Sunday, 12 January 2014

What is Sculpture?

Mama mia!
In the absence of any MA lectures this term most people are probably catching up with their friends, revisiting some nice art shows, having facials or watching Celebrity Big Brother or something. Which is why I am taking a sculpture course at the Courtauld. I was having a Christmas dinner with some similarly study addicted friends and during a conversation about how annoyed* with Birkbeck I was, she mentioned this venerable institution at Somerset House. It turns out they do some really excellent non stressy modules there, so I signed up for this term and these are my rough notes.

'Art is painting' many galleries would have us believe. Exhibitions have traditionally focused on the two dimensional, leaving sculpture, architecture, print makers, decorative arts under represented. Now, in my view, this opening gambit is being challenged, with many major institutions widening their scope to embrace other media. A glance at this years planned exhibitions show fashion, jewellery, design, architecture, which makes it interesting to be focusing on sculpture this term. A stroll around any part of London shows that we are surrounded by it - on the fronts of buildings, in our squares and churches, office lobbies and on our streets.

The course outline says, 'over the course of the term, Dr Peter Dent (Bristol University), and Dr Jim Harris (Ashmolean Museum), will discuss themes and ideas concentrating mainly on the history of sculpture in the western tradition over the past thousand years. The lectures will deal with sumptuous examples of the sculptor’s art, as well as texts and technical material across a broad span of time and place, giving a sense of the diversity and richness of European sculpture in all its aspects; material, literary, iconographic, functional and theoretical.' There is the possibility that we could get bogged down in philosophical debates and the lengthy discussion about definitions so Dr Dent dispensed with this stuff quite quickly before setting out some modern hypotheses. 

School of Guercino, 
Della Scoltura Si, Della Pittura No
Louvre Museum
What is sculpture? The late medieval Andrea Pisano placed sculpture and painting side by side, in a close relationship, mutually defining each other. Essentially they were craft pursuits. His allegories show active figures in classical garb, making a claim for their links and continuity with the past. However moving forward in time, Leonardo made some disparaging remarks about sculpture, favouring painting instead. Guercino's image of why sculpture is better because it is sensory; he shows the blind man touching the bust, he gets the 3D form and they argue that sculpture is more truthful because of the extra dimension. It is the art of sense of touch; the nature of truth and knowledge is still being debated.

Peter then turned to  Jacques Prou relief sculpture of 'Sculpture consulting Painting over the portrait of Louis XIV' (1682) Initially it seems that art is superior over sculpture; there is the lack of colour, the relief within relief, all the while obtaining Painting's opinions. On second glance, however, Sculpture is sat and only the king is allowed to sit. Sculpture is holding the relief and Art is touching it, her colourless palette echoing the sculpted oval of the king and yet the unworked paint can't be touched. Flowers are woven into Sculpture's hair and suggests that the sculptor's colours are textures. No superficial powers, like artists need, are required. Sculpture is clearly superior.

Into the 1800s, painting became the primary source for artistic critical engagement so by the mid 1900s, artist Adolph "Ad" Reinhardt (American, 1913–1967) once commented, "Sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting. Basically sculpture is anything that painting is not and therefore difficult to define because of the sheer diversity. So how do we get away from this unhelpful connection with painting?

I felt the temperature of the room drop when he put up the next slide. We had 13 images taken from the book '13 sculptures that children should know'. These are: The ancient Greek 'Winged victory'; the shrine of three kings, a reliquary in CologneDancing Ganesha;  Great Buddha; Michaelangelo's David; Bernini's Four Rivers in Rome; the Burghers of Calais; Mbala mask; Brancusi's Endless Column; Oldenburg's Toothpaste Tube; the Spiral Jetty; the Paris Stravinsky fountain; and Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor. The lecture theatre of very serious people may have felt startled that we were being introduced to sculpture as if we were children. This is a mixture of shrines, mask, architecture, landscape art, 3D things/objects and noticeable that they all have extent in space, there are no reliefs. However such an odd group of pieces is useful in forming various hypothesis of an art form. 

