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Artspotting: The Aero Memorial

The Aero Memorial isn’t just about WWI; it symbolizes the human obsession with the heavens.

The Wright Brothers got airborne in 1903. A few years passed and we were already dropping bombs. The trench warfare of World War I was so brutal, so dehumanizing that an entire generation gave up the idea that war could be romantic.

There was one exception to this rule. The flying aces of WWI. The freedom of the air, the distance from the carnage below must have had something to do with the romance surrounding the flying aces. Manfred von Richthofen, otherwise known as The Red Baron, once said, "One can become enthusiastic over anything. For a time I was delighted with bomb throwing. It gave me a tremendous pleasure to bomb those fellows from above." He went on to shoot down 80 aircrafts. He was killed in a dogfight with two Canadian pilots in 1918, the last year of the war. The US did not enter WWI until 1917. Our list of aces is thus quite a bit smaller and none were household names.

A number of Pennsylvanian aviators are, however, among the list of WWI casualties. After WWI, the Aero Club of Philadelphia decided that there should be some form of public recognition for these men—thus, the creation of the Aero Memorial on Logan Circle, just across the street from the Franklin Institute. The centerpiece of the Aero Memorial is a sculpture by Paul Manship, the artist who is also responsible for the famous Prometheus statue at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Manship's Aero Memorial is a gilded bronze sphere. At first glance you might think that it is a globe of the earth. But it is not. It is a celestial sphere. The sphere is not solid, but delicately composed of figures: fish, bear, birds, snakes, and humans. Closer inspection reveals that these are figures of the zodiac.

One might ask what any of this has to do with World War I. It is a fair question. Manship's answer was to downplay the fighting and to focus on the sky. Going up in the sky in airplanes, whether to fight or to frolic, is but the 20th century version of a long human obsession with the heavens above. Humans have always suspected that the arrangement of the stars holds secret messages. In the ancient days, astronomy and astrology were one. Artists since the dawn of human civilization have depicted the constellations, trying to make sense of the shapes that can be found there.

Manship was deeply interested in ancient art, from Egypt, Greece, Assyria, and India. He thought that archaic images still had resonance for the modern soul. His Aero Memorial suggests that we can still look at the night sky just as the ancients did, even if it is from the cockpit of a flying machine.

Paul Manship's Aero Memorial is also a tribute to the fact that soldiers, since time immemorial, spend their final moments staring up at the sky. Tolstoy writes about this in War and Peace, when Prince Andrew is wounded in an attack against the French. The Prince's legs give way.  He falls to the ground and looks to the sky. "How was it I did not see the lofty sky before," he wonders. "And how happy I am to have found it at last! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that."