Looking at the examples below, one can say that figure sculpture in the 20th century was very abstracted from the figure in real life. These are representations of the figure but have little resemblance to a figure let alone a particular person. Figure sculpture, like painting and drawing, lost the need for the artist to make an imitation of the sitter at this time. This was taken to point of abstraction of the figure and all of the artists have incorporated the inherent quality of each medium into the work rather than ignoring it and disguising these attributes as would have been done in earlier times (polished marble and varnished canvases).
Boccioni’s beautiful Unique Forms of Continuity in Space represents more than a simple figure. It portrays rapid movement and powerful dynamism. A lifelike representation of a person would never be able to represent this in the same way. Giacometti’s figure is very different but equally un-lifelike. Where Boccioni’s sculpture shows sleek contours and represents movement, Giacometti’s is solidly immobile and greatly textured. The head is greatly reduced and shaped like an arrow head, something that can be seen in many of his figure sculptures. There is no description of the shoulders and the rough texture of the material takes the limelight.
Similarly, Brancusi has ignored any attempt to create a recognisable figure other than a indication of a head and limbs. He has demonstrated solidity and strength but the title of the work alone allows the viewer to understand that the artist was referencing the biblical story so fashionable with artists in earlier centuries. Knowing the title, the sculpture then reveals itself as a kneeling figure, head bent low in supplication but without this information, it is difficult to discern. Gonzales’ Woman Combing Her Hair II is also indecipherable without the title. Only then can we distinguish from these geometric shapes, the head with short wavy hair, the sharp nose and the spikes of her fingers (or the brush?).
Other figure sculptors from the last century such as Picasso, Henry Moore and Paolozzi also ignore the lifelike representation and choose to concentrate on the qualities of their chosen material. Picasso’s Head of a Woman from 1909 is at first glance seems greatly disfigured and distorted but closer inspection reveals quite a tender expression on the highly faceted face, reminiscent of the primitive style he so wanted to imitate.
Moore and Paolozzi are both well known for their public sculptures. Perhaps the size and solidity of their work lends it to this function. Moores figures manage to convey sensuality or tenderness in their curves, despite their huge distortions. Similarly Paolozzi has captured other qualities in his work. There is a kind of industrial bleakness in his fragmented mechanised sculptures maybe due to their broken and segmented character.
This ambiguity and impersonal nature of the works above make them perfect for public sculpture. An artist can make a particular sculpture and it can be placed in any city in any country (in the Western world) an appeal to everyone in the same way. Figure sculptures previous to this, were mostly of well known people: kings and queens or local personalities and often their commissions were a way of commemorating their work or supporting their politics. No matter how popular the character is this can end up being quite divisive especially if the sculpture is intended to remain over a long period of time. A sculpture of an unknown and unrecognisable person is thus attractive for town planners. It serves as public art but it is less likely to create bad feeling in a particular group of the population or be seen as partisanship. (That isn’t to say that some modern sculptures haven’t created a lot of controversy, but art will always be this way, particularly when it is paid for with public funds). The human brain will always try to recognise a likeness so it isn’t ideal to include a likeness in a public work even if it resembles no one in particular. As a result works that show facial features in detail tend not to be popular in this function unless the artist has been commissioned to do a portrait of someone.
Paolozzi, however managed to create sculptures of historical figures but kept them ambiguous enough that their personality did not overpower the sculpture itself. Master of the Universe is inspired by William Blake’s image of Newton at the Tate Gallery (1). Paolozzi’s sculpture of the famous scientist represent the idea of that person rather than the person themselves.
1. Pearson, F. (1999) Paolozzi. Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland.
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