Gehry Partners LLC has produced a new memorial in Washington, D.C., to President Eisenhower. Meh.

Figure 1. Sergey Eylanbekov, Eisenhower as President sculpture group. Eisenhower Memorial, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

My thoughts about the Memorial can be explained in a pars pro toto way by considering Sergey Eylanbekov’s over-life-sized bronze standing portrait of Eisenhower on the side of the complex dedicated to his presidency: a mass of artistic contradiction and needless simplification that elides the man in the interest of a high concept project.

Let’s begin by doing what Eylanbekov appears never to have done: have a look at the results of a Google image search for Eisenhower. Throw out images of him in anything but a civilian suit, since we’re considering him on this side of the memorial in his civilian role as president.

You’ll find, I believe, that Eisenhower was photographed wearing some variant of a 3-roll-2 sack suit about 9 times out of 10. What is such a thing? We see Ike in one of these suits in photographs of a meeting President Kennedy held at Camp David in the wake of the Bay of Pigs invasion (figures 2, 2a).

Figure 2. President Kennedy meets former President Eisenhower, 22 April 1961. Photo: Robert L. Knudsen. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 2a. President Kennedy meets former President Eisenhower, 22 April 1961. Photo: Paul Vathis. Copyright: AP photos. Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. NPG.2007.185. I hold no rights to this image, but rely on a fair use justification in a critical discussion.

In these photographs we see the former president, but a few months out of office (figures 2, 2a), wearing the same suit seen in his 1959 official portrait (figure 3), where we can see the suit close-up.

Figure 3. 29 May 1959 Official photograph of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

The term ‘sack suit’ means that the jacket does not have darts that slim down the profile at the waist. These would be visible as vertical lines on both sides of the front of the coat running from below the breast pocket down to the flaps of the pockets. A sack suit is a very deliberate, very olde-schoole choice of styling, very roomy. The more dashing Kennedy has had his suit slimmed throughout, and were the photograph in figure 2 clearer and brighter, we would almost certainly see darts. It is not so great an exaggeration to say that one could cut two of Kennedy’s suits from Eisenhower’s one. (Figure 2a reveals this in the cut of the pants, but the jacket, pulled around Kennedy’s body because his hands are in his pockets, looks rather slimmer and shorter than it was.)

In a ‘3 roll 2’ jacket there are three buttons in front; only the middle one is ever meant to be buttoned. The lapel gets pressed so that the top button and buttonhole get rolled over into an unusable position underneath the lapel. We see three men in gray flannel suits in 3-roll-2 styling and can get a sense of what in Ike’s time was considered the dominant (or conformist) fashion in a still from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956). Gregory Peck’s suit, bespoke and cut in London, is darted to flatter his youthful Hollywood figure (figure 4).

Figure 4. Still from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956). Copyright 20th Century Fox. I rely on a fair-use justification for the use of this still to illustrate a critical argument.

It’s maybe worth adding here that the character of Don Draper in Mad Men, which starts in the late Eisenhower years, wears a classic 3-roll-2 suit throughout the show. Note that the image of Don Draper in the link above shows him wearing the 3-roll-2 despite the costumer’s claim that he always wore a two-button coat. Draper’s coat is darted, presumably because Hollywood.

Figure 5. The author in a thrifted gray 3-roll-2 sack suit (2014). Photo: Christina Clark.

And as a laugh I present myself (figure 5, in 2014) trying out an old (just thrifted) 3-roll-2 sack suit like Eisenhower’s. The fit is good in the torso, but you may note that the lapel has been pressed too flat (making the third button hole quite visible), the pant cuffs are too large and the pant legs are at least an inch too long; the sleeves are maybe half an inch too short. It’s a bad sign that the pants break a little at the left knee. Eisenhower’s suits by contrast are impeccably cut. But I digress.

Figure 6. James Anthony Wills, White House portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

The dark charcoal flannel suit Eisenhower wears in James Anthony Wills’ 1967 White House portrait (figure 6) is of an almost identical cut to the gray suit in figures 2, 2a, and 3. The top button and its hole and their relationship to the roll of the lapel is clear in the painting. In Wills’ portrait, as in a majority of the photographs I found, Ike wears a vest, and, digging down a little deeper we find the same cut, with vest, in figure 7, the 1956 official portrait.

Figure 7. Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1956 official portrait. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

He was photographed in this brown job fairly frequently, and one can see the generous cut of the coat, the pants, and the presence of the vest. In other photos you can see that the pants are pleated. Again, no pocket square, though his glasses peek out of his breast pocket as a sign of his humanity.

