David (1501-4) by Michelangelo.
One of the great works of High
Renaissance Biblical art, inspired
by the Sculpture of Ancient Greece.
The most enduring and, arguably, the greatest form of fine art known to man, sculpture has played a major role in the evolution of Western culture. Its origins, history and stylistic development are those of Western art itself. For example, as the key indicator of the artistic achievements of Classical Antiquity, it was an important influence behind the development of Italian Renaissance art. Together with architecture, it was the principal form of monumental religious art which for centuries (c.400-1800) was the driving force of European civilization. Even today, although continuously evolving, sculpture is still the leading method of expressing and commemorating both historical figures and events.
During its history, it has attracted some of the world's greatest artists, including classical sculptors like Phidias, Myron of Eleutherae, Polyklitos, Skopas, Lysippos, Praxiteles and Leochares, as well as Donatello (1386-1466), Michelangelo (1475-1654), Giambologna (1529-1608), the great Bernini (1598-1680), Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Henry Moore (1898-1986), Picasso (1881-1973), Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), and Damien Hirst (b.1965).
Supreme examples of this long-established form of public art can be found in many of the best art museums.
Also known as "plastic art", for the shaping process or "plasticity" it involves, sculpture should be fairly simple to define, but unfortunately it's not.
The Kiss (1889), by Auguste Rodin.
This influential marble cast (of
which there are three copies)
typifies Rodin's unique ability
to express intense emotion
through the physicality of sculpture.
Ever-Expanding Art Form
This is because the definition or meaning of sculpture has widened a great deal during the 20th century. With the development of new sculptural tools and technology, contemporary works now employ such a huge variety of new materials, techniques and spatial schemes of reference, that "sculpture" is no longer a fixed term which refers to a fixed category of objects or creative activities, but rather an ever-expanding art form that is constantly evolving and redefining itself.
Definition of Traditional Sculpture
Traditional sculpture prior to the 20th century had four main defining characteristics. First, it was the only three dimensional art form. Second, it was representational. Third, it was viewed as an art of solid form. Any empty spaces involved were essentially secondary to its bulk or mass. Moreover, as a solid form it had no movement. Fourth, traditional sculptors used only two main techniques: carving or modelling. That is, they either carved directly from their chosen material (eg. stone, wood), or they built up the sculpture from the inside, so to speak, using clay, plaster, wax and the like. The models for traditional sculpting derive from Greek and Roman Sculpture of Classical Antiquity.
Definition of Modern and Contemporary Sculpture
The art of sculpture is no longer restricted by traditional sculptural concepts, materials or methods of production. It is no longer exclusively representational but frequently wholly abstract. Nor is it purely solid and static: it may reference empty space in an important way, and can also be kinetic and capable of movement. Finally, as well as being carved or modelled, it can be assembled, glued, projected (holographically), or constructed in a wide variety of ways. As a result the traditional four-point meaning and definition of sculpture no longer applies.
Basic Forms of Sculpture Now Outdated
Previously, the history of art understood only two basic sculptural forms: sculpture in the round (also called free-standing sculpture) and reliefs (including bas-relief, haut-relief, and sunken-relief). Nowadays, new forms of light-related sculpture (eg. holograms) and mobile sculpture necessitate a redefinition of the possible forms.
19TH CENTURY SCULPTORS
The sheer diversity of 21st century plastic art has left us with only one defining characteristic: three dimensionality. Thus the current definition of sculpture is something like this:
Three-dimensional art begins with prehistoric sculpture. The earliest known works of the Stone Age are The Venus of Berekhat Ram and The Venus of Tan-Tan, both primitive effigies dating to 230,000 BCE or earlier. Thereafter, sculptors have been active in all ancient civilizations, and all major art movements up to the present. After Egyptian Sculpture, the principal Golden Ages in the evolution of sculpture have been: (1) Classical Antiquity (500-27 BCE); (2) The Gothic Era (c.1150-1300); (3) The Italian Renaissance (c.1400-1600); and (4) Baroque Sculpture (1600-1700). For a detailed chronology of the origins and development of 3-D art, see: History of Sculpture.
Because of its three-dimensional nature and the fact it can be displayed in many more different types of location than (say) painting, there are a number of important concepts, and theoretical issues which govern the design and production of sculpture. Here is a brief sample.
