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13.3: Sculpture- The Primitive and the Modern

  • Page ID
    232343
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University
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    In painting, the lines between the old guard and the younger artists committed to modernism were clearly drawn. Such was not always the case for sculpture. Among the Americans representing sculpture at the Armory Show were academic sculptors like James Earle Fraser (see Chapter 9). They found themselves alongside sculptors such as Elie Nadelman (1882- 1946), Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964), William Zorach (1887-1966), and Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935), who went on to establish a modernist idiom in sculpture in the following generation.

    Bringing together tradition with modernism, sculpture in the years up to World War II represented other kinds of encounter. American sculptors joined an international interest in direct carving that had begun before World War I, literally grounding the figure in the massive forms of the pre-classical ancient world. In direct carving, the sculptor drew inspiration from the material itself, eliminating all conventional intermediary stages from sculptural mock-up to finished work- most commonly from clay or plaster into metal or stone. European emigres and transatlantic sculptors from Elie Nadelman to Alexander Calder explored sculptural issues of buoyancy, freeing forms from gravity to float with the lightest of supports, or suspended in air. The modernist dream of escape from physical limits developed side by side with the direct carvers' heavy, earthbound forms recalling ancient prototypes.

    Direct Carving: Modernist Primitivism in Sculpture

    It may seem odd that one significant current of modernist sculpture took shape using a technique as old as human representation itself: that of direct carving. Although already practiced by a few American sculptors, direct carving was introduced to the public at the Armory Show as well as through Americans abroad and some European emigres. It followed from the interest in folk art, where direct carving was widely used. The movement is best understood as an aspect of modernist primitivism inspired by the forms of pre-classical and non-Western expression rooted in an archaic past. Far from sloughing off the past in the manner of the modernists who pursued an abstract language of form, direct carvers redefined history for their own purposes, by inventing a past where primal impulses were unfiltered by conscious inhibitions or social repressions. Whether using stone or wood, modernist direct carvers renounced academic methods grounded in the Beaux Arts training that had dominated sculptural production on both sides of the Atlantic up to the turn of the century.

    At the heart of this older academic tradition was the concept or governing idea behind the work. The idealized female figure, for example, served as the carrier for a multitude of allegorical or symbolic ideas-continents, virtues, personifications of various symbolic deities. Realistic portraiture was often combined with symbolic attributes-figures of Victory or Fame-as in the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (see fig. 11.17), in a manner that was calculated to elevate the specific to the universal.

    Figure 13.21: DANIEL CHESTER FRENCH, Large model in plaster, with the sculptor correcting a drapery fold, Chesterwood, 1914. Plaster. Chesterwood Archives, Chesterwood, Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
    Figure 13.21: DANIEL CHESTER FRENCH, Large model in plaster, with the sculptor correcting a drapery fold, Chesterwood, 1914. Plaster. Chesterwood Archives, Chesterwood, Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

    According to established academic procedure, the sculptor first executed his idea in clay. This became the basis of a plaster cast, which in turn was used as the model for casting the final work in bronze (fig. 13.21). Alternatively, a sculptor could create a maquette, or small-scale study, which was then handed over to skilled technicians, who might then enlarge it or duplicate it in any number of materials. In stone, for instance, the use of a pointing machine allowed carvers to locate a point in space precisely, thereby furnishing a series of transfer marks from model to marble copy that made possible a precise scale reproduction of the original. As practiced by academicians, the hand of the artist was replaced in the final work by that of a studio workman who was intent, above all, on duplicating the original model, a process that tended to dull the expressiveness of the artwork's execution.

    WILLIAM ZORACH. Direct carving, by contrast, engages the maker in the immediate properties of the material, while drawing inspiration from the shape, grain, texture, and hardness of a particular piece of wood or stone. The natural characteristics of the material, as discovered through the actual process of carving, inspire and determine the final form. William Zorach, one of the originators of the direct carving tradition in America, recounted his turn from painting to sculpture as being inspired by a piece of butternut wood in his studio.

