Historically, statues have served a variety of serious purposes: to honor the worthy, remember the dead, appease the gods, glorify the government, instill patriotism, and more. As such, they are usually dignified, evocative and, well…monumental.
Usually, but not always. As the ones selected here show, they can also bring a smile or a laugh—sometimes on purpose, and sometimes not. Sometimes the amusement is ironic—a statue whose present circumstances don’t match its original intent—and sometimes it’s amusing because the sculptor has “broken the fourth wall” to share a little joke with us, or because the intent is comic to begin with. And just sometimes, the work is just so bizarre you can’t help laughing. Others need the help of birds and children to set the scene.
I always keep an eye out for an amusing monument, and these are from my travels over the past few years; there are probably more I haven’t found yet combing through the files. If you enjoy them…send in a few of your own!
This one is also in Bergen; it’s in honor of Christian Michelsen, first prime minister of modern Norway, and a leader in securing its independence from Sweden. I’ll have to assume that the bird is local, though, and not exacting Swedish revenge.
Some statues honor the common folk, such as this “man,” waiting for a bus just down the street from the government offices in Oslo. The rose sticking up from his newspaper was left as a memorial; the picture was taken a few weeks after a right-winger killed a number of people with a bomb across the street.
Not all the funny or grotesque statues are so recent, of course—think gargoyles. Here’s a welcoming figure who lives above the entrance of an apartment building in Girona, Spain, and has been there for four centuries with his tongue out and an artichoke in his hair.
This one is definitely modern. It’s in Lisbon, it’s near the Tejo River waterfront, it’s…well…it’s modern.
The next two are in Lisbon, too. They’re recent copies of originals made by the artist Rafael Bordallo Pinheiro for the Paris Exhibition of 1889 where they won a Gold Medal. These are just a few of the many bees, toads, shellfish, mushrooms, cats and more that share a garden behind the Museum of the City of Lisbon with a troop of live peacocks.
Newer than Bordallo Pinheiro, but still in Lisbon, these alien life forms grace the plaza in front of City Hall.
And a Hawaiian frog has some deep thoughts.
Sometimes you can even feel a statue giving you “the eye” or maybe more than one. This fellow reminded traders who dealt with the Hanseatic League’s 16th-century offices in Bergen that they were, so to speak, under surveillance.
I can’t be sure what was going on over my shoulder outside the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna while I took these, but the fellows in them seem a bit astonished at whatever it was...
Or perhaps they were taken aback by conversation I couldn't hear between this pair in the garden below them…unless it was only chit-chat about the bird and the fish…
Meanwhile, here’s someone who could care less about all that…
And here are some Stockholmers who are speaking no evil, hearing no evil, seeing no evil and generally looking grumpy.
Definitely not on the grumpy side is this jolly Venetian, from the island of Murano, famed for its glass-work. No heart of stone, either—it’s all made of Murano glass.
Now arriving at Pier 1 Oslo:
This oddity is part of a monument to the physicist Ampere in his hometown of Lyon, France. You have to admit there’s a certain electricity to the image—or was that eccentricity?
And while we’re checking out strange mixtures in sculpture, here’s one in Lisbon’s Praca Comercio that features either a pretty small angry elephant or one extremely large national hero. In daylight, it looks a lot less dramatic…
Turning away from the mythological, but sticking with "hometown heroes," we have this one at the Rond Point of the Champs Elysee, honoring France’s WWI Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau. It may not be majestic, but it captures the popular affection he inspired. It also looks a little odd in broad daylight on a sunny day as he walks in the rain with the wind blowing his coat.
Snack time! Have some fruit…but watch out for the stones…
Family affairs in Scandinavia highlight this pair. The first (with bird!) is in front of Oslo’s City Hall, facing the harbor; the second is one of hundreds of works by Gustav Vigeland in Frogner Park, Oslo.
No stone, no bronze, no rigid forms: these inflatable statues by Paul McCarthy were on temporary display at London’s Tate Modern, housed in a former generating station across the Thames from St. Paul’s. This photo was taken in 2003; some appeared again in a retrospective this year. This one’s called Blockhead.
And some sculpture has to work for a living. No, these aren’t in Diagon Alley. They’re on Piccadilly, and have lit the entrance to the Fortnum and Mason department store for many years.
But not everyone appreciates Big Art, and sometimes there’s the problem of what to do with an unpopular piece. It took eight years of protest and court fights to remove Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" from its position blocking a public square in New York. This stunning piece was available to the highest bidder in Prague in 2003…and I've heard it’s still there. Now’s your chance…