Elements of Sculptural Design
The two principal elements of sculpture are mass and space. Mass refers to the sculpture's bulk, the solid bit contained within its surfaces. Space is the air around the solid sculpture, and reacts with the latter in several ways: first, it defines the edges of the sculpture; second, it can be enclosed by part of the sculpture, forming hollows or areas of emptiness; third, it can link separate parts of the sculpture which thus relate to one another across space.
Works of sculpture can be assessed and differentiated according to their treatment of these two elements. For instance, some sculptors focus on the solid component(s) of their sculpture, while others are more concerned with how it relates to the space in which it sits (eg. how it "moves through" space or how it encloses it). Compare Egyptian sculture with the works of Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and Naum Gabo (1890-1977) and you'll see what I mean.
Another important element of (most) sculptures are their surfaces. These can produce quite different visual effects according to whether they are (eg) convex or concave, flat or modelled, coloured or uncoloured. For example, convex surfaces express contentment, satiety, internal pressure and general "fullness", while concave surfaces suggest external pressure, an inner insubstantiality and possible collapse. Then again, a flat surface carries no suggestion of three-dimensionality, while a modelled surface - one that contains light/shadow-catching ridges or hollows - can convey strong effects of 3-D forms emerging from or retreating into darkness, similar to a painter's use of chiaroscuro. Although most traces of pigment have now disappeared, a good deal of the sculpture produced in Antiquity (eg. Egyptian, Greek, Roman statues/reliefs) and Medieval times (eg. gothic cathedral scultures) was covered with paint or other colouring materials, including gold or silver leaf and other precious colourants. Alternatively, sculptors carved directly from precious coloured materials, like ivory, jade, and gold, or combinations thereof. Colour can obviously endow a surface with differing attributes of (inter alia) texture, proportion, depth and shape. An interesting use of colour by a modern sculptor can be seen in the Pop-Art work Ale Cans (1964, oil on bronze, Offentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel) by Jasper Johns (b.1930).
Principles of Sculptural Design
These regulate the approach of sculptors to such matters as orientation, proportion, scale, articulation and balance.
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The Best Way to Understand Sculpture
Are you baffled by all these weird concepts about the elements and principles of sculptural design theory? Don't worry, many art critics are, too. The best way to understand sculpture is to look at as much of it as you can, ideally in the flesh. If possible, visit your nearest public art museum and take a look at some copies of Greek or Renaissance sculpture. This should give you a good grasp of traditional-style works. In addition, if feasible, visit any exhibition which includes works by abstract sculptors like Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), Jean Arp (1886-1966), Naum Gabo (1890-1977), Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), or Richard Serra (b.1939). Works of abstract sculpture by any of these modern artists should give you plenty to think about.
Almost any material capable of being shaped in three dimensions can be used in sculpting. But some materials like stone - especially hard limestone (marble) - wood, clay, metal (eg. bronze), ivory and plaster have exceptional "plastic" attributes and have therefore proved most popular to sculptors from prehistoric times onward. As a result, for most of its history, sculpture has been created using four basic methods: stone carving, wood carving, bronze casting and clay firing. A rare type was chryselephantine sculpture, reserved exclusively for major cult statues.
Stone sculpture, probably the earliest form of monumental sculpture as well as the best medium for monumental works, was common to many eras of the Paleolithic Stone Age. Prototype works of prehistoric stone sculpture include the basaltic figurine known as The Venus of Berekhat Ram (c.230,000 BCE or earlier) and quartzite figurine known as The Venus of Tan-Tan (c.200,000 BCE or earlier). Since then, probably the largest body of stone sculpture was the series of column statues and reliefs produced for the great European Gothic cathedrals of Chartres, Notre Dame de Paris, Amiens, Reims, Cologne, among many others, during the period 1150-1300.
Stones from all three principal categories of rock formation have been sculpted, including igneous (eg. granite), sedimentary (eg. limestones and sandstones) and metamorphic (eg. marble). Pure white Italian Carrara marble was used in Roman art and in Italian Renaissance Sculpture by artists like Donatello and Michelangelo, while Greek artists preferred Pentelic marble to make the Parthenon sculptures. (See also: Marble Sculpture.) Irish sculpture in the late medieval era was principally confined to Celtic High Crosses, made from granite.
