Many Vermonters have at least heard of the recent Hollywood film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. But “Abraham Lincoln: Child Molester”? Not so much. Few are likely to be familiar with the startling sculpture at the entrance to the Bennington Museum that reasonably suggests that nickname.
So what’s the story behind this 9-foot-tall bronze work that shows the 16th president clutching the head of a nude boy, while seemingly about to receive oral sex from a topless girl swooning at his feet?
Sculptor Clyde du Vernet Hunt (1861-1941) surely did not intend to create something so salacious. He came from an old and distinguished Vermont family, got a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and studied painting and sculpture in France. Hunt was no art star, but he did make a modest mark, selling enough of his work to maintain a studio in Paris as well as a home in Weathersfield, Vt.
Two of his pieces — “Nirvana” and “Fils de France” — are part of the Bennington Museum’s permanent collection. Both were made in 1918 as expressions of the artist’s hope for the future following the devastation of the First World War.
“Fils de France,” a life-size figure of a nude boy gazing into the distance, was meant to symbolize France’s rebirth. Similarly, “Nirvana” is said in a museum handout to represent “spiritual emancipation from passion, hatred and delusion.” Here, Hunt casts a seated nude woman in a state of reverie, her head tilted back, her eyes closed.
He also sculpted a traditional figure of Lincoln in the 1920s, casting Honest Abe in a stovepipe hat, bow tie, overcoat and cape. Invited to submit a piece to the 1928 salon organized by the Société des Artistes Français, Hunt made the unfortunate decision to combine his three figures into a single work. High-hatted Lincoln and the young boy were incorporated into the new piece unchanged, but Hunt enlarged Nirvana and outfitted her with a skirt, therefore making up “Lincoln Trilogy (The American Spirit).”
The sculptor appar-ently meant the thing to be an expression of patriotism, with dreamy Nirvana representing faith, Fils de France standing for hope and Lincoln embodying charity (based on the line from his second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all”). The artist’s heirs donated the piece to the Bennington Museum in 1947. Its then-director appended “The American Spirit” to the sculpture’s title, “Lincoln Trilogy.”
Today, the kinky visual implications of Hunt’s work may amuse and perplex many of the 35,000 annual visitors to the Bennington Museum. Most probably come to see the world’s largest public collection of paintings by Vermont folk artist Grandma Moses (1860-1961). But the now-titled “Lincoln Trilogy (The American Spirit)” is the subject of more photographs than anything else in the museum’s holdings, says curator Jamie Franklin.
In fact, Franklin says, Flickr pics of the Lincoln piece are usually among the first hits to pop up when he Googles “Bennington Museum.” But photos of the sculpture may be hard to find on Facebook; the social-media network censors them owing to what could be considered their pornographic content, Franklin notes.
Not content with the sculpture’s unsubtle suggestiveness, someone affixed chewed gum to Nirvana’s face a couple of years ago, making her look as though she’s sticking out her tongue, Franklin recounts.
He says the museum gets a lot of inquiries, albeit no complaints, about the Lincoln piece. That led the staff to write the background explanation that’s available at the front desk.
It doesn’t directly address the question of why Hunt put the president in a pose suggesting he’s about to be fellated by a woman and, perhaps next, by a boy. Instead, the museum discreetly comments: “The intellectual concept behind the Lincoln Trilogy is more successful than the visual relationship of the three figures. The combination of three distinctly individual sculptures of differing scale and spatial orientation has resulted in a somewhat awkward interrelationship.”
But only within the past 15 years has Hunt’s piece become such a cynosure, Franklin notes. That would date the start of the commotion to the late ’90s, a time when the news media were fixating on a real-life oral-sex scandal involving another American president. Hunt’s art may not have been intended as prurient, but it can now be seen as amazingly prescient.
Outraged, or merely curious, about something? Send your burning question to [email protected].