quad.
Munson reclines in the little park at 106th and Broadway, in a memorial to Macy’s owner Isidor Straus and his wife Ida. On the Titanic, Ida spurned a lifeboat and chose to meet her doom with her husband.
The Frick’s façade features Munson. The New York Public Library, too. The Metropolitan Museum has two statues, as does the Fireman’s Memorial in Riverside Park.
What does it say about our abstract and feminist age that there’s so little focus on Munson as a person? Not only did she inspire our greatest sculptors but she did so in a daring and groundbreaking way.
She took her work seriously. She was the first woman ever to appear fully unclothed in a non-pornographic movie (the print has been apparently lost). She saw classical sculpture as underscoring modesty.
Yet her work epitomizes a vexing point. Statues of women, writes Kriston Capps at Citylabs.com, “never get names. They’re archetypes, symbols, muses, forces.”
Munson is a classic case in point. She posed as, among others, the Setting Sun, Commerce, Liberty (on the half-dollar) and Autumn. Yet what about representations of real women?
Among the hundreds of statues in the city, according to Capps’ count, but five are of actual, non-allegorical women: Joan of Arc, Eleanor Roosevelt, Golda Meir, Gertrude Stein, and Harriet Tubman.
Central Park features statues of 22 men but, according to Capps, “not one (non-fictional) woman.” One Web site, centralparkwherearethewomen.org, reports on a campaign to rectify that.
The Web site is raising funds for statues of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an abolitionist who also fought for women’s rights, and Susan B. Anthony, a heroine to both feminists and foes of abortion.
What a wonderful start toward our city’s public celebration of the women who deserve to rank for glory. I tend to see the effort as complementary to the campaign for Audrey Munson to be recognized as a person.
A recent video about Munson, after all, refers to her as the “most visible person never seen.” One wonders whether her invisibility as a person in her own right contributed to her descent into madness.
That began when, according to some accounts, Munson fled the advances of her landlord, who then murdered his own wife so he could be free to pursue the muse. He was convicted and hung himself to avoid the chair.
Munson’s downward spiral is chronicled in a new biography, “The Curse of Beauty,” by James Bone. She failed at suicide and was, at 40, committed to an upstate asylum, where she lived more than 60 years, dying in 1996 at the age of 104.
During her years of madness Munson dabbled in race theory and blamed her troubles on the Jews. My own view is that shouldn’t stop the Brooklyn Museum — or any other — from honoring her someday.
Its latest honoree, after all, has been named without protest, despite years campaigning against Israel and scant contribution to art. Munson’s errors coincided with her time of illness. The art she inspired will abide for centuries.
This column first appeared in the New York Post.