    Figure 13.22: WILLIAM ZORACH, Floating Figure, 1922. Borneo mahogany, 9 x 33½ x 7 in (23 x 85.1 x 17.9 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.
    Figure 13.22: WILLIAM ZORACH, Floating Figure, 1922. Borneo mahogany, 9 x 33½ x 7 in (23 x 85.1 x 17.9 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

    Along with a new attention to medium, sculptors and painters in the early years of American modernism emphasized the expressive possibilities of abstract form: of rhythm, repetition, balance, and opposition. Yet direct carvers also maintained ties to figuration. In their focus on the human form they continued the sculptural heritage of the late nineteenth century; but in every other way, their work was a departure from older sculptural traditions. Simplifying lines and volumes, they monumentalized the figure; rather than exploiting its tradition as a carrier of cultural values and meanings, they emphasized its archaic / elemental associations with nature. In his Floating Figure (fig. 13.22) Zorach shared this primitivist influence with European modernists such as Picasso; he and others acknowledged their new debts to the arts of Africa, and the pre-classical monumental traditions of Mesopotamia and Egypt. American sculptors also looked to American Indian forms. By the 1920s, direct carving techniques had been introduced into academic training at the Art Students' League in New York-part of the institutionalization of modernism in the years between the wars.

    Direct carving methods were also part of a larger modernist reaction against machine production. Pointing- by which the artist's idea is realized through a mechanical system of reproduction-came to be associated with the alienated division of labor within industrial society. The return to artisanal modes of making carried the artist back to the origins of sculpture itself, and, many argued, restored the creative act to wholeness.

    JOHN FLANNAGAN. John B. Flannagan (1895?- 1942) distilled an aesthetic that combined the methods of direct carving with a belief in prerational modes of composition. He first began carving in stone around 1928. His approach to sculpture was part of a wider cultural interest in the unconscious that took hold between the wars. Flannagan wrote of "the hand of the sculptor" as an "instrument of the unconscious." The creative act-responding to a "remote memory or a stirring impulse from the depth of the unconscious" - merely freed the abstract form imprisoned within it-"the image in the rock." 20 Direct carving was a means of thinking with one's hands. In a way similar to the automatist techniques of American artists influenced by Surrealism, Flannagan sought by his own account to relinquish creative will, desiring for his work the appearance of something as inevitable and impersonal as nature itself.

    Figure 13.23: JOHN FLAN NAGAN,Jonah and the Whale: Rebirth Motif, 1937. Bluestone, 30½ in (77.4 cm) high. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia.
    Figure 13.23: JOHN FLAN NAGAN,Jonah and the Whale: Rebirth Motif, 1937. Bluestone, 30½ in (77.4 cm) high. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia.

    Flannagan's Jonah and the Whale: Rebirth Motif (fig. 13.23) is a flat relief carved into the center of a long and narrow stone whose shape first suggested the subject of the biblical Jonah swallowed by the whale. Jonah's bearded face resembles Assyrian carvings of the second and first millennia B.C.E. His muscular body is folded in upon itself, forced to occupy the womblike space of the whale from which he will shortly be released in a symbolic narrative of death and resurrection. The stone is placed upright upon its simple wood pedestal; only a few lines inscribed into its top suggest the flukes of the whale. Flannagan tapped the Old Testament story of Jonah for its mythic associations with spiritual rebirth. Noting that the fish was an ancient female symbol, he here fuses dichotomous principles: life and death, male and female, containment and growth. The archaizing techniques of direct carving serve the elemental mythic themes through which Flannagan anticipated the universal concerns of abstract artists in the 1940s.

    A Stylized Modernism: European Émigrés and American Sources

    The arrival of three leading emigre artists, each familiar with French modernism, helped nudge American sculptural practice beyond its academic forms: Gaston Lachaise from France in 1906; Elie Nadelman from Poland via Paris in 1914; and Alexander Archipenko (originally from Ukraine) in 1923. Once in the United States these three found enthusiastic support for their work, although at the time American sculpture remained largely indebted to the allegorical or naturalistic tradition of portraiture. All three readily embraced popular, folk, and commercial expression as the sources for a new American art. Their appreciation of such native forms was part of a recurrent phenomenon noted elsewhere, of European artists embracing the "low" and the vernacular in a manner that opened the way for American artists to follow suit.

    Figure 13.24: ELIE NADELMAN, Dancer (High Kicker), c. 1920-4. Stained, gessoed, and painted mahogany, 28¼ in (71¾ cm) high. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. Philip L. Goodwin Collection.
    Figure 13.24: ELIE NADELMAN, Dancer (High Kicker), c. 1920-4. Stained, gessoed, and painted mahogany, 28¼ in (71¾ cm) high. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. Philip L. Goodwin Collection.

