The sculpture held a predominant place in all ancient cultures, as well as in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, but the interest in it was very much lost after the seventeenth century. During the late 19th and 20th century, sculpture artists reconsidered, redefined and reworked the very concept of the sculpture in a more profound way than it had ever been before. The most important periods when it comes to the revolution of the sculpture and the establishment of fundamental paradigms were the beginning of the 20th century and a period between the 1960s and 70s. As it has always been, this new generation re-invented the past and wrote its own history. Auguste Rodin may be regarded as the central figure in the beginning of modern sculpture and his artistic heritage is marked by the rise of a complex and experimental avant-garde. His mature pieces inspired sculptors to re-create sculpture out of the elemental form of the material, but also to start handling space analytically. The early influence of Rodin’s sorrowed surfaces could be seen in Picasso’s Head of a Woman and Matisse’s series of Jeannette busts. Yet, the sculpture was never isolated from the historical context of the period in which it is created. Throughout the 20th century, it embodied conflicts, caesura, and hopes of its time.
A fresh breath was blown into the soul of the 20th-century sculpture as innovative concepts of form and content materials and techniques were advanced and significant strides were witnessed. The Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi is always regarded as the forbearer of Modernism. The artist who redefined the meaning of sculpture for his contemporaries and future generations with his unique vision and innovative techniques, Brancusi was the first one who created a sculpture that moved away from strictly representational. He is also the first one who started incorporated negative space in his work. This has influenced many other sculptors such as Alexander Archipenko, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth who started to pay much more attention to empty space. Moore took this exploration to another level, using positive space to create a negative one within the material. Influenced largely by Moore, Hepworth started making holes in the sculpture to make it an actual part of the object. While Louise Bourgeois introduced the idea of the unconscious into the sculpture, sculptors such as Naum Gabo and Alberto Giacometti reflected philosophical preoccupations of the time and created a visual language coincided with society and humanity. Naum Gabo was also the first artist to lay foundations for a kinetic sculpture, but Alexander Calder took this idea to another level with his ‘mobiles’.
Each of these sculptors, and many more of the 20th century, created their own visual language and vocabulary continually transforming and redefining the idea of a sculpture. Yet, they created expressive artworks that still speak to the modern sensibility. Let’s take a look at the most important sculpture artists of the 20th century.
Editors’ Tip: Modern Sculpture: A Concise History (World of Art) by Herbert Read
Sir Herbert Read traces the development of modern sculpture from Rodin to the present day and brings order into the apparently chaotic proliferation of styles and techniques during this period. Through text and many photographs, the book provides a valuable insight into the work of important 20th century sculptors such as, Brancusi, Moore, Hepworth, Arp, Gabo, Dubuffet, Sol LeWitt and many more. The comprehensive exploration is followed by 339 illustrations, of which 49 in colour. Sir Herbert Edward Read was an English anarchist poet, and critic of literature and art. He was one of the earliest English writers to take notice of existentialism, and was strongly influenced by proto-existentialist thinker Max Stirner.
Featured images: Jean Arp sculpture;Barbara Hepworth - Sterile, Sculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red), 1943; Henry Moore sculpture; Constantin Brancusi - Sleeping Muse
Often regarded as the most important sculptor of the twentieth century, Romanian-born artist Constantin Brâncusi created sculptures that exemplify ideal and archetypical representations of their subject matter blending modernity and timelessness. With simple and reduced forms and sleek appearance, his visionary sculptures aimed to reveal hidden truths. He wrote that the artist ‘should know how to dig out the being that is within matter’. Working directly with his materials, he pioneered the technique of direct carving. Although his pieces were abstract, he always insisted on their representational nature and the true essence of his subjects. Materials of his choice were marble, stone, bronze, wood and metal. He would often polish his finished pieces for days to create a look ‘as though they proceeded out from the mass into some perfect and complete existence.’
Associated with Dada and Surrealism, Jean Arp is best-known for his biomorphic sculptures made out of plaster, stone, and bronze. As one of the most versatile creatives of the beginning of the 20th century, he also expressed himself in paintings, drawings, collages and poems. Characterized by wavy lines, he often referred to his sculptures as the organic abstraction. Representing plants or human figures in organic forms, his sculptures were firmly rooted in nature. He titled his works after the form was already generated to minimize the intervention of the conscious mind. In this way, he embraced a chance and spontaneity as integral components of the artistic process. His biomorphic forms inspired by nature hugely influenced generations of creatives working with abstraction.
