21 August, 2006

Sculpture in the round

In his comments to my last post on ekphrasis, the sculptor Chris Miller expressed the rather unusual view—I do not mean this pejoratively—that a sculpture should not be understood as a unified object, but rather as a series of discrete views: 'I don't think that the views of a sculpture have anything to do with each other—and they are usually of different qualities—with, hopefully, at least one that is memorable, with the rest being acceptable.' Chris even cited one Hildebrand (I presume he meant Adolf von Hildebrand, but I could be wrong) to the effect that relief sculpture is better than 'sculpture in the round' because it does not admit of multiple views.

Perhaps Chris, and those of his opinion, will enjoy a sculpture such as this: I know not the material, nor the sculptor or subject, though I suspect it is either the Virgin or some religious leaderess, and perhaps of plaster, like the cheeky Redland Nose. It is located on the rear wall of a local school, on Rowland Hill Street, Hampstead, a stone's throw from the Royal Free Hospital, where I was born. Being high off the ground, and affixed behind, this sculpture restricts the range of views available to the eye. Our lady hovers in the air, her feet together under her long skirt, and her hands gently beckoning. She has a fixed relation to the viewer: one cannot interact with her, but only gaze from afar. And she has only one thing to say: her semantics are limited.

Duchamp's late Étant Donnés (unveiled 1969, after his death) is the logical extreme of this notion of sculpture. This splayed, faceless nude can only be seen through a hole in a door, and a crack in the velvet wall beyond. Only one single view, therefore, is possible. Duchamp called this 'conceptual', rather than 'retinal' art—his piece is less a beautiful image than an attempt to evoke the unattainable. Again, one has no interaction with the work, beyond that voyeuristic feeling of the private or secret created by the peephole. Whammo!, in Chris's words—but then what?

A group of sculptures, on the other hand, can relate to the viewer in a subtler and more lasting manner. A particular favourite of mine is the Compianto di Cristo (Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna), a terracotta group by Niccolo dell' Arca, or Niccolo da Bari, c. 1460-94, which manages to fuse the virtues of old Gothic expression and new Renaissance composition.

Left to right, around the dead Christ: Joseph of Arimathea, Mary mother of John,
Mary mother of Jesus, John, Mary wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.

In this group we discover a ripening of emotion from Joseph to the Magdalene: the former stoical with his tools, the latter easily the most dynamic figure in pre-modernist Western sculpture, her robe and veil florrelling behind her as she dashes forward, almost anticipating the Unique Forms (1913) of Boccioni. The point I want to make about this group is that with the exception of Joseph, the figures do not address us, but are turned inward: it is a private tableau. We might stand anywhere in relation to this scene—between two figures, or behind all of them—it makes no odds: we only determine our involvement with the drama. Sure, if we hover behind the figures, we miss the intricate facial details and so on: but instead we have the sensation of trying to see what they see, of being one of a crowd, not at the front—of being a late visitor. The group's quality of private drama forces us to assert our own relation to it, and thus it obviates the notion of a 'bad view'.

We judge an angle not by what it lets us see, but by what it makes of us.


Gawain said...

I wonder whether Chris thinks the same about pottery -- which being tools, for the most part, is meant to be handled, lifted, rotated, turned over and what not.

My reaction is that, though perhaps he is right as far as his reaction to sculpture is concerned, his descritpion does not seem to correspond to the way I experience these various 3 dimensional objects.

Trying to photograph some sculpture in Bali, I discovered how the flat surface of the image failed to convey the sense of -- what? volume? 3-dimensional "presence"?

Of course, flat representation is what we know of most sculpture: 99% of the pieces we are familiar with from photos or line drawings; and even a lot of the sculpture in museums cannot be walked around because it is shoved right up against the wall. I always try to steal the 360-degree peek -- bumping my head against walls and leaning over railings (to the exasperated tisk-tisking of the guards).

Conrad H. Roth said...

Chris did mention that the 'view' problem was not so bad for small items.

chris miller said...

I do enjoy Our Lady of Rowland Hill -- and would like to know the name of the sculptor.

But I am such a dunce.

I was in Bologna to look at painting and sculpture a few years ago -- and I don't remember Nicola dell' Arca --- whom I discovered -- and fell in love with -- years later through picture books.

My point is this:

I've never seen another life-size, 6-figure sculptural tableaux of the Passion -- but let's
pretend that there is another one that fits the criteria of showing "the ripening of emotion from Joseph to the Magdalene" --- with "figures that do not address us, but are turned inward" --- so that we can walk around it and imagine that we are one of the crowd and are involved in the drama.

Would this piece be of any interest to us ?

If we were good Catholics -- the answer could be yes --- and indeed that accounts for all the miserable, cheesy sculpture we find within and beside the Catholic churches found in America. All that the pious need is something to establish a focus and a place for their devotion -- and even a cheap plastic Jesus will suffice.

But what about for us -- the non-believers ? Why would we want to spend any time with this tableaux ?

For me - it's because one (or maybe more) of it's views offers a valuable experience that is unique to that specific view. For me, that experience probably would involve imagining myself as present at the death of Christ --- and all that I could associate with it - but if the statue didn't offer at least one good, aesthetic view -- I'm going to walk right past it and look for something else that does.

What about you ?

(my guess is that as a 6-piece ensemble, this Dell' Arca's piece probably offers no more than one good view -- the one shown in your photograph above -- but each of the individual sculptures probably offer several views -- including lots of good close-ups.)