Bertel Thorvaldsen, Józef Poniatowski, 1826–27
There is something very emotional about the equestrian statue of Józef Poniatowski by Bertel Thorvaldsen. It is to do with the way his body surrenders to the gravity of history, to what is to come and what has already occurred. It has to do with our knowledge of the destinies of heroes and extends beyond the one-dimensional effect of their glorification. Thorvaldsen apparently modelled his monument on one of Marcus Aurelius, that, it is thought, once stood in the Roman Forum. But, even though Poniatowski seems to be as calm as the Roman Emperor, he is, at the same time, profoundly melancholic: he looks away from where he is pointing to from the back of his saddleless horse – could this signify doubt?
All of this emotional tension is concentrated in Poniatowski’s leg. The proportions, the perspective, the definition of his muscles; it reminds me of what Heinrich von Kleist describes in his essay ‘On the Marionette Theatre’ (1810) as ‘a mobile centre of emotion’. Kleist explains how the ‘souls of marionettes’ are to be found in mobile centres of extreme grace and that these centres tend to become independent from the rest of the body and thus carry some form of autonomous consciousness. I had never understood exactly what Kleist meant until I encountered Thorvaldsen’s monument to Poniatowski.
I couldn’t help but speculate on the thoughts of the ‘brave Pole’ before his ultimate battle and then imagine Kleist’s own last movements before his suicide: the way he flexed his elbow to direct the revolver towards his head; the way he lowered his hand and placed his finger on the trigger. The way he contracted his index finger. The way his index finger became the ‘centre of his soul’. ‘On the Marionette Theatre’ might be both a manual of suicide and – strangely – a primer on Thorvaldsen’s complex ideas on heroism.
I was only able to see the full-size plaster model of Thorvaldsen’s statue in Copenhagen some years ago. The monument itself has its own unheroic past: at first received with suspicion and then displaced to Modlin Fortress, north of Warsaw, after the failed November Uprising, it was dismantled in 1836 and placed in ten boxes, where it stayed for several years. It was later reassembled (and initially mistaken for Stanisław August Poniatowski) and moved to various locations before its return to independent Poland in 1922, where it was placed briefly in the courtyard of Warsaw’s Royal Castle and then at Saxon Square (now Piłsudski Square). It remained there until 16 December 1944, when it was blown up by the Nazis.
I am planning to visit Warsaw in order to see the cast made in 1952 from the plaster model in Copenhagen as well as the only remaining part of the original cast: a fragment of tunic displayed on the gravel outside the Warsaw Uprising Museum.
Main image: Bertel Thorvaldsen, Józef Poniatowski (detail), 1826–27. Plaster, 4.6 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen
Christodoulos Panayiotou had a solo show earlier this year at Casa Luis Barragán,Mexico City, Mexico. In 2017, his work has been included in Sharjah Biennial 13, UAE, and ‘Deste Prize: An Anniversary Exhibition 1999–2015’, Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens, Greece. His work is included in ‘Medusa: Bijoux et Tabous’ (Medusa: Jewellery and Taboos) at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France, until 5 November and ‘Floating Worlds’, 14th Lyon Biennale, France, until 7 January 2018.
First published in Issue 6