    ELIE NADELMAN. Nadelman, a prominent member of the Parisian avant-garde, by 1905 had developed his own theory of abstraction based on the dynamic balance of opposing curves and masses. Once in the United States, Nadelman was given a one-person show at Stieglitz's 291 Gallery in 1916. His gracefully stylized figures appealed to audiences not yet prepared for the ardors of more demanding abstraction. In Dancer (fig. 13.24), bodily volumes are reduced to their utmost purity and rendered as lines, voids, and solids. The rhythm of curve and countercurve is most evident in the dancer's legs and in the opposing balance of the right arm and the left profile of the attenuated head. His sources for the Dancer ranged from the work of the French Post-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat (1859-91) to the formal simplifications of American folk art, which he began collecting in the early 1920s.

    Nadelman's stylish geometries contributed to the formation of the Art Deco style (see Chapter 14); he was glamorized by Vanity Fair in the 1920s, while his work, straddling the breach between the difficult art of high modernism and the pleasures of stylized figuration embraced by a wider public, decorated the salons of the cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein (a fellow emigree who first bought his work in 1911, and helped him to move to the States). During his most productive years in the United States, from 1914 to 1929, Nadelman engaged in a lively dialogue with American culture. Drawing inspiration from the popular entertainments of burlesque and the circus, and also from folk art through his collecting of ship's figureheads and na·ive painting, Nadelman bridged the worlds of modernism and an anonymous American vernacular, which he interpreted with whimsical humor.

    Figure 13.25: GASTON LACHAISE, Floating Woman, 1924. Bronze, 12¾ in (32.4 cm) high, 17¾ in (45.1 cm) long. Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
    Figure 13.25: GASTON LACHAISE, Floating Woman, 1924. Bronze, 12¾ in (32.4 cm) high, 17¾ in (45.1 cm) long. Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    GASTON LACHAISE. Gaston Lachaise was born and trained in Paris but followed his future wife and muse, the American Isabel Dutaud Nagle, to Boston in 1906, where he became apprenticed to the sculptor Paul Manship in 1913 (see Chapter 16). His lifelong obsession was the female nude, as in Floating Woman (fig. 13.25), her voluptuous volumes swelling to gigantic proportions, miraculously buoyed to weightlessness. Like Edward Weston's photographic nudes of the same years, the floating women of Lachaise erase the social to make the female body available for formal and aesthetic, but undeniably sexual, exploration and projection, freeing it into a frictionless environment of total possibility. Such openness to the subject of the body was still relatively new in American art; the body was arguably the central metaphor behind much American modernism in the organicist tradition, yet rarely its explicit theme. The studio nude was still the focus of much academic art, but never with the childlike infatuation of Lachaise.

    Figure 13.26: ALEXANDER ARCHIPENKO, Torso in Space, 1935. Chrome-plate bronze, 7 in (17.7 cm) high, 22¼ in (56.5 cm) long. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.
    Figure 13.26: ALEXANDER ARCHIPENKO, Torso in Space, 1935. Chrome-plate bronze, 7 in (17.7 cm) high, 22¼ in (56.5 cm) long. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.

    ALEXANDER ARCHIPENKO. Like Lachaise and Nadelman, Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964) was interested in freeing sculptural form from gravity by doing away with traditional supports. Torso in Space (fig. 13.26), an abstracted nude, is a variation on an older modernist fascination with the fragmented human form. The lower edge of the attenuated torso forms an elegant bow, while only the most generalized modeling suggests legs, breasts, waist, and shoulders. By 1935, when he completed Torso in Space, Archipenko had been in the United States for twelve years (he moved to New York City in 1923), time enough to absorb the streamlined aesthetic that dominated product design as a metaphor of the modern. The suave contours and soaring profile of his Torso in Space also suggest associations with flight and modern aviation, giving to the figure an American inflection. Archipenko cast several versions of the Torso in the traditional bronze as well as in aluminum and chrome-plate (seen here). He would later turn to other industrial materials, including plastics, whose reflective or transparent properties differed dramatically from the earthy massiveness of the stone and wood used by direct carvers in these same years. His use of such modern materials in tandem with the human form-among the oldest of all sculptural subjects-combines the industrial and the organic. While remaining true to the European traditions of the studio nude, these three emigre artists each devised an American sculptural practice responsive to the vernacular idioms and industrial materials of their adopted country.


    This page titled 13.3: Sculpture- The Primitive and the Modern is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts.