Rumors of War in Richmond
Recently announced plans to remove memorials on Monument Avenue in Richmond mark a climax in the critique of Confederate monuments that gained traction after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and accelerated after the Charleston massacre of 2015 and Charlottesville bloodshed of 2017. Ironically, this event comes shortly after a well-publicized attempt to leverage rather than clear the Confederate landscape of Richmond, the December 2019 installation of Kehinde Wiley’s equestrian statue Rumors of War. Wiley’s work reanimates as it mocks the equestrian statues on nearby Monument Avenue, particularly the statue of J. E. B. Stuart on which Wiley based his composition. Rumors of War certainly draws meaning from its location, but it is also the capstone of a series on which the artist has been engaged since an early stage of his meteoric career, long before Confederate monuments stirred wide controversy. The overall project suggests important aspects of its extension to Richmond.
Rumors of War was Wiley’s title for a 2005 gallery show that featured young African American men wearing street fashions in paintings modeled on equestrian portraits by Rubens, Velázquez, David, and Charles Le Brun. Only one of these paintings depicted a field commander, but Wiley underscored that the equestrian format dramatized the relationship between military power and other forms of royal power, including the power to set aesthetics of masculinity and dispense patronage to artists. The prediction of “wars, and rumors of war” in Matthew 24 is a starting point for Jesus’s warning that misleading signals will precede the end times and “many false prophets shall arise.” Wiley identifies the historical sitters and canonical artists as false prophets, empowered by the glamor of war.
His alternative to the ancien régime was contemporary capitalism. Wiley has declared, in the Warholian tradition, that “I make really high-priced luxury goods for wealthy consumers.” The market now empowered stylish young African American men to redefine national practices of masculinity, celebrated by one of the most financially successful artists of his era. Wiley has returned often to the equestrian well, but the logic of the series may have reached fullest expression in a 2010 portrait of Michael Jackson that adapted Rubens’s portrait of Philip II.
Wiley’s proposal to make a Rumors of War sculpture for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) involved some compromises in his formula. He could not open a dialogue with one of the great masters. The Lost Cause inspired no Velázquez. That problem connected to a design conundrum. The decision not to base the new work on the signature Monument Avenue statue of Robert E. Lee by Beaux-Arts sculptor Antonin Mercié–perhaps the most distinguished artist to make a Confederate monument–indicates the challenge of aligning the Lost Cause and Wiley’s art politics. Mercié wanted to depict Lee with a Napoleonic magnetism, but the Virginia sponsors instructed him to use the still pose that Kirk Savage has brilliantly analyzed as a crystallization of white supremacism. That precedent exercised influence across the North as well as the South. It became one of the templates through which Civil War commemoration updated an Old World metaphor for hierarchical ideology. But the rise of realism did not suit Wiley’s interest in Baroque and Romantic forerunners of contemporary flamboyance.