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Unknown Prisoner

Published onJan 28, 2022
Unknown Prisoner

Christian Petersen (Danish-American, 1885-1961)

Unknown Prisoner, c.1944


Gift of Helen J. Sebek.  In the Christian Petersen Art Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University. UM2000.6


As noted earlier, Christian Petersen had a particular sympathy for the innocent victims of warfare.  In this sculpture he portrays a scene of torture and, perhaps, of death. By turning the figure’s face away and depicting him nude with only a generalized draping, the artist makes him at once anonymous and universal so that we can identify this sculpture with victims of any time and any place. The design of the background as an abbreviated cross makes an association with the crucifixion of Christ which, for Petersen, might have connected his sculpture with the idea of unjust persecution and suffering.   

Petersen’s record-keeping was spotty, and we have his wife, Charlotte, to thank for those documents that have come down to us. For many years, we knew only that he had designed this small sculpture as a proposal for a sculptural competition on the theme of “the unknown prisoner,” though there is no indication in the artist’s archives of what the competition was or if he actually submitted his idea.  Today, we have learned that Petersen did participate in a competition, one of the few times he did so in his mature career, and the only instance of him entering an international contest. “The Unknown Political Prisoner” was sponsored by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and the American aspect of the competition was managed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, whose archives show that Petersen sent in the sculpture shown here as his entry, along with drawings proposing how the design would look if enlarged in scale. The competition was announced in 1951 and, two years later, Reg Butler, a British sculptor, was declared the winner. Perhaps predictably at that time, Butler’s proposal (and that of nearly every finalist in the competition) was an abstract work of art, reflecting the embrace of that style during the Cold War. Petersen’s naturalistic approach to his subject was likely seen as hopelessly out of date, and it appears he was eliminated at an early stage in the jurying. With a broader perspective today, we can judge Petersen’s proposal differently and see it the intensely human terms he preferred.

Preparatory drawings, shown nearby, make it clear that Petersen intended Unknown Prisoner to be an over life-size monument placed in an isolated spot out in the landscape. It was only one of many proposals he developed to mourn and memorialize World War II. None of his abundant ideas have ever been realized on the scale that he hoped for, but the richness of his artistic comments on war and violence remain as applicable today as during his lifetime.

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