Archive for the 'Sculpture' Category



Some Dudes in Bronze

Auguste Rodin is sometimes called a Symbolist sculptor. He didn’t look the emo part, though. Rather, he had a Lord of the Rings dwarf air about him due to his fantastic beard. His most famous work is, of course, The Thinker and it was originally intended as a portrait of Dante contemplating his great poem or his trip to Hell.

Source: Wikipedia

There’s no need to talk about this piece. It’s everywhere and everybody knows it. It’s been on the Simpsons at least once and that makes it the statue among statues that symbolizes sculpture. Not many people know that it’s supposed to be a poet, though. It’s usually used to represent philosophy and people who like to make a clear separation between philosophy and poetry might find that interesting.

But there was a lot more to Rodin who was even in his own time the leading sculptor in the world. He looked to Italy for inspiration, but at the same time gave Renaissance art a new twist. Take, for instance, this figure called The Age of Bronze inspired by Michaelangelo’s Dying Slave:

Source: Wikipedia

Michaelangelo wins this round, but there’s clearly something else than an idealized youth in a dramatic situation going on here. It’s more realistic, reserved, clearly a person and not a thing that inhabits the realm between gods and men. In fact, Rodin was accused of simply casting an actual person, it’s so life-like. That’s a pretty flattering accusation, but he was also forced to make up stories about what the statue Symbolized or depicted. It could not remain just the likeness of some dude. In fact, he didn’t think it was about anything.

His St. John the Baptist Preaching showed that he had learned his lesson. The statue is too big to be a cast of an actual person and it has a biblical story attached to it.

Source: Wikipedia

It even has that John the Baptisty gesture, the finger pointing upward to God and salvation. But, again, it is clearly just some guy, not a hero or demigod.

If you’ve ever seen those real-life renderings of cartoon characters online you might sort of get the idea behind these works. They are as-if versions of those old masterpieces and the stories behind them, real-life renderings of some of the greatest themes in Western art. Had our stories and legends been made into the actual likeness of man they might have looked something like this.

As Rodin’s fame grew he was able to worry less about impressing wealthy patrons and being assessed through the work of others. As a result, he often made incomplete figures. Something like this Walking Man thing:

Source: Wikipedia

That’s not to say he just finished early because he was lazy. This is a bit better informed use of technique than that. It looks ancient and battered by time. The Realist tendency gives it away, though. It does not have the elegant simplicity of Greek statuary or the over articulated musculature of the Romans. It’s too subdued to be a Renaissance piece as well. If Impressionism can be found in sculpture it’s probably here.

Some Female Figures in Marble

When one visits a museum it’s usually a good idea to study the works one is going to see beforehand. It would be foolish to barge in and expect to appreciate all the great art gathered there as if knowledge of the aesthetic were wholly innate. It would be like going parachuting thinking: “No need to train, I already know how to fall.” My excuse for not knowing anything about French sculpture from the Renaissance to Neoclassicism before I went to the Louvre is that I didn’t have time to study. Also, I’ve never been that fond of sculpture. It’s a very public form of art and my interests have usually taken me looking for something a bit more intimate. It’s also partly the fact that looking at sculptures is so different from looking at paintings — they are somehow too complete and hence have no secrets that have to be deciphered through interpretation.Some historical things can fortunately be transposed from painting to sculpture, such as the influence of Mannerism in France. It can be seen in one of the most famous Diana pieces from the era, although it’s actually atypical in being a garden sculpture.

Source: Wikipedia

It can also be seen in Germain Pilon‘s Three Graces which I’m told was banged out of a single piece of marble. That’s pretty impressive.

Source: Wikipedia

It’s a monument for King Henry II commissioned by a Francesco Primaticcio who worked under Queen Catherine de’ Medici whose grief seems pretty expensive even by royal standards. The pedestal, by the way, is by an Italian called Domenico del Barbieri.

But the names here aren’t that important. Henry II was the successor of Francis Big Nose and the guy whose accidental death kept the art ball rolling in France at a time when Mannerist weirdness was celebrated as the newest thing in fashion and art. Some time afterwards, there was a reaction to this elongated elegance (sorry) and things started to get heavier. Notions of harmony and balance came back from the Classical ages, although they now had been through the Renaissance wringer and thus came out a bit mangled. It’s also the time of Louis XIV and Le Brun, and therefore court productions have a more unified air about them. They seem like they’ve been designed to perpetuate the monarchy and gone through Le Brun’s office. That’s because they very often did just that.

