My research for Part 3 of the course has followed two paths. Firstly I have looked at the works of the artists suggested in the course materials: Donatello, Rodin, de Kooning, Tucker, Kapoor, Isherwood and Villar Rojas. Rather than look in detail at each and every artist, I have tried to follow a thread through their work, particularly looking at their treatment of the human form and emotion.
In the early 15th century, he was the first sculptor of the Renaissance to move away from the Gothic idealised portrayal of the body and return to classical form but increasingly he developed emotion and individual character in his work. He and Brunelleschi undertook excavations in Rome, examining and measuring classical statues and architecture (Grossa and Valdarno, 2015). Did they inspire the whole Renaissance movement or were they just at the front of a wave which would have happened anyway? They certainly kick-started it.
All his work was biblical or mythological but was often a metaphor for the contemporary human struggles or condition.
Rodin’s first critically successful sculpture (after many years of working as a journeyman in decorative arts studios) was so life-like that he was accused of taking a life cast. His ‘Age of Bronze’ demonstrates his years of dedication to life drawing and understanding anatomical structure. He hasn’t called it ‘John the Baptist’ or any other classical or biblical allusion; it is an unnamed, ordinary man with real feelings. His ‘Man with a Broken Nose‘ shows his clear departure from classic ideas of beauty and his desire to portray real blood and bones people. The broken nose lends this face more character than any idealised form could have.
‘Age of Bronze’ lead to the commission to create monumental bronze doors for a planned museum (never built) and he worked on this for years. His figures are melted and twisted, pummelled by emotion (sketch of prodigal son). His practice was completely grounded in the understanding of the human body and its response to emotion.
De Kooning (1904-1997)
De Kooning was an accidental sculptor initially producing small pieces with the human form captured in motion or repose. His works capture a dynamic essence rather than a lifelike image. His ‘Clampicker’ is a man not just digging in the mud, but a primeval figure formed from ancient silts. His figures melt and flow: his Seated Figure on a Bench isn’t sitting on a bench so much as flooding over it.
Initially Tucker’s sculpture was not figurative, using modern materials and geometric shapes but later in his career, he produced forms such as ‘Gaia’ and ‘Sleeping Musician‘ which are more figurative and suggestive of the human body, but now it has been pummelled into a mass which references ancient stones, venerated for some faint suggestion of the human form. These works are without emotion, stolid, outside time and take the figure back to mythology and pagan religion.
Kapoor, even more than Tucker, seems concerned with purity of shape and colour. His works seem designed to transport the viewer to a different space or dimension, through reflection of light or total absorption of light, by creating funnels and holes through which the imagination is invited to pass to another, unseen, place. The human figure or condition is really only referenced in his works involving wax, silicon and resins which flow like congealed blood.
Isherwood carves sensuous organic forms which he says do ‘not imitate the body, however, the sensual aspect of the manipulated shape proposes physicality to the viewer even in the absence of figuration’ (Artist’s Statement). His columnar works might suggest the figure because, as humans, we are programmed to look for and respond to the human form. Sometimes, he himself suggests this by giving the works names such as ‘The Illusionist’ but one suspects the naming is quite arbitrary. Rather than exploring the human condition, his work is a pure exploration of shape, surface manipulation and texture.
Adrian Villar Rojas (b1980)
Villar Rojas works in clay and uses it to evoke the ephemeral and vulnerable nature of life. His work is highly figurative but he stretches reality by strange or startling juxtapositions evoking death, decay or rebirth. He says he is interested in “ambiguity between abstraction and figuration, which is a path to living an experience of total strangeness. One of my main concerns was how I could make the human figure look utterly strange and weird” (Adrián VILLAR ROJAS, no date). He uses the clay unfired, so that it will shrink and crack and eventually fall apart, as a metaphor for death and yet I find his works hopeful; they cry against the dying of the light.
Secondly, since the next project is clay modelling, I have looked through my reference books for works which spoke to me of a plastic medium, and investigating these by sketching them.
The first work was a sculpture, ‘Figure’, 1928, by Giacometti, very simple in form but suggestive of the human torso and also of primitive sculptures, particularly those of Mesoamerica. The material removed to form the limbs form depressions; I suspect that pierced, the structure would be too weak. I have imagined what the volume of the work might be considering the need for balance. The original is carved from stone but I can see how a form like this might be modelled in clay or plaster. The success of the work lies in its simplicity and smooth, but irregular curves.
‘Large Tragic Head’, 1942 by Jean Fautrier interested me because it bears so clearly the marks, or in this case scars, or its making. The original was made from plaster and you can see where he has racked his fingers through the material and carved into it with a gash for the mouth. My drawing does not get the pain and anguish of the face which was “directly inspired by the cries of tortured Nazi victims..heard… in Paris” (Causey, 1998, pp. 35-37). The rough modelling, clawing through features and non-anatomical, even deformed, head add to the sense of horror and misery.
This work, ‘Permutational Sculpture’ 1956, by William Turnbull (Causey, 1998:76-77) is the antithesis of Fautrier’s head. The pieces are designed to balance in various combinations. It this one we might read a figure, but, if so, it is so stylised as to loose all expression and character. However, once again, it speaks clearly of its material, this time by the irregular shaping and surface texture where a corrugated surface has been slapped into the clay. The clay has cracked in places, adding to a feel of ancient, excavated artifact.
Henry Moore’s ‘Upright Motive No 2’, 1955-56, has a different take on modelling with a plastic material. Actually, I think this may have been carved from the solid which Read (1964:167) says was originally Moore’s preference, but I can see how these shapes could appear out of modelling in clay. In contrast to Turnbull and Fautrier, Moore seeks smooth, organic curves suggestive of bones or stone carved by erosion. Like Turnbull, he has looked for a sense of balance achieved between teetering shapes.
I take several points from this for my own work in clay (and beyond): a sense of the sculpture’s hand and materiality can add strongly to a work, imperfection in mark and form can lend life and emotion, smooth curves can create balance and completeness but are most effective if not too geometrical, anatomical exactitude is not necessary in conveying life in the human form.