What IS sculpture? Modernity answers

In the late 19th and early 20th Century, sculpture became an important avenue for artist’s exploration as they turned the seemingly simple question, ‘what is sculpture?’, into a complicated discourse. Historically, sculpture was at the mercy of patrons and commissions, creating only what was asked for. But during the Modernist period, sculptors were creating works of their own personal concepts and demands.

The most obvious starting point is Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), who undoubtedly changed the game. A broad generalisation and a massive understatement, but to expand on that I’d have to write a whole new essay (which I may do yet!). In 1900, at the age of 60, he threw his own retrospective exhibition, and this made international waves. Without his revitalisation of sculpture by returning it to the forefront of art culture and once again raising it up to sit on the pedestal alongside painting, none of the following artists would have been able to explore concepts in the way that they did.

Sculpture needed to become new again, to bring something more than what had been seen before, and artists in the Modernist period understood that the practice called for some major REing: renouncing, reevaluating,  renegotiating, rejuvenating; etc etc etc.

Throughout the 19th Century, there was a sharp demarcation between sculpture and painting. In the Modernist period this was dissolved, as artists who were making waves in painterly mediums transferred those experiments into sculpture. This created a bursting of limits not only between these two mediums but within sculpture, as new materials were introduced and ideas executed.

Modern technology played an important part in the conceptual and material structure of sculpture, as will be seen in most of the artists discussed, as well as ideas on art itself and what constituted as art. Sculptors were reacting to a changing environment, both social and physical.

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) tried to compete with Rodin for a period of time but found it impossible when attempting similar ideas and mediums; “What could I have done better than Rodin, and to what purpose?” Thus, he turned to a different technique – la taille directe – as liberation from the master. This direct carving using only a hammer or chisel is an arduous process and revolves around taking away, rather than building up like the clay modelling Rodin used for bronze statues. Form is derived from the process rather than created, and it is completely one way – once it is carved there is no adding material back. Thus, the artist must show complete confidence and articulation.

Constantin Brancusi, The Kiss, 1908, Limestone, 279 x 260 x 216 mm, Muzeul de
Arta, Romania.

The Kiss (1908) shows two figures locked in a loving embrace. It is fitted within a limestone blocks cubic mass, with only a minimal amount carved away to make them recognisable. Since prehistoric times sculptors have modelled the human figure. Here Brancusi is keeping in tradition with nature as the starting point, yet at the same time altering conventions by his desire to develop the essence of a concept rather than the external visual features. As in painting, photography also removed the need for portraiture type sculpture, and the figures themselves are devoid of some basic anatomies – ears, noses, chin, and throat. We see them in profile and the format removes any psychological judgement – when compared to Rodin’s The Kiss from 1882, it is in stark emotional contrast.

Robert Goldwater describes this simplification as the “visual embodiment of mankind’s primitive enduring core.” Brancusi was inspired by Middle Age low reliefs in quarried rock, where the roughed-out images maintain the original outer envelope, and he has followed this pattern here by leaving the surface natural and unpolished. This is in direct opposition to the academic tradition of high polish and smooth surfaces, as well as the use of a limestone rock which is rougher in the first place than the usual high quality marble, invoking an amplified tactile response. The process of carving was an important part of this sculpture for Brancusi, as he saw the block as a “physical presence to be left undisturbed,” and believed in the truth of the materials.

Traditional sculpture is dependent on mass and volume, but the Russian Constructivists decided to look at it from another angle, making space and depth the essential basis of their art. Naum Gabo (1890-1977) decided something needed to be done to express a new way of looking at the universe.

Naum Gabo, Head, 1916, Steel, 1760 x 1240 x 1243 mm, Tate Museum.

Head, created in 1916, shows his experimentation with the substitution of the concave for the convex. Having been fascinated with faces since his childhood, he plays with contrast in the planes and curves of a head by using ‘stereometric construction’, where the form is created using negative space. This piece is made out of steel, as new materials were also an important part of modern sculpture and what it could become. Traditional marble and bronze were seen as the “straitjacket which had constricted sculpture” for centuries. Gabo came from a background of engineering studies and his constructions were built up according to the logic of the idea rather than any beauty ideals. Often the works conceptions were ahead of their time; where the current technology was not on equal terms with his ideas and so many of his constructions were later reworked with newer materials, bigger dimensions, and better functionality. Head was later enlarged into a more dramatic size and is now on display at the Tate Museum.

Naum Gabo, Revolving Torsion, 1972, stainless steel, St. Thomas Hospital, London.