Were he to drop his left hand you would find his curled fingers roughly level with the hem at the side, just as we see in figures 2 and 2a. This was felt to be the proper length of the coat in Eisenhower’s day. Figure 2a is important, showing the two presidents from the rear, because it illustrates the central guideline for jacket length in a suit: the coat should cover the seat entirely. The much higher hems we see today are a development of the last fifteen years or so and make everyone who wears them look more youthful—like a man-boy growing out of his teen-age suit. Missing, too, in the period photographs and paintings is any hint of one of those little “last-refuge-of-a-scoundrel” flag pins on the lapel.

A word about Ike’s vests. While Eisenhower’s coat would be buttoned at about the same point as Kennedy’s, the general’s tie is usually snugged securely in place at a much higher point by his vest. I think Eisenhower’s taste was influenced by a lifetime in military uniforms: his vest closes up high just like the military uniform coats of the aides behind in figure 2.

It’s clear Eisenhower paid attention to his clothes, and went in for a well cut version of a traditional style when he began having to wear civilian clothes during his political career. If you think about it, there is a relationship between clothing style, body type, and the way a person holds his or her body. The latter is reflective of character, and we might as well use the Latin term for it: habitus.

Kennedy and Eisenhower can be usefully compared in figures 2 and 2a. Eisenhower, used to military uniforms, dresses by preference in a style that is conservative and copies some of the feel of the uniforms he’s used to. Though he’s older, he is reasonably slim; he isn’t just wearing a generously cut suit to disguise extra weight as LBJ did (see how he looks lost in a cavernous pre-presidential double-breasted suit, figure 11). Kennedy’s suit is cut to emphasize his youthful slimness—see how the hem of the pants is a little higher than Ike’s, and uncuffed. Kennedy walks stiffly, perhaps from back pain, whereas Eisenhower is clearly comfortable in his skin (and suit). Some degree of that comfort can be made out in his c. 1951 self-portrait (figure 8).

Figure 8. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Self-portrait (c. 1951). I hold no rights to this, which comes via PBS Antiques Roadshow, but rely on a fair use justification in a critical discussion.

My point here is that if we can readily distinguish between the habitus of Kennedy and Eisenhower even upon a superficial examination, we can just as easily distinguish between Eisenhower and the bronze thing bearing a likeness of his head on Maryland Avenue, SE (figures 1, 10).

I’d never looked closely at Eisenhower’s clothing or habitus before, nor have I ever had a reason to go through the photographs of him that come up in a Google or Wikimedia Commons search. But confronted with the question of what Eisenhower was like, I did what I think you or anyone would do: I looked at images of the man and brought a small but significant sample of relevant public images into the discussion. Having made this cursory examination of the man’s style, we can say some perceptive things about Eisenhower, how he dressed by choice, and how he held his body. The real question turns out to be, how did Eylanbekov fly so wide of the mark? For he’s put an Ike head on a mannequin that bears no resemblance to the man, his style, and habitus.

The head shows that the sculptor was not uninterested in ‘realism’, a frought term, to be sure. Bear with me for a minute here. Realism is often contrasted with idealism. The latter is easier to figure out. An ideal portrait, for example, is one where the actual features of a person, if we could capture them perfectly, have been altered to one degree or another by the artist to conform to some ideas of what a head, or portrait, should look like.

The classic case is reflected in Oliver Cromwell’s insistence on being realistically portrayed ‘warts and all’, as opposed to acquiescing in some 17th-century equivalent of airbrushing these blemishes away. He rejects being prettied up to some ideal, and you’d think this would be the only direction idealism ever worked in, toward the prettier. But idealism works both ways: there was a long period during which Roman aristocrats and people in their orbit had themselves portrayed by preference with exaggerated sagging, toothless, balding, wrinkled visages meant to convey moral earnestness and the civic prestige of a life and youth spent (and now lost) in the service of the state.

Nor are we just talking about the subtraction or addition of blemishes, either. The most commonly found portrait type of the Roman emperor Augustus was created by assimilating his portrait’s profile line to that used in Greek images of gods created in the 4th century BCE. The modeling of the features (the 3-D shape of the face and head) is borrowed from, or assimilated to, those of the ideal human figure represented by Polyclitus’ 5th-century BCE statue, the ‘Spear-bearer’. These Greek figures were truly from the realm of ideas, the proper proportions of the body arrived at not from averaging out the real features of humans in general but with the use of a compass, straight-edge, and a set of opinions. Should the perfectly proportioned body be 8 heads tall, as Lysippus thought?

A perfectly realistic portrait down to minute details might reflect well on the artist’s technical skills, but such work tends to be written off as unimaginative: a computer could do it. A good artist, it’s usually thought, uses insight to find the inner life of the subject and strays into the ideal realm to develop and bring out character. A caricature artist does some of this in exaggerated form.

