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The History and Development of Modern Western Sculpture

Updated on April 4, 2014
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Two major changes that have taken place in the art of sculpture during the 20th century have made it different from the sculpture of any previous period. First, there has been an almost complete abandonment of the naturalistic Greco-Roman tradition, which had dominated Western sculpture since the Renaissance. This has opened the way for a vast diversity of new approaches to sculptural representation and for a much fuller appreciation of nonnaturalistic styles of sculpture, such as African, Oceanic, pre-Columbian American, Archaic Greek, and Romanesque. Influences from these other styles have played an important part in the development of modern sculpture. The availability of museum collections and photographic reproductions has made modern sculptors the heirs of all the world's sculpture.

Second, the art of sculpture has expanded its scope to include nonfigurative (abstract or nonobjective), as well as figurative, sculpture. From Paleolithic times to the early 20th century, sculpture had been a representational art, with the human figure and animals as its main themes. Today many sculptors start from entirely new premises, treating sculpture as an art that is concerned with the whole realm of three-dimensional expressive form and that, like music, need not take its point of departure from anything in nature.

As a result of these two fundamental changes of attitude, sculptors now explore new realms of imagery and new possibilities in the relations of mass and space, and they experiment with a wide range of new techniques and processes.

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Realist and Expressionist

Many 20th century sculptors have continued to take the human figure as their main theme and to work in traditional materials and techniques. The immediate followers of Rodin -Aristide Maillol, Émile Antoine Bourdelle, and Charles Despiau- were inspired by his example as a free artist following his own personal direction, but they reacted against his highly individual romantic style. Maillol -in his Mediterranean, for example- eschewed Rodin's fluent surfaces and treated the figure as a composition of carefully proportioned and balanced convex volumes. His work achieves a new kind of monumental repose. Other later sculptors who have produced figure sculpture in realist or expressionist styles include Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Ernst Barlach, Jacob Epstein, Käthe Kollwitz, Gaston Lachaise, Carl Milles, Elie Nadelman, Marino Marini, and Giacomo Manzu.

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Cubist

Although cubism was primarily a movement in painting, it made an interesting and extremely influential contribution to sculpture. The early cubist reliefs that Picasso made from wood, cardboard, paper, and other materials around 1914 were forerunners of much constructed and assembled sculpture.

The cubist painters' technique of disintegrating natural forms into simplified planes and subsequently reconstituting those forms into semiabstract designs of convex and concave surfaces was taken up in the sculpture of Jacques Lipchitz, Henri Laurens, Ossip Zadkine, Alexander Archipenko, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, and Umberto Boccioni. Cubist sculptors always took their starting point from natural form, and their work usually retains some element of representation.

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Constructivist

In all the sculpture of the past the primary element was mass, and the weight and solidity of sculptural materials were emphasized. This traditional approach was forcefully rejected by the constructivist movement, which started in Russia in the early 20th century. Some of its initiators, such as Vladimir Tatlin and Alexandr Rodchenko, faded from public view in Russia. But the brothers Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner continued to develop constructivism in the West, and it is now a major and highly fruitful aspect of world art.

Space is the primary element of the constructivist. Linear components such as rods, wires, and threads, together with sheets of transparent plastic and metal are used in preference to solid volumes. They are made to define movement in space and to enclose space. In the open structures of constructivist sculpture, many new materials and techniques are employed and complete nonobjectivity is essential. This aspect of modern sculpture is closely connected with developments in modern architecture -for example, its new methods of construction, use of transparent surfaces, and rejection of massiveness.

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Brancusi

The work of the great Constantin Brancusi is the opposite of constructivism. It stresses weight and volume -the tactile aspects of three-dimensional form. Brancusi used the traditional materials of sculpture -stone, wood, and metal- and refined and abstracted shapes taken from nature (heads, torsos, birds, animals) to produce apparently simple but in fact extremely subtle solid forms. His influence was considerable, and sculptors such as Jean Arp, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore owed much to him.

