Thursday, 6 March 2014

The Language Of Sculpture: Bernini Canova Rodin

Finally we reach specific sculptors and a review of three in chronological order. Given that we end with Rilke writing a poem in response to Rodin, it seems appropriate to begin with a few poetic observations.

In my experience, occasionally you discover a piece of art which speaks directly to you, and only poetry gives you the freedom to put words into the 'mouth' of the sculpture. This connection between the two art forms for me goes to the heart of understanding both.


Bernini was all about bringing art forms together and breaking boundaries in what is known as bel composto. His church creations are a theatrical installations with a combination of the sculptural, pictorial and architectural. St Teresa is the perfect example. She is in mid transverberation and is sculptural, however the viewer has to step back to see the bel composto, the pictorial effect, essentially a scene from a tableau. Mirrors, lights, and candles all contribute to a theatrical event with viewer as spectator.

His genius in portraying a narrative spills over into his pure sculptural stuff. In the V&A's Neptune, his Swirling cloak becomes a dolphin from a far, however the effect disappears when you are close to. *makes note to check it out*

He was famed in his own time for his realistic portrayals of sitters. One Pedro Montoya sat for him and the results were praised as 'this is him petrified'. When his fellow churchmen saw the real Montoya, they greeted him as the copy, playing with the ideas of representation of the sculptural and the real person.

This reality was absolutely of the moment. He used the placing of sculpted legs to cast shadows into niche. Light was being used by Caravaggio and Rembrandt to great realistic, innovative and dramatic effect. Although he made use of traditional groupings, his handling of the surface was different. Innovation is providing the 'colour' with different type of flesh, especially when he adds a waxy finish to enhance the flesh.

His Apollo and Daphne makes use of all his genius and innovative thinking. Because we know were it was originally, we can start to think narratively about the transformation. The viewer approached the group from the back, where Apollo can be seen with the I transformed parts of Daphne. As you come further round more of the laurel/Daphne is revealed. Ovid's words are reflected in the skill of sculpture, from marble to flesh to tree. Seeing, then becomes a journey, transforming expressive surfaces in paper and stone.

He took the static Belvedere Apollo and made it move; as if he nearly had the classical world in his grasp but not quite. As the epigramme says, 'the lover who would fleeting beauty clasp, finds bitter fruit, dry leaves are all he'll grasp'. This poem was said to have sprung out spontaneously. The birth of poetry and the viewer's voice completes the sculptural effect.


Was working in 1770s and starts his career in Venice . Initially he is traditional/classical, using Bernini as his starting point. His Perseus was based on the Apollo Belvedere, but he redressed Apollo as a different god. Changing identity, redressing, redefining the modern against the old. Finally this piece briefly stood where the Belvedere stood - the ultimate accolade.

Upon his move to Rome, he embraced the neo-classical. Inspired like others before him, he took tales from Ovid. But unlike Bernini he doesn't do the moving, transformational story. Instead he shows the End, the triumph over Minotaur, the monstrous v ideal. He is juxtaposing contrasting fundamental philosophical truths.

His Hercules was inspired by the Greek diskobos. Playing with form and motion and the surface handling, it demonstrates circular 3D motion. Critics like Fernow struggled with his work saying it was never satisfying, always leaping and moving...Confuses the eye. However his presentation of surface was startling... 'Imitating soft and beautiful surfaces of nature '. Surface was fundamental to de Quincy in 1815.

Finishing was everything. The last touches of the artist, the hand of genius, applied by his own hand. Sensitivity...Described by 'warming insensible into love' by Countess Albrizzi and 'senses delight...made by caressing' by Cicognara. Sculpture is all about the touch, which goes to the heart of matter; sculpture not about sight but touch.

Canova's Three Graces are dazzling and magical, but the lecturer suggests that surfaces get in the way - the more formless the form appears. Basically it's too perfect. Joshua Reynolds questioned the notion of the ideal, perfect beauty v the intellectual. In Canova's work we are given everything, but the classical fragmented torso is imaginative, and leads us to something other than just the surface.


Rodin could not be accused of lack of imagination. He was fascinated by fragments. His 'The Age of Bronze' was a figure without narrative. It achieved a certain amount of acclaim and was described as infused with life which was a compliment. The he was accused of cheating by casting from a real life model.

Despite his modernist tendencies he wanted to recover from something from classical, not reject it. He was obsessed with the Parthenon frieze and did drawings/casts/photos from Parthenon. He described these classical fragments as 'Mutilated gods', 'close to nature'. They were complete in their incompleteness.

'The sculpture of antiquity sought the logic of human body, I seek its psychology.' For Rodin it is intellectual, he looks at the classical work and takes away what the surface said to him. Gsell said Rodin thought the torso could see the expression of emotion through the body. He compares the body with a beautiful book. The surface can be read.

And that brings me back to Rilke and his poetry on the archaic torso of Apollo. He probably had Rodin's study of A walking man in mind. Comparing the torsos, they are so similar. Sculpture requires a voiced response; a viewer should respond actively! You must change your life...move, speak. This way sculpture was free to move into abstraction, a form, it can speak from its surface. Which is why my favourite modernist sculpture demanded that I write a poem.

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