A Sculpture Essay

This is an essay for the Modernist Sculpture elective in Art History & Theory at the National Art School. It received a High Distinction result. There’s a few issues with it that were largely symptoms of the constricted word length – such as the description of European isolation not placing enough emphasis on it being artistic isolation, while Europe was in fact very connected to the rest of the world through trade and imperial power. I also had to cut a discussion of Modernist architecture from Frank Lloyd Wright onwards being a result of FLW’s encounter with Japanese architecture at the Chicago World’s Fair. So, with those flaws in mind…

Essay Question 1: For centuries sculpture was conceptualised in terms of either taking away or moulding. Then, in the 20th century, Picasso began assembling work, first as collage and then as three-dimensional object:

Pieces of scrap iron, springs, saucepan lids, sieves, bolts and screws picked out with discernment from the rubbish heap…. The vestiges of their origins remained visible as witness to the transformation that the magician had brought about, a challenge to the identity of anything and everything.

(Roland Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, London 1958, 241; as quoted in Herbert Read, A Concise History of Modern Sculpture, London, 1964, 67-8)

Discuss the historical and sculptural implications of this.

Construction and collage represent the expression of a fundamental change in western culture at the end of the 19th century – the failure of the single-source, cohesive unified paradigm for society and aesthetics, and the creation of a fresh modern culture from a patchwork of disparate sources.

For hundreds of years following the fall of the Roman, and Byzantine empires, Europe was effectively isolated culturally. European culture and artistic traditions survived the dark ages to be reborn in the Renaissance and effectively spend the next four centuries chasing their own tails to rediscover and refine the existing artistic traditions of ancient Greece and Rome.

By the 19th century, art in the mainstream had ossified as an academic movement within the neoclassical style, arbitrated by the salon. This was to change, however, as avant-garde artists began to explore the artefacts of both “primitive” and “refined” non-European cultures. After hundreds of years of isolation, Europe experienced an infusion of cultural artefacts such as prints from Japan, and masks from Africa & the Pacific. These crashed into European culture in a way that was largely unprecedented. Even the re-integration of Greece, which had previously been closed off under Ottoman rule, was primarily refreshing cultural D.N.A that was already present through the Roman cultural lineage.

I disagree with Herbert Read on the Asian art question 1, insofar as I don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that when European painting changes course to a flatness paradigm after hundreds of years in pursuit of depth and naturalism, that its correlation with encountering the very same flatness in another culture’s art is just a coincidence 2, or at best a confirmation of what Europe was already going to do 3. For a more modern example, I don’t think the “just so” arrangement of basic, yet imperfect, geometric primitives in Hepworth’s 1935 Three Forms can be explained without taking Asian aesthetics into account.

The sheer alienness of Asian, Pacific and African art is hard to over-emphasise. As a continent (including western-facing Tsarist / pre-communist Russia), Europe was effectively isolated by sea, with the Ottoman Empire on its landward face. For all the difference the Islamic world presented, at least it shared a mercantile culture, whose non-representative artistic style could be assimilated as a decorative feature within existing European aesthetics, such as at St Pancras Station. Additionally, it was structured around familiar institutions of dynastic rule and monotheistic, Abrahamic religion. Tribal art and culture offered no such common ground.

The ability of primitivism to demonstrate that a culture without the baggage of Christian morals was not only possible, but also potentially preferable, is a symptom of the gradual stagnation and failure of European cultural tradition 4. This would culminate in the Great War, and lead to the creation of new cultural movements, and “ism”s. What these tend to have in common is that for all their pretence of being new, they’re still modelled within the neoclassical worldview. When thinking of construction in sculpture, what might immediately spring to mind is Constructivism. However, that movement is in fact the antithesis of what I believe to be important about construction and collage.

The constructivist premise is that all things should be united toward a common (political or social) goal. One spends one’s life in a constructivist building, goes to a constructivist workplace, makes constructivist art, eats a constructivist meal, and so on. The Der Stijl movement features a similar perspective – a Der Stijl city is made up of Der Stijl buildings, in whose Der Stijl rooms can be found Der Stijl furniture (preferably without people to ruin their lines). Both these movements are expressions of the neoclassical urge to press the entirety of culture into a single comprehensible framework, in which a detail is a perfect representation of the whole.

Take any square inch of a neoclassical painting, or any cubic inch of the surface of a neoclassical sculpture, or indeed any piece of Der Stijl furniture, and you will be able to extrapolate from it almost everything you would need to know about the plastic values of the whole work. In both collage and constructed sculpture, this extrapolative ability disappears, especially when works feature multiple materials such as wood, metal and plastic, or when salvaged readymade objects are used. Is there any one cubic inch of Picasso’s Head of a Woman that reveals the nature of the whole? Could an archaeologist reconstruct Head of a Woman from fragments and an understanding of other constructed works? Unpredictability in the work, the inability to discern the big picture from the details, and the failure of comforting aesthetic frameworks whose fractal grasp encompasses both macro and micro details should be unsurprising during a period of massive social, industrial, and economic change.

