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On the Mountain

Gutzon Borglum, the monomaniacal sculptor of Mount Rushmore, was an anti-Semite, but also the kind of wise-hearted artist praised in this week’s parasha

Liel Leibovitz
February 25, 2011
At work on a model of Mount Rushmore, circa 1936.(Library of Congress)
At work on a model of Mount Rushmore, circa 1936.(Library of Congress)

Some of mankind’s fiercest thinkers, from Plato to Rudolph Giuliani, have, at one point or another, taken on the question of what, precisely, might qualify as art. Far fewer, however, have pondered a more delicate conundrum: namely, who, exactly, might qualify as an artist. It’s the question at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, and the answer offered is brief but profound.

As the Israelites begin building the Lord’s Tabernacle, we are informed that God imbued those among them who labored in the construction of that most sacred edifice with “wisdom of the heart”: Every “wise-hearted man,” reads the parasha, “into whom God had imbued wisdom and insight to know how to do, shall do all the work of the service of the Holy.”

A wise-hearted man, of course, is a paradox worthy of Chesterton. The heart feels, the mind thinks; the heart, according to most of our acceptable metaphysical edicts, is no more capable of being wise than the mind is of being swept by currents of emotion. And yet artists, the parasha suggests, differ from the rest of us in that they somehow succeed in reconciling the twin titans of human motivations, feeding feelings and thoughts both into the furnace of artistic creation.

It’s a difficult concept to comprehend without a concrete example to observe. Luckily, we’ve just the man: one of America’s greatest forgotten artists, the sculptor best known for blasting the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt into the rock of Mount Rushmore, the monomaniacal Gutzon Borglum.

Next week marks the 70th anniversary of Borglum’s death. He was born in Idaho, trained in Paris, and lived for long spells in New York. His fame was great: He was the first living American sculptor to witness his work displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and among the first to appear in newspaper ads endorsing consumer goods. By 1923, the year Doane Robinson, a South Dakota historian, came up with the idea to erect some sort of mountainside monument to America’s presidents, Borglum was the obvious choice.

What made Borglum great? An easy answer is available merely by looking at his work: Stand in front of Roosevelt’s stony mug, glance at the ever-so-nuanced lines carved to suggest that the Rough Rider wears eyeglasses, and the sculptor’s genius is in full evidence. But Borglum’s stature exceeded his skill—he was wise at heart, a quality illuminated by his complicated and little-known relationship with his Jewish friends.

Those he had aplenty—among his closest companions were Dr. Isidor Singer, editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia; Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter; and the financiers Bernard Baruch and Jacob Schiff. When they needed his help, he rapidly and enthusiastically rose to their defense, organizing, for example, a fund-raising campaign to assist the impoverished Singer. These remarkable friendships were made more remarkable by the inconvenient fact that Gutzon Borglum was a raging anti-Semite.

In a paper from the 1920s titled “The Jewish Question”—cited inSix Wars at a Time, Borglum’s biography—the sculptor tried to express his misgivings about the Hebrew race. “Jews,” he wrote, “refuse to enter the mainstream of civilization, to become producing members of the world community. They do not share or create, but choose instead to clannishly hold onto their old ways and with mere money buy and sell the efforts of others.”

There is nothing surprising about this text; scores like it were written during the same period by thinkers and artists and public figures great and small. What’s surprising is what Borglum chose to do with his hateful screed: He shipped it over to Dr. Singer, asking his friend for his thoughts.

“Dear friend Gutzon,” the Jewish scholar replied with good humor, “reading what you write someone would think you were an anti-Semite, when in reality you are a philo-Semite.” Borglum’s response was immediate. “Dr. Singer,” he wrote, “if you were not a bigger man than you are a Jew, I would throw bricks at you.”

This mercurial temper got Borglum in trouble throughout his life. When Jacob Schiff died, in 1920, a committee of New York’s most prominent Jews approached the sculptor to erect a monument to his late friend. Again, Borglum’s response was quick to arrive: “I have never met a man who exemplified all the characteristics of George Washington as Jacob Schiff,” he wrote, but he refused to accept the commission, arguing that as a Christian he could not honor a Jew. The same mad temerity was frequently on display when the Mount Rushmore project made Borglum an international celebrity. When President Calvin Coolidge, responding to Borglum’s request, sent a brief history of the United States to be included in the statue’s design, the sculptor liberally altered the president’s words, sending his edit to the press without informing the White House of the changes. Furious, Coolidge abandoned his support for the project. But nothing could stop Gutzon Borglum from accomplishing his life’s dream: Once he’d set foot on the mountain, he was consumed by the challenge and single-mindedly committed to the project.

Which brings us back to this week’s parasha. Those entrusted with erecting our most sacred and celebratory monuments, we are told, are not only masterful artisans but also men and women who approach the task with wise hearts. And Borglum, for all of his vile ideas, was a wise-hearted man. When Hitler seized power in Germany, tossing around some of the same language and ideas that Borglum himself was known to express, the sculptor was horrified. It was one thing, he realized, to write inflammatory screeds and send them to Jewish friends in the hope of extracting a drop of outrage; it was another altogether to set up concentration camps. In the last years of his life, Borglum became a fierce critic of Hitler, often releasing outspoken anti-Nazi statements designed to goad the Führer into a war of words. Hitler said nothing, but his deeds spoke loudly: When his armies swept Poland, he ordered his henchmen to remove the sole statue in that country created by Gutzon Borglum, a statue of Woodrow Wilson the sculptor had erected in Poznan in 1931. Where the statue had once stood, Hitler had put up a sign: “The American sculptor,” it read, “made the legs too short, the body too long and the head too large. Such an artistic eyesore cannot continue to stand in the city.”

But Borglum hardly noticed this petty slight. He was, at the time, suspended with his men in midair, attacking the granite of Mount Rushmore with chisels and jackhammers and sticks of dynamite, removing 450,000 tons of rock to create one of our most majestic monuments. He was moved by far more than the force of the technical challenge: The monument, he believed, would serve as an everlasting tribute to America’s greatness, proof set in stone of its divine election. To that end, he planned to blast an 80-by-100 foot vault next to the four presidents; this, the Hall of Records, would, he hoped, one day house the original Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and any other document pertaining to America’s glorious founding.

On March 6, 1941, Gutzon Borglum died of coronary sclerosis in a hospital in Chicago. Shortly before his death, he wrote to a friend, Montana Sen. Burt Wheeler, to advocate once again for a decisive American strike against Germany. “There is one single human obligation now before all decent fathers, mothers, governments—Stop Hitler and his cutthroats,” he wrote. He never lived to see Berlin taken by Allied troops, or to witness his son, Lincoln, complete his work on Mount Rushmore.

The nearly 15 million people who visit the site each year can judge more than Borglum’s artistry; they can judge the quality of his heart. Like Bezalel, Oholiab, and the other men tapped by Moses to build the Tabernacle, he was moved by a higher power. On his deathbed, he penned a letter to a friend, citing Victor Hugo. “Where the soul awakes,” he wrote, “there and there only your spirit is born.”

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.