Not the dialogue of a character in Dante but notionally what one of the abstract figures trapped in tight framing circles common in 1920s-1930s art might say. Here (figure 1) we have a fine example of a muscular Greek-looking gent in such a circular frame (I’ll call it a tondo from here on) on the Rollins monument in Maplewood Cemetery in Durham, N.C.
It’s one of the scant few interesting monuments in the predominantly mid-20th-century western side of the cemetery (figure 5). A little find-a-gravery turns up the 1931 death of Edward Tyler Rollins, Sr., as the probable “reason for the season” in the creation of this grave. This at least agrees well with the style of the art.
We’re well along the road from Neoclassical art heading toward its more geometricized, streamlined descendant, Art Deco. Our man has some realism about him, but if you think about it, those ribs, abs, pecs, biceps, and thigh muscles are no longer functional parts of a real body but are sketched in, more like decorations applied to a flattened human figure to make it recognizable as an idealized male (figure 2). This is fitting, since he is standing ideally for the deceased, now experiencing the revelation of the afterlife in the light of knowledge, or God, or faith, or you name it. Literal revelation: see how he’s pulling back the cloth that veiled his sight.
See how different the straight Neoclassical Baetjer tondo of an abstract grieving female figure in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore is (figure 3). She was occasioned, I think, by the death of Catharine Bruce Baetjer in 1923, and sculpted by Hans Schuler in 1924. Here all of the tricks of foreshortening have been used to make this figure seem like a functioning human body despite being in medium relief.
The same artist gave us Loudon Park Cemetery’s Hax monument tondo, also in Baltimore. The tondo is signed and dated to ’27; George A. Hax died in 1925. This figure’s more scrunched in her tondo than the Baetjer figure, but this seems programmatic, as she is compressed by grief. Our revelatory man in Durham is breaking out of the constraints of his tondo at several places, presumably in service to the program of that monument, which is revelation breaking the bounds of earthly ignorance.
The Rollins monument still has its roots in the Beaux Arts and Neoclassicism, of course, it’s just streamlined. Its didactic quality comes right out of Neoclassicism. The ornamentation, a slightly streamlined but still wondrously beautiful set of laurel leaves to the left of the tondo and oak leaves to the right, with an interrupted strip of ivy running along the top of the sides of the monument, is a revenant creature of an earlier age than Art Deco.
We’re also in that twilight period after the great depression when Neoclassical funerary (and public) art abruptly died and by mid-century monuments became predominantly barren stones with names and anagraphic data. Here, at least, we actually get a pentameter: “HOW BLEST ARE THEY WHO FROM THEIR LABORS REST.” But you see how these elements have been pushed to the edges of the Rollins monument to give large amounts of blank stone.
While exceptions can always be found, generally, as can be seen from a wide view of graves not far from the Rollins monument at Maplewood (figure 5), after the depression more expensive human-cut imagery dwindles, leaving a decadent style where decoration, if any, is sandblasted in as a cost-saving measure into flat slabs of stone. I don’t say it’s worse, just dull.