The inclusion of readymade objects within constructed sculpture also reveals some interesting facets of economic and technological progress. Firstly, as industrialisation worked its way down from heavy industry to consumer products, significant quantities of durable goods were being obsolesced and replaced, rather than repaired as would have happened previously. Improvements in smelting processes meant that recycling of steel was both possible and economic, so scrap yards became a viable industry. What they provided was a concentrated source of what were already, visually interesting objects, often juxtaposed with other potentially unrelated objects. These could be bought cheaply in bulk, or scavenged for free as consumerism and obsolescence accelerated. Secondly, the growth in manufacturing meant many of these same objects were produced cheaply enough that they could be bought new, for use in sculpture 5. It says a lot about the wealth of resources available to a society when a highly manufactured new product of industry can be “wasted” by being used in a completely non-functional role.

Readymade additions to constructed sculpture also demonstrate what I believe to be a spectrum in construction (especially when dealing with a single material) between works that are completely designed by the artist, such as David Smith’s Cubi series, through works that include manufactured secondary raw materials, such as the I-Beams in Caro’s Midday, and on to inclusions of tertiary end-user manufactured readymade objects such as the wheels within of Jean Tinguely’s Heureka. From the experience of constructing in steel, I believe that works like the Cubi are better thought of as modelling in steel. There is a singular unformed raw material (plate steel), additions and subtractions can be made, and every part of the surface and form is at the artist’s discretion. As premade forms take up a greater percentage of the work, the artist’s hand becomes less direct – more orchestrator than maker. The emotional impact of the work becomes concentrated around and invested in the viewer’s own iconographic language associations with the readymades. This grows and intensifies as the readymade inclusions progress from objects that people associate with only distantly, like an I-beam, through to those they use with their own hands, like a colander. Returning to Picasso’s Head of a Woman, how does the viewer decide if the colanders are just interestingly pierced metal shapes, or if the known function of the colander as a strainer, when used to make a skull, is an important metaphorical factor in the work? The readymade is a depth charge of instant “meaning” for a sculptor 6.

The construction aesthetic in its most pure form takes from multiple sources. It combines multiple materials, and produces three-dimensional collages. It came into being during a time in which European culture was reconstructing itself from similarly disparate sources – Greco-Roman democratic political apparatus, imperial bureaucracy, the guiltless sexual morals of primitivism, enlightenment science, Marxist ideas about work, to name a few.

While the single framework mode of culture may have been broken by the method and aesthetic of construction, and the inherent weakness of monocultures demonstrated by the repeated failures of autocracies in the modern era, the construction aesthetic continues to duel with the fractal paradigm in art. As new aesthetics develop into movements, they become codified, as for example Modernism, when it evolved away from painterly complexity towards minimalist aesthetics. Harnessing an underlying bed of chaos, such as might be experienced when viewing a square inch of a Pollock drip painting, allows artwork and cultures whose non-brittle strength comes from using the diverse patchwork nature of construction and collage as the base language and material.


A Concise History of Modern Sculpture – Herbert Read
Primitivism and Modern Art – Colin Rhodes
Picasso Sculpture – Werner Spies
Japanese prints in Europe before 1840 – Deborah Johnson

  1. “But there was no unconscious assimilation of an Oriental style powerful enough to modify the general development of European art. In the same way, the importation of Japanese prints in the second half of the nineteenth century, which had such a decisive effect on Gaugain,Van Gogh and Whistler, did not change the course of the main stream of artistic development in Europe.” – Herbert Read: A Concise History of Modern Sculpture, 44
  2. “In France, the first documented group of prints were those belonging to Isaac Titsingh, head of the Dutch colony from 1780-83. His collection seems to have been on the Parisian art market as early as 1812, the year of his death, and again in 1814, 1820, and 1840” ­– Deborah Johnson: Japanese Prints in Europe before 1840. The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 124, No. 951 (Jun 1982), 344
  3. “An artist like Gauguin received confirmation from Japanese art of certain principles he had evolved from inner necessity, just as he also received confirmation of other stylistic features from such sources as medieval stained glass, folk art, primitive coloured woodcuts and other sources.” – Herbert Read: A Concise History of Modern Sculpture, 44
  4. “However it is no coincidence that an interest in alternative traditions and cultures often went hand in hand with artists’ Messianic desire to deliver a new beginning to a Europe they perceived as old and spent. One of the Blue Rider artists, Franz Marc, writing with reference to the Byzantine era, set the tone for the Primitivism of the first half of the twentieth century when he declared: ‘We are standing today at the turning point of two long epochs, similar to the state of the world fifteen hundred years ago, when there was also a transitional period without art and religion….The first works of a new era are tremendously difficult to define….But just the fact that they do exist and appear in many places today…makes us certain that they are the first signs of the coming new epoch – they are the signal fires for the pathfinders.’” – Colin Rhodes: Primitivism and Modern Art, 21
  5. In Head Of A Woman, we almost forget that the volume of the head consists of two opposed colanders or salad-strainers, and that the hair has been concocted out of nails and bed-springs…Picasso did not base it on random pieces of material which happened to be available. He told me that it suddenly occurred to him to construct the back of the head out of colanders. ‘I said to Gonzalez, go and get some colanders. And he brought back two brand-new ones.’” – Werner Spies: Picasso Sculpture, 75
  6. “In almost all the Picasso sculptures which have grown out of combinations of materials, the original significance of an object survives as an underlying echo. A dual activity is enforced on the beholder. He has, first, to construe the formal symbol within the context of the work, and, secondly, to recognize the inherent meaning – transcended in the work itself – of the alien element which has been employed in it. The déjà vu effect, and the usurpation of the structural context by the foreign body, combine to produce a new tension which is experienced on the sculptural plane.” – Werner Spies: Picasso Sculpture, 75