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Surrealist

The cubists and constructivists and Brancusi were concerned mainly with aspects of form. Many other 20th century sculptors, especially those inspired by surrealism, explored new kinds of imagery or content. The surrealists' investigations into the realm of fantasy and dream imagery, pursued mainly in paintings, had a profound effect on modern sculpture. The sculptures of René Magritte and Max Ernst are direct products of surrealism. Surrealist fantasy is important in the work of Alberto Giacometti—for example, his construction The Palace at 4 A. M. and bronze Woman with Her Throat Cut.

The metamorphosis of forms and the blending of forms from different realms of nature are common surrealist devices that many modern sculptors have adopted. The haunting insectlike and treelike figures of Germaine Richier and the monsters that Eduardo Paolozzi fabricated from technological junk are examples of this. But perhaps Henry Moore's works in wood and stone—blending the shapes of the reclining female figure with the forms of bones, caves, landscape, rocks—are the most profound of this kind. Much of the fascination of Claes Oldenburg's work also depends on the transmutation of objects from one realm of form to another. What is normally rigid and hard becomes disturbingly soft and deflated.

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Found-Object

The piecing together of found objects in an assemblage opened up new possibilities for the content and imagery of sculpture, especially when the objects were chosen for their poetic evocations rather than their merely formal properties. This category of sculpture includes the boxes of Joseph Cornell, the wooden reliefs of Louise Nevelson, the "ready-mades" of Marcel Duchamp, the "junk" sculptures of Baldaccini César and John Chamberlain, and some of the work of Edward Kienholz. Among the best-known uses of found objects are Picasso's effective Bull's Head, made from the saddle and handlebars of a bicycle, and the baboon's head, in Baboon and Young, which is cast from a toy automobile.

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Environmental Construction

The concept of sculpture as objects to be viewed from outside has been rejected by the creators of sculptured environments. Their aim is to create a total setting, often a kind of room, in which the spectator may move about. This almost theatrical art form may include sculptured or cast figures and actual objects, as in the work of George Segal and the tableaux of Edward Kienholz, or it may be an abstract environment using lighting effects and various types of constructed forms, as in the work of Lucas Samaras and Yayoi Kusama. The Merzbau constructions of Kurt Schwitters (begun in 1920) are probably the first work of this kind.

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Direct-Metal

The decade of the 1950s has been called the "Iron Age" of modern sculpture because so many sculptors had turned to working directly in metal by welding and forging rather than casting. This method of producing sculpture was started by Picasso and Julio Gonzalez around 1930, and Gonzalez continued to be one of the best and most original sculptors using the medium.

Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Alexander Calder, Theodore Roszak, Seymour Lipton, and Eduardo Chillida all produced excellent direct-metal sculptures. But the greatest sculptor to use the medium was David Smith. His Cubi series, of sheet stainless steel, gave the medium a monumental seriousness not previously achieved.

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Primary-Structure

In the 1960s a group of sculptors began to produce extremely simple sculpture, usually on a large scale and fabricated with great precision, often by industrial craftsmen, to the sculptor's specifications. The impact of these primary structures (sometimes called minimal sculpture) is direct and powerful. They are completely abstract and nonsymbolic, and all trace of personal expression is removed from their surfaces in an effort to achieve anonymity. Notable work of this kind has been produced by Philip King, Donald Judd, William Tucker, Tony Smith, Ronald Bladen, and many others.

Other Forms

The immensely varied activities of modern sculptors have led to the production of many types of art work that can only be included under the term "sculpture" if its definition is stretched well beyond traditional limits. One of the most important developments is the inclusion of actual motion as an element in the work. Pioneers in this field were Naum Gabo, Marcel Duchamp, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Alexander Calder. Movement may be caused by air currents, as in Calder's mobiles, or by water, magnetism, or electrically powered devices.

Light, too, is frequently used as a feature of sculpture. The electronically controlled "luminodynamic" constructions of Nicolas Schöffer, which project changing patterns of light into space, are notable achievements in this field.

Also difficult to classify are the various kinds of three-dimensional art that do not aim to produce possessable objects. This antiobject art takes many forms, including some that involve the performance of operations on landscape, such as painting the seashore and wrapping mountains, cliffs, and buildings in plastic.

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