Featured images: Jean Arp, via beretandboina.blogspot.com; Left: Jean Arp - Concrete sculpture “Mirr”, bronze, 1936 / Right: Jean Arp - Milky Way Tear, bronze, 1962
Considered as one of the most significant British sculptors of the 20th century, the work of Barbara Hepworth was inspired by her childhood fascination with organic systems and textures. She was also very much influenced by the lifelong association with the sculptor Henry Moore. Reflecting the relationship between volume and space, her abstract works were often created with hollow interior spaces that disrupt smooth surface textures. Living and working at Trewyn Studio in Cornwall, she was at first largely preoccupied with stone and wood carving, but during the 1950s she increasingly made sculpture in bronze as well. This resulted in pieces of more monumental scale that were placed in the garden of the studio, now the Barbara Hepworth Museum. Over the course of her career, she moved from sculpting biomorphic forms to pure abstraction.
The most celebrated British sculptor of the 20th century, Henry Moore was best known for his semi-abstract monumental bronze sculptures located all around the world as public works of art. His early work was largely shaped by non-Western art, but in the later period, he was much inspired by leading modernists such as Picasso, Arp, Brancusi, and Giacometti. His recurring motifs were the mother and child and the reclining figure. Being fascinated with landscape and nature, he drew analogies between the human body and the landscape through the use of abstract forms. Abandoning the process of modeling and casting, he used the technique of direct carving of materials such as wood and stone. As he once stated, it is important that a sculptor ‘gets the solid shape, as it were, inside his head… he identifies himself with its center of gravity.’
The Constructive Russian artist Naum Gabo was a pioneer of Kinetic Art. In 1920, Gabo and his brother Antoine Pevsner, who was also an artist, issued the Realist Manifesto of Constructivism where they advocated that art had a value and function independent of the state and that geometric principles should be the basis for sculpture. They also advocated the use of transparent materials to define volumes of empty space. Breaking solids into interlocking planes, lines, and geometric shapes punctuated by open spaces, Gabo has developed a transformative approach to sculpture and a visual language coincided with society and humanity. As space and time were his basic elements, he wrote that ‘space and time are the only forms on which life is built, and hence art must be constructed’. He mostly used glass, metal, and plastic to create his abstract and architectural pieces.
French-born American sculptor, painter, and printmaker, Louise Bourgeois was the founder of confessional art. Her symbolic objects and drawings expressed themes of loneliness and conflict, frustration and vulnerability. Influenced largely by traumatic psychological events from her childhood, especially her father’s infidelity, her sculptures revolved around themes of unconscious, sexual desire and the body. She often created pieces that were brooding and sexually explicit in their subject matter, something that was very rare and radical for a woman at the time. Created in a highly personal visual language, her pieces portrayed spirals, spiders, cages, medical tools, and sewn appendages to symbolize the feminine psyche, beauty, and psychological pain. Her exploration of femininity and masculinity has influenced many creatives since the 1970s, especially feminist-inspired body and installation artists.
Associated with both Surrealism and Existentialism, Alberto Giacometti was a prominent Italian-Swiss sculptor, painter, draughtsman, and printmaker. His innovative sculptures of his early period sometimes resemble toys and games. In his later existential period, he explored themes of sexuality, obsession, trauma, perception, alienation and anxiety. He became focused on the human figure depicted to capture a sense of spatial distance. His art influenced many writers of the period since it captures the tone of melancholy, alienation, and loneliness that philosophy explored at the time. His figurative work often reflected the human suffering during the World War II. These human figures were represented as alone in the world without the possibility to communicate with their fellows.
As one of the most celebrated sculptors of the 20th century, Alexander Calder completely changed the course of modern art. He is a father of ‘mobiles’, kinetic sculptures of flat metal pieces connected by a wire that moved delicately in the air. The name of these sculptures was given by Calder’s friend Marcel Duchamp. Powered by small motors or only slight air currents, these sculptures embodied the notion of the movement and invited the viewer to interact with them. Their appearance was randomly arranged by air moving the individual parts. He also created the so-called ‘stables’, sculptures that reintroduced colour to outdoor works and championed tools and materials of the modern age.
French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet embraced the so-called ‘low art’ and rejected traditional standards of beauty in favor of what he believed to be a more authentic and humanistic approach to image-making. Inspired by art created by children and mentally ill that was free from intellectual concerns, his work often appears primitive and childlike. In the 1960s, he developed a unique graphic style that he called ‘hourlupe’. Evolving from a chance doodle while he was on a telephone, the basis of the style were cells formed by black lines that would sometimes be filled with unmixed colour. First employed in his paintings, he started using this approach to create sculptures.
The Ukrainian avant-garde sculptor and graphic artist, Alexander Archipenko developed a sculptural form of Cubism using interlocking and overlapping solids and sculptural empty space. This ‘negative space' was used to create an innovative way of looking at the human figure since various views of the subject were shown simultaneously. The development of negative space is considered as his most significant contribution to the study of sculpture. He continuously explored the female form and its relation to space. As one of the most imaginative sculptors of the 20th century, he introduced the concept of plastic sculptures lit from the inside. He also worked with bronze, wood and mixed media and furthered the legacy of experimentation throughout his career. In his later works, he focused on the sculpting of the movement itself.