Supreme examples of marble sculpture are Venus de Milo (c.130-100 BCE) by Alexandros of Antioch; Laocoon and His Sons (c.42-20 BCE) by Hagesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus; Pieta (1497-99) and David by Michelangelo; The Ecstasy of St Teresa (1647) by the Baroque genius Bernini; Cupid and Psyche (1796-7) by the Neo-classicist Antonio Canova; and The Kiss (1889) by the French genius Auguste Rodin.
The best-known form of hardstone sculpture, jade carving has been a speciality of Chinese master craftsmen ever since Neolithic times. Nephrite and Jadeite are the two most common types of jade stone, although bowenite (a form of serpentine) is also used. The Chinese attribute important qualities to jade, including purity, beauty, longevity, even immortality, and sculptors value jade stones for their lustre, translucent colours and shades.
Wood carving is the oldest and most continuous type of sculpture. Especially convenient for small works, wood carving was widely practised during the Prehistoric age, and later during the era of Early Christian sculpture - see, for instance, the gilded oak carving known as the Gero Cross (965-70, Cologne Cathedral) - and had its Golden Age in the West, especially in Germany, during the Medieval period and the Northern Renaissance: witness the exquisite religious limewood carvings of the German wood-carvers Veit Stoss (1445-1533) and Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531). Later, in the Baroque era, wood was often coated in plaster stucco and painted, in the manner of ancient Egyptian art. Great modern wood-sculptors include Henry Moore (1898-1986) known for his elmwood Reclining Figure (1936), and Barbara Hepworth (1903-75).
Sculpting in bronze is a complicated process which was developed independently in China, South America and Egypt. Bronze casting requires the modelling of a form in clay, plaster or wax, which is later removed after the molten bronze has been poured. The lost-wax method was a common technique during the Renaissance era. It was also a widely used technique in African sculpture from Benin and Yoruba.
Famous early masterpieces include The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro (c.2,500 BCE), the wonderful bronze figurine of the Harappan Culture (Indus Valley Civilization, India), and the hoard of bronze plaques and sculptures (made using piece-mold casting) with jade decoration found in the Yellow River Basin of Henan Province, Central China, dating from the Xia Realm and later Shang Dynasty Period (from c.1,750 BCE).
Later bronze masterpieces include the Gates of Paradise, by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), David by Donatello (1386-1466), and by Michelangelo, Rape of the Sabines (c.1583) by Giambologna, The Burghers of Calais (1884-9) and the Gates of Hell (1880-1917) by Auguste Rodin, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) by Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), Bird in Space (1923) by the Romanian abstract sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), Woman with her Throat Cut (1932) and Walking Man I (1960) by Alberto Giacometti (1901-66), and The Destroyed City (1953) by Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967).
Sculpting in clay dates from the Paleolithic era of the Stone Age. Known (when fired) as terracotta sculpture, it is the most plastic of all sculpting methods, versatile, light, inexpensive and durable. Although clay mainly used for preliminary models, later cast in bronze or carved in stone, it has also been used to produce full-scale sculpture. The earliest known clay sculpture is the Venus of Dolni Vestonice (c.26,000 - 24,000 BCE), a ceramic figurine dating to the Gravettian Period, discovered in the Czech Republic. Another Paleolithic masterpiece is the Tuc d'Audoubert Bison of the Magdalenian period (c.13,500 BCE), an unfired relief of two bison, found in the Tuc d'Audoubert Cave, Ariege, France. A third prehistoric masterpiece is the Thinker of Cernavoda (c.5,000 BCE), the iconic terracotta figurine created during the mesolithic Hamangia Culture in Romania.
However, the most famous example of clay sculpture must be the Chinese Qin Dynasty Terracotta Army (the 'Terracotta Warriors'), a collection of 8,000 clay warriors and horses unearthed in 1974 in Shaanxi province, China. Dating to 246-208 BCE, each of the 8,000 clay soldiers is unique, with a different facial expression and hairstyle.
Other Sculptural Materials
Other traditional materials employed to create sculptures include ivory and whalebone, as well as precious metals.
The earliest known examples of ivory/bone sculpture include: the celebrated mammoth ivory carvings of prehistoric animals, birds, and therianthropic figures (c.33,000-30,000 BCE) discovered in the Vogelherd caves of the Swabian Jura, Germany; the Venus of Kostenky (c.30,000 BCE), a mammoth ivory carving of a female figure, found in Russia; and the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (c.28,000 BCE) a mammoth ivory statuette found in the Swabian Jura.