So, to return to the Eisenhower Memorial, the figure of Ike sends out a number of warning signs. The streamlined body seems to function as little more than a sort of streamlined pedestal, not laboriously worked out so as to be congruent with the realist head. But why then go to the trouble of creating a realist head in the first place? (Presumably Eylanbekov closely follows photographs of Eisenhower’s head.) More damningly, even if we are going to streamline the modeling and lines of Ike’s suit and stray from realism enough to leave visible tool marks, why not do this while creating an image of the cut of clothing and vest Ike wore? Why create a stiff, unexpressive body when Eisenhower was comfortable in his skin and turned and flexed quite naturally? Why, above all, take the trouble to contradict the realities of menswear in Ike’s time and depict him wearing a jacket two inches too short, which he would have thought ugly? One answer could be that Eylanbekov’s model wore a suit he had, and the sculptor just had no idea about the anachronism. We should probably consider ourselves lucky that Eylanbekov was not asked to do a James Madison.

Figure 9. General Eisenhower addresses paratroopers before D-Day. Photo: U.S. Army. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Further, what on earth is it with the gesture of the skeletal left hand (figure 10)? Look again at the pictures of the man in life. He was born in 1890: that cohort held themselves differently from others before and since. They stood differently, they held their arms differently, they held their hands differently, they held their heads differently, and they arranged their features differently. This is one reason why old photos sometimes look strange. It’s subtle, because there is a baseline of how human bodies are put together which establishes a limit on how different the look of one period can be from another. Still, if you take the time to look at old photos you can see this sort of thing evolve over time (and it’s not, pace Quora, just because photographic exposure times were so long people couldn’t hold a smile and so didn’t try).

If we’re wise, we’ll also remember that Eisenhower served in the military most of his life, and his sense of military bearing will have been habitual. Both of these factors lead to him looking disciplined in his photos. He smiles and waves, turns and twists, and sometimes he endearingly guffaws, but I see no evidence of him publicly making a delicate gesture of the sort we see here. The closest I do see is in the famous photograph of him addressing paratroopers before D-Day (figure 9), yet this is a much simpler gesture, a closed hand with extruding thumb.

OK, so the gesture is not really true to Eisenhower. That means it was added for a reason external to the man, so to speak. It’s a rhetorical gesture made to accompany speech. The point seems to me that Ike is saying something incisive or important, or maybe visionary. Yet Eylanbekov’s Eisenhower is close-mouthed.

Figure 10. Sergey Eylanbekov, Eisenhower as President sculpture group. Cropped version of figure 1. Eisenhower Memorial, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

In fact, I can’t quite figure out what the imagined situation is that’s depicted by this statue group. I’m informed by the National Park Service docents on site that this statue group is not a depiction of any scene that ever happened but an idealized image meant to show that Eisenhower as president balanced the counsel he received from civilian and military sources. But there behind him is a desk, which must be interpreted, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, as his Oval Office desk. See that the chair hole is on the Eisenhower side in the statue group—he’s evidently depicted looking out the Oval Office window behind the desk.

The world map backdrop is not in the imagined scene of the statue group in the Oval Office, of course, but serves to underline the notion of geopolitics and to divide the background between the USA/western hemisphere behind the civilian advisors and the rest of the world (especially Indochina, China, and the USSR) behind the military officer.

I suppose we might say to ourselves that Gehry and Eylanbekov are rejecting the great man theory of history and are using the figure of Eisenhower and the others as props for the staging of the high-concept idea of geopolitics conducted through a balance of civilian and military advice. If this is the central idea here, well then the sculpted Eisenhower doesn’t matter as a once-living and breathing human being. Only geopolitics and the forces of history matter.

For my part, I think the concrete human matters as much as the abstract geopolitics. There are some people who through a mixture of personal characteristics and luck of the draw are at the crux at the critical moment and they push history in ways better or worse than it would otherwise have gone. In my opinion, the humanity of the actor makes the action, even geopolitical action, more interesting and memorable, and it makes me want to learn more. The Eisenhower Memorial doesn’t do that for me.

Appendix I

Figure 11. Jes Wilhelm Schlaikjer, Portrait of Dwight Eisenhower (1951). Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. NPG.91.100.

You can occasionally find photos of Ike in a double-breasted suit. He does not look particularly good in them, as figure 11 shows though Yousuf Karsh somehow managed in his Karsh-y way to get great results.

Nikon Z 7ii with Nikkor 24-200 mm f/4-6.3 lens.

Figures 1, 10. 93mm, f/8, ISO 200, 1/100 s.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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1 Comment

  1. Excellent critique, Greg. Never would have thought to look so closely at Eisenhower, who deserves more respect than he is normally accorded.

    You have one typo. In the penultimate paragraph, “he” should be “the.” Search for “he humanity of the actor.”


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