After the Sun King’s court disappeared, there seemed to be two opposing movements: Rococo or Rocaille and Classicism. I’m not sure how the chronology goes and who did exactly what, but it seemed to be a situation where some people liked really curly ornate stuff and others the classical lines of what they took to be antiquity. Some of these things are pretty awesome, like Guillaume Coustou the Elder‘s horsey-thing. That one is fantastic because its imposing size, but there are less melodramatic pieces and pieces that are therefore more interesting. Like these bathers by Allegrain, whose famous brother-in-law, Pigalle, is known better today because he gave his name to the red-light district of Paris.

Source: Wikipedia

And, by the way, the red-light district is pretty tame. It might even be a good place to find a nice cheap hotel for a few days.

Source: Wikipedia

Allegrain’s work is supposed to be a mixture of Rococo and Classicism, but because the subject is so unfamiliar to me I fail to see the fusion. All I can see is that there’s not too much ornamentation in the figures and that the figures themselves are balanced and proportional. The hair and the folds of their clothes offer a chance to show off, but otherwise the statues are pretty ascetic compared to what came before and what would come next.

What came next was perhaps not a style, but a single artist by the name of Antonio Canova. He was Italian, not French, and he was recognized as the greatest sculptor of his time. He made, among other amazing stuff, this thing:

Source: Wikipedia

If there is one statue that rivals Michaelangelo’s Dying Slave in the Louvre it would have to be this one, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss. That might be a bold statement, I don’t know, but it’s not difficult to see why this would be the epitome of French Neoclassical sculpture even though the statue and the artist are Italian. That is to say, it is a very influential piece from a very influential artist. It’s so mushy you can feel it squishing between your toes when it hits your eye and, furthermore, it’s based on a melodramatic soap opera of a story. Cupid has huge gay wings, for God’s sake. Why not have a litter of fluffy kittens running about as well? Despite all this Romantic nonsense, it’s still a magnificent thing to look at.

Angels With Human Faces

Oscar Wilde’s tomb is guarded by an angel, but he has not stopped all sorts of scribblers from writing their trite little slogans on it. Despite the rubbish that’s been peppered on and around it, and the fact that he has lost his impressive penis, it’s a striking Modernist take on the subject.

Source: Wikipedia

Wikipedia tells me some scholars think that cherubs and angels such as the one guarding Wilde’s remains are related to the Mesopotamian shedus, the sort of winged bull-man hybrids like the one below who mostly hangs out at the Louvre nowadays.

Source: Wikipedia

Angels are easy to understand for us who grew up with Christianity and superhero comics: they are on a different ontological plane from us and do all sorts of things for the Big Man, like Silver Surfers to God’s Galactus. Winged bull-man thingies are a bit more difficult. I’m no expert on this subject, but it seems like our idea of a general type of supernatural being, some thing with agentic powers that inhabits a higher realm whose existence is circuitously postulated by the existence of its inhabitants, has to be preceded by some sort of particular thing. As good a candidate as any for this are the hybrid gods of Egypt and the Mesopotamian shedus.

Source: Wikipedia

The latter are bulls with human heads and they are guardians of passageways, the middlemen you have to deal with before you get to meet the Wizard. These creatures are endowed with special powers due to their deformities, their freaky heads and mismatched bodies. They can be classified by their special powers and made into a hierarchy where we can find ourselves at the bottom and the Almighty at the top. There are these hierarchies in Christianity as well, although not many Christians make much of them anymore. Of course, there are also maps of the underworld in Epic poetry as well as of the realm of the angels and other beings of light. Everything fits together nicely and we know where we stand in the grand scheme of things — we know because it is our scheme. That’s our superpower.

Two related figures come to mind immediately. The Minotaur, a sort of reversed Assyrian bull-man, and the sphinx. Here’s a sphinx dating from the Middle Kingdom which would make it an unbelievable four thousand years old, now reduced to smiling at visitors behind a rope at the Louvre.

Source: Wikipedia

The subject itself is much older than that, but it’s difficult to grasp the age of this figure already, so I’ll leave it at that. It might be that the sphinx is some sort of proto-angel, but the word itself comes from the Greek. And in Greek myth we have sphinxes, centaurs, cyclops, gorgons, gryphons, sirens, and a plethora of other strange chimeric creatures. All these freaks cannot measure up to the Olympians, who are always portrayed as more man than anything else. They are far better than mortals in every respect, but they are more like us than the gods and angels of old.