Saturday, October 31, 2009

Rodin, controversy, direct carving

Towards the end of the 19th century there was a big to do regarding the fact that Rodin didn't do all of his work on stone sculptures himself. Instead, he had assistants rough them out and went in and did the finishing touches afterwards. People were concerned that they weren't getting 100% Rodin's.

Sounds straightforward, right? After all, what are finishing touches anyways? It's not that simple, not at all.

I come at this from a unique perspective. I work in stone. I carve stone. I can also tell you that finishing touches are anything but that.

To understand why authenticity isn't compromised through a process where the Artist only does part of the work you have to understand the mechanics of sculpting in stone. Typically, you get a block of marble that looks more or less like that: a solid block, no indication that it could possibly be used for a sculpture except some general characteristics like extensions here and there that could make limbs or what have you easier. From the solid block you have to rough out a shape of a general figure. Think a three dimensional chalk outline, something with an egg for a head, two tubes connected to each other for the arms, a set of blobs for the hands, another tube for the body, two tubes for the legs, and some flattened blobs for the feet. To get even there is a big undertaking that involves hacking away at the stone for a long time. Once you're there you can start to add some specific characteristics to the general shape, like roughing out a little bit of the specific qualities of the arms, or of the head, or of the body itself. However, even this stage doesn't take you to the end. It's just another step closer, something that turns the chalk outline into a general three dimensional draft of how this figure should be posed.

It's only when this stage is complete that the real artistry starts. This would be the stage that Rodin would have entered the picture and started carving the stone himself. The difference between the previous stage and this one is that here the figure is transformed first into a person and secondly into a particular person with particular characteristics. Here is where outlines of how the muscles are enter into the picture, how the face is structured, if they're smiling or not, how their hair looks. It's here that the particular characteristics of their body enter the picture; how it is that their ribcage and chest is structured, if they're flabby or muscular, what their stomach looks like. All of this constitutes the real artistic accomplishment of sculpture, the three dimensional counterpart to drawing and painting figures where the decisions of the artist, the feel that he or she has for the subject, and the personal techniques that he or she employs to try to get there come into play. It's anything but detail work. This is where Rodin as Rodin came into play and where the sculptures became more than just generic shapes but authentic sculptures by Rodin.

Of course, this argument appears to not of swayed people, and that most of the great sculptors who work on monumental pieces use a system like this seems to have been ignored. I haven't read the stories in the papers related to it in France so I can't definitively say so, though. Anyways, the reaction to this was a movement called Direct Carving, where the artist would discard maquettes, clay or plaster models of the model used in lieu of the person actually being there, as well as assistants and do it all themselves. Maquettes help focus the artist(s); they're there because a person can't sit through a stone carving session from beginning to end. Without them you've got to rely either on memory or on the person or creature being in front of you. What came out of direct carving are sculptures that looked drastically different from what we consider to be normal, figurative sculpture. Although they may have integrity in and of themselves, as compared to figurative sculptors in the 19th century who were concerned with a type of expressive romanticism in stone they're really, really, undeveloped. If that's what you're going for, it's fine, but as a substitute for more conventional figurative sculpting it doesn't really work well.

The moral of the story, or the point of it, is that in reality there are no short cuts in sculpting around the process that Rodin and others used. Whether or not assistants are employed to rough things out largely depends on the scale of the piece and on the other pieces a sculptor is working on at the time, if any, or if the sculptor is lucky enough to be in demand with commissioned pieces it depends on what else is likely waiting down the line. Of course sculptors can do it all themselves, but even though those employed contribute to the general artistry of the piece, and should be recognized as more than just technicians, the particular core artistry of the piece remains even if they're employed.

1 comment:

Stone Carvings said...

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