His first suggestion was that sculpture plays with the human form. All of the pieces could arguably have some connection with the human body, whether obviously of people or requiring interaction like walking on or being reflected in it. So sculpture is about the body, representing embodiment. There is a physical engagement; reliquary chest is for healing, miracles and carried in a procession. The Mask is worn and you can walk on the Jetty.

What about the scale of these pieces? Life size reflects back at us. Some are smaller, like the mask, the tiny shrine figures and Ganesha. But then there is over human scale. The Jetty is massive and Cloud Gate you can walk under. These are all playing with games of scale.

They are all located in open public environments. In temples, seats of government, churches, fountains, and even the mask was used in public ritual. All of them are designed to be seen, obviously depending on the scale - small and large.

He hypothesised about the material of these pieces. Although it makes us think about techniques - in sculpture there are two types; taking away and adding or carving and modelling. But the variety is endless therefore putting limits on material and techniques doesn't help. So what about colour? Many of those are monochrome...they are not paintings! But we could add colour to all of these as antique sculpture was painted, as was Ganesha. So polychrome is there. If material, technique and colour aren't so important, then we can think about the surface of the pieces instead. 

Sculpture is an art concerned with surface; the variety of surface articulation is sophisticated, in these we have drapery, flesh, etc, an art of varied surfaces. But conversely if there is surface, there are also interiors, a literal 'insides'. We can walk inside Buddha, the fountains have pipes, the reliquary is a box, the contents of the tube of tooth paste, a mask covers the face. Sculpture as having inside is important.

His final hypothesis concerns movement - Stravinsky fountain is the only one true sculptural object which moves. But what about the others? The bodies are frozen in motion with fluttering drapery and clever contrapposto poses. Masks can move, the Column creates rhythm and movement. The water is changing shape of Jetty. Therefore we could argue that movement is a central part of all them. Reproduction doesn't allow us to move around them. The viewers moving adds to movement of sculpture.

So to summarise, sculpture tends to be: 3D; connected with the human body; plays with scale; open to the public; no particular/specific material; texture/colour is key; concerned with movement. Ultimately any definition is going to be problematic and we end up with lots of questions. Reinhard has it right. It's surprising, not predictable.

I would hate to suggest that the lecture lost some of the group when he used a selection of pieces from a book for children. Some of the questions raised after the lecture hint at a sniffiness which is going to be interesting. Inevitably someone raised the question about the author's choice of pieces - they conform to a the continuous tradition of art, focusing on chronology and are primarily 'western'. Yes, I get that other cultures have sculpture but out of the 13, three are international in scope, as well as embracing quite radical ideas which is a good thing. One person also queried why found objects were not included - Duchamp is sculptural. Why this, not that?! Perhaps these other pieces were cheap to reproduce in book form. I think it was a good place to start.

Other comments took issue with 'movement', describing it as a catch all. You or it can move. The lecturer acknowledged that some paintings also required some form of movement of the viewer, eg., a big fresco cycle or something like Holbein's Ambassadors. Both quite extreme cases. Light and movement was also mentioned, many sculptures have to consider what happens when light reflects across textured surfaces which can be a blessing and a curse. A painter can put shadow in but the sculptor has to battle the light.

Someone brought up the idea of sculpture as a rhetorical art, which brought us back to the beginning when we noted that it is all around our city in memorials, organisations, symbols. We start to think about 'hidden depths'. We see the surface, yet it contains a hidden message. Political. Ugly-undesirable/vice Beauty-desirable/virtue.

So we have started on a journey into sculpture, one which is already fraught with difficulties in definition, ideas, etc., but we all agreed on one thing. You can't learn about a piece of sculpture from a book! You need to see it, be in front of the thing - or under, over, in, behind it. 

*I have 9 months to do a dissertation. I'm going to get bored.

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