Another example of this is the Revolving Torsion fountain, which was a concept evolved by Gabo in the 1920s but not constructed until the early 1970s when technology finally caught up with Gabo’s ideas – unfortunately only at the end of his lifetime. The sole aim of art is the “creative processing of practical materials”, and this was a base of the Constructivist movement. Here the combination of diverse materials was used by the constructivists to introduce the concept of time to their works through mechanical achievements. In this work, jets of water dance around large stainless-steel plates, with the waters spray inducing the temporal element. Gabo described the Constructivist sculptures as transcending the third dimension, saying that the element of time brings it into the fourth dimension.

The Futurists followed a similar vein; in 1912 Umberto Boccioni wrote the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture, where he renounced the “pretended nobility” of marble and bronze and denied vehemently that a sculptor must use only a single material. In the same treatise, he declared his abhorrence of the monument and stasis of statuary and introduced the Italian Futurist movement in terms of energy, motion, and intensity. From the Cubists these artists learned how to take forms apart and inspect their details, recomposing aspects into a single representation. They brought this idea into the modern era by introducing speed and motion into the mix – first in their painting, with the fusion of planes and lines of force, and then to sculpture.

Umberto Boccioni, Development of a Bottle in Space, 1913, bronze, 394 x 603 x 394
mm, The Met Museum, New York.

Boccioni’s Development of a Bottle in Space (1912) claims still life for sculpture. He brings Cubist deconstruction into the third dimension by depicting both interior and exterior aspects of a bottle and taking it further by visualising the production of the object, shown by the sense of building upwards, spiralling from the base to the neck.

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, bronze, 1175 x 876 x
368 mm, The Tate Museum, London.

The culmination of these ideas is surely found in the manipulation of form in his Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). This is a mix of figurative and conceptual art; an attempt to capture time in a fixed medium. Here he has made visible the lines of force in a walking figure and its prolongation into space – not showing a static body but constructing the actions of the body – making them parable and plastic. He insisted that “no one can any longer believe that an object ends where another begins” – no doubt referring to recent breakthroughs in physics relating to matter – shown here by the physical embodiment of motion. The figure is clear and in a dynamic pose, but the almost alien extensions from the legs and arms show the active relationship between organic matter, space, and time – they are fluid and fused into one by ‘motion’.

Marcel Duchamp was such a multi-faceted artist and for him, one of the various answers to ‘what is sculpture?’ was – whatever I say it is! He first used the term ‘readymade’ in 1915, and thus a new perception of sculpture was born, with a goal of overcoming ‘taste’.

With Duchamp’s ready-mades the artistry moves from creation to selection. By taking a seemingly normal object from its familiar context and placing it within an artistic environment he is forcing the viewer to contemplate it and treat it as art. For Dada and the Surrealists, the play on the mind is the endgame – using the viewers’ creativity and thought process as a fundamental aspect of the art itself. His earlier works were often supplemented with titles that invoked a meaning for the work.

Marcel Duchamp, In Advance of the Broken Arm, 1964, Wood and galvanised iron snow shovel, 1320 mm high. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

For example, his 1915 piece In Advance of the Broken Arm, which displays a simple snow shovel, depends on the viewers’ participation to be understood as the artist intended. This could almost be a play on the Constructivists inclusion of time into their works but in a much more conceptual way – this piece instructs the viewer to think of the shovel in terms of time and practicality, activating schemata: their own memories inciting imagination, and their consequent contribution in the sculpture.

Duchamp had taken a normal object and declared it sculpture, elevating its status to art without altering its makeup at all. His most well-known piece must be commented on: Fountain was rejected, hidden, and outright banned from the 1917 New York Exhibit organised by the Society of Independent Artists.

Marcel Duchamp Fountain
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, Porcelain, 360 x 480 x 610 mm, The Tate Museum, London.

In an editorial written by Duchamp himself and some friends, they spoke in defence of the ‘Richard Mutt case’ (Richard Mutt, of course, being the pseudonym signature scrawled on the piece), saying the artists’ actions were a “creation of a new thought for that object”: not an immoral plagiarism. Surrealist front runner Andre Breton fell for it hook, line, and sinker, describing manufactured objects as promoted to the ranks of ‘art’ through the choice of the artist, when in fact Duchamp’s true impulse behind all of this was the irony and falsities of the art world.

In essence, the main aim of sculptors in the Modernist period was to push boundaries and create something new out of the ashes of traditional sculpture. Concept, facture, and creation were explored, revisited, and invented by a group of widely varied artists, each with their own message and idea of what exactly constituted sculpture. The early 20th Century was a unique time of both creation and destruction, both in the art world and the real world.

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