The Artistic Rehabilitation of Oppenheimer

On 18 February 1967, legendary physicist and “father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer passed away. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States demonstrated the terrible power of Oppenheimer’s creation, the scientist reflected that “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds“. His obvious torment at the destruction he had unleashed, together with his communist connections, led the scientist to be stripped of his security clearance in an infamous McCarthyist hearing in 1954, and he would suffer years of harassment by the FBI before his political rehabilitation in 1963.

In 1971 the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee was incorporated in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the site of the Manhattan Project’s principal laboratory. Initially a group of Oppenheimer’s friends and colleagues came together to plan a park in nearby mountains to house a memorial sculpture, although this never materialised. However, in 1973 the group did commission Santa Fe sculptor Una Hanbury to execute a bust of Oppenheimer which is now held in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

oppenheimerMore recently, a bronze statue of Oppenheimer was erected outside the Fuller Lodge Historical Museum in Los Alamos. The work was commissioned from local artist Susanne Vertel as part of the Historical Sculptures Master Plan, which aims to place 18 bronze statues across downtown Los Alamos to highlight the city’s prominent role in World War II and Cold War history. Oppenheimer’s figure stands next to a bronze depiction of General Groves, the United States Army officer who directed the scientist’s work on the Manhattan Project.

Image: Susanne Vertel, statue of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, 2012. Courtesy Susanne Vertel.

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