Famous works made from precious stones include the Mesopotamian sculpture The Ram in the Thicket (c.2500 BCE), a small statue made from gold-leaf, copper, lapis lazuli, and red limestone, dicovered in the Great Death Pit, Ur; and the Maikop Gold Bull (c.2,500 BCE), a gold sculpture (made using the lost-wax casting method) from the Maikop Culpture of the North Caucasus, Russia.
Materials employed by 20th century sculptors include secondary materials such as concrete, as well as an endless list of modern materials such as stainless steel, fibreglass, aluminium, foam rubber, papier mache, bicycle-parts, plastics, stained glass, "found" items, and so on. For more about certain types of postmodernist plastic art, see: Ice sculpture and also Sand art.
Notable 20th century sculptures made from non-traditional materials include:
Merzbau (Merz building) (1923)
made from paper scraps, multi-media.
Lobster Telephone (1936)
made from plastic, painted plaster, mixed media.
Object ("Furry Breakfast")
(1936) Fur-covered cup, saucer & spoon.
Young Shopper (1973) made
from polyester and fibreglass.
Floor Burger (1962) made
from canvas, foam-rubber and cardboard
Berlin Junction (1987) made
Puppy (1992) made from flowering
plants, steel, wood, and earth.
Maman (1999) (spider) made
from steel and marble.
For the Love of God (2007)
made from human skull, platinum and diamonds.
The basic traditional forms of this 3-D art are: free-standing sculpture, which is surrounded on all sides by space; and relief sculpture (encompassing bas-relief, alto-relievo or haut relief, and sunken-relief), where the design remains attached to a background, typically stone or wood. Examples of relief work can be seen in megalithic art such as the complex spiral engravings found at Newgrange (Ireland), on Trajan's Column in Rome, the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, and the Parthenon. Gothic architectural reliefs appear on all major European Cathedrals of the period: witness the Saints on the south trancept of Chartres cathedral, and the apostles on the north trancept of Rheims cathedral.
It can also be classified by its subject matter. A statue, for instance, like the two versions of David by Donatello and Michelangelo, is usually a representational full length 3-D portrait of a person, while a bust usually depicts only the head, neck and shoulders - see the bust of George Washington (1788) by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828). A statue of a person on horseback, such as the one by Giambologna (1529-1608) of Cosimo de' Medici in Florence, is termed an equestrian sculpture. Perhaps the greatest ever equestrian statue is Falconet's Baroque-style Bronze Horseman in Decembrist Square, St Petersburg: a monument to Tsar Peter the Great and a masterpiece of Russian sculpture, albeit created by a Frenchman.
Religious wood-carving was taken to new heights during the Northern Renaissance by master carvers like: Tilman Riemenschneider and Veit Stoss, known for their intricate wooden altarwork and figurines, while the Baroque Counter-Reformation stimulated supreme examples of Catholic Christian art in the form of bronze and marble sculptures by (inter alia) Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), known for the Cornaro Chapel series (1645-52) including The Ecstasy of St Teresa.
Modern secular public art features famous sculptures like the Statue of Liberty, the Chicago Picasso - a series of metal figures produced for the Chicago Civic Centre and the architectural sculpture The Spire of Dublin, known as the 'spike', created by Ian Ritchie (b.1947). Contemporary public sculpture continues to challenge traditional concepts of 3-D art through its new spatial concepts and its use of everyday materials assembled or created in numerous installation-type and fixed forms of sculpture.
Modern versus Postmodern Sculpture
Since the 1960s, so-called modern art has been replaced by contemporary art or postmodernism. Unlike the earlier modernists, today's postmodernist sculptors (eg. Pop artists like Claes Oldenburg, Robert Indiana and Neo-Pop artist Jeff Koons), feel free to use a wider variety of materials, images and methods of display. Styles tend to be more localized, as today's tendency among contemporary art movements is to distrust the grand ideas and internationalism of the modern art movements of the late 19th century and early-mid 20th century.
For more information about the plastic arts, including works cast in bronze, carved in wood or ivory, or created out of marble, terracotta, ceramic clay, or stone, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART