Ideas for a Modern(ist) Sculptor

The Modernist movement in sculpture utterly changed the methods and thus the conception of sculpture in Europe. As always in art, the change is not only conceptual, but deeply practical, because artworks are objects and they define art. By this post, I hope to investigate some of the issues related to this style and its novelty. My arguments are going to cover some authors working in the United Kingdom between the 20s and the 60s, such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and Jacob Epstein.

Red Stone Dancer (1913) – Henri Gaudier-Brzeska

In the Nineteenth century, the artist had little part in the actual carving of statues. Auguste Rodin and his workshop are the best example of the sculpture practice at that time. The artist designed the work of art beforehand by drawing, and then produced a model in clay or wax. Several assistants were then entrusted with the reproduction of the model in another medium, such as marble or bronze. The artist did not carry on the actual carving/casting process, but he took care of adding the “characteristic” touches (Rodin). In defense of his master, the American artist Malvina Hoffman states that Rodin was skilled and capable of doing the necessary steps on his own, but the number of commissions and the effort required by sculpture made the help of apprentices necessary.

This system led to a great degree of specialisation among artists and craftsmen. In Rodin’s studio, everyone had specific tasks. Someone realised plaster moulds, while others took care of the first, rough treatment of the blocks of marble. Somebody else would take care of the most refined carving and, in bronze-casting, a separate craftsman would prepare the patination. Therefore, when Henry Moore started studying stone carving at the Leeds College of Art in 1920, his lectures consisted of copying models through a pointing machine, scaling them up or down with no creative effort whatsoever. Unsurprisingly, he left in 1921. In later interviews, he declared that his teacher, Barry Hart, had the skills of a sculptor, but the mind of an artisan.

Recumbent Figure (1938) – Henry Moore

Put aside the academic method, Moore started exploring the potential of direct carving. It is an ancient technique, based on the subtraction of material from a block of material (wood, stone, marble). Known since ancient times, direct carving had gradually disappeared since the Renaissance, but the Modernist sculptors resumed it with renovated enthusiasm. Direct carving is a laborious experience, where the artist faces the harsh opposition of the material with his own forces. At least, this is the fashionable image that these men and women tried to foster. The vast number of photographs depicting Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth at work in far-from-candid poses shows how conscious they were, and that they were trying to spread a specific understanding of sculpture.

Henry Moore at work

Practically, Moore and his fellows abandoned the systematic techniques of the Nineteenth century. They did not use models extensively, they seldom drew their designs beforehand, and they did not rely on maquettes and pointing machines. Clearly, this is a generalisation, and we have to be careful when considering each artist singularly. For example, Hepworth left behind an incredible number of drawings, and she herself declared that she loved drawing profoundly. Yet, she said, none of these drawings was supposed to be the model for a sculpture. The idea was already in her head, and she did not need a visual medium to realise it. On the other hand, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska produced preparatory drawings for the Red Stone Dancer, although they seem more preliminary studies than actual models.

Pelagos – Barbara Hepworth

The simplification of the process also corresponded to the use of essential, fluid lines. They guide the viewer in a continuous stream throughout the artwork’s surface. Often, they have biomorphic connotations. For example, in Moore the notions of landscape and anatomy often blend, creating similitudes between breasts, knees, and mountains. An example is the group Vertebrae, where rocky formations in bronze are interpreted as disjoint bones. Naturalism is not the aim of these artists. As Jacob Epstein stated, imitation should not be the sculptor’s aim. Indeed, in Modernist sculpture forms are reactions to reality and not its representation.

Vertebrae (1968) – Henry Moore

I hope to have conveyed a vague idea of Modernism’s complexity. The theme is far from being solved by this short post, and I hope to write some further comment in the future. So far, we have discussed the practical changes of this new style, and the way it broke the continuity with Nineteenth-century sculpture. The meaning has only been approximatively mentioned, and future posts will attempt to fulfil this void.


Featured image

Red Stone Dancer

Recumbent Figure

Moore at work


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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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