IS SCULPTURE BORING?
In 1846 the French poet Baudelaire wrote an essay called "Why sculpture is boring". Because the sculpture he saw exhibited was indeed boring, no one could blame him for coming to such conclusions about sculpture in general. If he were writing about the art today he would need to be blind to find it boring. Today sculpture is even more original and alive than painting.
The difference between a piece of modern sculpture and one of a century ago is even more startling than between two paintings separated by the same time-lag. Today, instead of being restricted to bronze and stone, the sculptor welds, assembles, carves and casts in iron, steel, fibreglass, plastic, wood; in short, he uses everything and anything. He may paint his work, he may set it on a pedestal or arrange it in sections on the floor.
Like all modern art, modern sculpture is easier to grasp if we know something about its history.
In spite of the generally dismal state of the sculpture of a century ago, much really creative work was being done. And it was done not by sculptors but by people officially regarded as painters: Honore Daumier* Edgar Degas,** and Paul Gauguin.*** Time and time again great painters turn out great pieces of sculpture. Michelangelo apart, it is not often that great sculptors are also painters of distinction.
It is perhaps not surprising that painters should have been the most original sculptors in the nineteenth century. The sculptors of the period were obsessed by the past, the painters by originality and experimentation. At that time, originality meant reality. From Courbet **** to Cezanne,***** painters tried to reproduce nature, or what they thought was nature, as faithfully as possible.
The painter-sculptors had no direct followers, however. The first sculptor to bring something new to the art and to have an enormous influence on the subsequent development of sculpture was Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). At about the same time as Degas, Rodin was attempting on a broader front to solve the problems of realism in sculpture. He had learned a great deal from the Greeks and Michelangelo, but had learned it better than his contemporaries, and eventually went much further than they.
Rodin so successfully created a Realist sculpture that when he showed "The Age of Bronze" (a man rousing himself from sleep) in an exhibition in 1877, he was accused of taking a plaster cast from a live figure and then casting it in bronze. This was in fact frequently done by academic sculptors, but with disastrous results.
Rodin's figure was not, of course, cast from a human being. It simply looked more real than anything visitors to the exhibition had ever seen. Rodin understood that certain conventions were necessary to make a sculpture look life-like. Copying, however, precise, can never by successful. Rodin also understood that one of the most important conventions was the way a sculptor treats the surface of a sculpture and makes it work for him. He had noticed that the surface of a Greek statue was not smooth but rough, and that it was precisely this roughness which gave it life. Rodin therefore worked on his surfaces, articulated them so that they controlled light and used it to great effect. Rodin could model a surface to attract light, to make light explain a shape, to diffuse light or to concentrate it.
But the Frenchman's contribution to sculpture does not end with his discovery of light as a medium nor with his masterly Sift for creating realistic sculpture.
Rodin proved that it was possible to create a type of sculpture which retained the art's traditional virtues without being trite or imitative. At the same time it was a contemporary type of sculpture which extended the range of the art of sculpture and demonstrated possibilities for further exploration. It is an achievement which younger artists fruitfully drew on for more than half a century.
(From "The Story of Sculpture". The Marshall Cavendish Learning System. London, 1969)
THE DOYEN OF SOVIET SCULPTURE
In 1965, in the new halls of the Artists' Club in Moscow an exhibition was held to mark the ninetieth birthday of Sergei Konenkov.
Konenkov's extraordinary talent is devoted to Man, in particular to what is beautiful in Man. Konenkov's genius is complex and many-faceted. It embraces a variety of subjects, depicting heroism and lyricism, tragedy and humour, Russian fairy-tales and songs, dreams and reality.
On display at the exhibition were marble and bronze busts of Surikov, Dostoyevsky, Mussorgsky, and many other personalities. There were also allegorical compositions expressing the struggle for freedom, the victory of the revolution as well as folklore characters who people forests, fields and silent rivers, such as "Pan", "Yegorych, the Bee-Keeper", etc. There are certain "eternal", themes running throughout Konenkov's work. The most characteristic is the theme of liberated man or of struggle for his freedom: "Samson Breaking His Bonds" (1902), "Liberated Man" (1947), "We will Destroy the Whole World of Violence" (1957). About the same time another lifelong theme was already visible in the young sculptor's work - that of the working-man. Konenkov's "The Stone-Breaker", completed in 1898, was considered to be the best portrayal of a worker in Russian sculpture at that time.
Konenkov greeted the October Revolution as the dawn of a new era for mankind, as the light that would illuminate the whole world. He immediately became a follower of Lenin's plan for monumental propaganda. In his "Self-Portrait" (1954) the sculptor conveyed the power of Man's creativity. The work was awarded the Lenin Prize.
(From "Artists and Arts" Manual of English, book II by A. Zelinskaya)
Topics for Discussion
- Modern sculpture in Great Britain or the United States.
- A famous Soviet sculptor.
- A fine arts museum.
*Daumier [do'mje] (1808-1879), a French painter
**Degas [də 'a:] (1834-1917), a French impressionist painter
***Gaugin [о'æn] (1848-1903), a French painter
****Courbet [kur'bei] (1819-1877), a French painter
*****Cezanne [sei'zæn] (1836-1906), a French painter