Main page banner here

Origins Origins TopHome
Home Blog Table of Contents PDF/Book Version

Why This Web Site?

Artists have been carving the figure in stone for tens of thousands of years, and critics were already pronouncing on it centuries before books were invented. What could possibly be left to say?

Plenty, actually. The history of what happened in Western culture over the last violent century would fill a library, and learned authors disagree about nearly all of it, but one thing you can safely say is that the Twentieth Century destroyed and remade just about everything pertaining to sculpture: the subjects, the styles, the media, who made it and for whom, even the meaning of the word itself. Carving in stone has barely begun to be reconciled to these revolutions, and everything about sculpture, from the aesthetics to the mechanics, continues to be in flux.

Figurative carving in the West, already vigorous, flowered in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, from the 1880's to the outbreak of the First World War. Many of the styles of the period are currently either out of fashion or are the focus of aesthetic controversy, but the period has probably never been surpassed in terms of either sheer technical virtuosity or in the number of professional sculptors working1. In the last decades of the old order, the ancient traditions were still vibrant, and the burgeoning wealth produced by industrialization, the rapid expansion of state power, and the explosive growth of cites, had created a sustained building boom of unprecedented scale. Sculpture was the handmaiden of Beaux-Arts architecture, and across the United States, Europe and the colonies, government buildings, train stations, opera houses, museums, and monuments were decorated with figurative work, giving sculpture a place alongside architecture and painting at the center of the culture of art.

Yet the cultural world of the turn of the century would be swept away within a generation. Behind the gorgeous Beaux Arts facade, the underpinnings of high culture had been eroding for generations. Industrial-age economies and politics had far outgrown rule by hereditary aristocracies, kings, queens, and churches, but the old power structures still persisted, buoyed up by the surging wealth of society as a whole. Tastes in art had long been determined by these powers, primarily through the academies, but throughout the Nineteenth Century, private citizens, members of a growing, educated, and ambitious upper middle class, had increasingly become the tastemakers of a powerful countercurrent of radical new styles. Art in the Grand Manner catered to aristocrats with vast halls to fill, but by the turn of the century, the default perspective of the new art styles was was moving to the personal and oppositional.

Death and the Sculptor, original 1893, carved in 1917, Daniel Chester French, Metropolitan Museum, NY

The Great War laid waste to ancient power structures across Europe. Of the five empires that entered the war in 1914, only the British Empire would emerge intact. The German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires were dismembered, and the vast Russian Empire replaced with the a collection of nominal republics under the iron rule of the Russian dictatorship. The cataclysm sapped the grip of even the victorious powers on their colonies, unleashing populist and nationalist movements among the victors and the vanquished alike. The Communists, in addition to their spectacular success in the former Russian Empire, led a groundswell of popular uprisings in the West, and governments on both sides, answerable as never before to labor movements and an increasingly powerful middle class, were threatened by both leftist and rightist radicals contending for power.

New powers neednew symbols, and the overwhelming dominance of Beaux-Arts architecture was shaken off almost overnight, along with the aristocracies that had supported it. The new architecture of state and economic power no longer sought to legitimize itself through aesthetic appeals to ancient tradition, but glorified the new streamlined industrial age. Since the mid-century, forward-looking painters had already gone far down the road from the Academy, but figurative carving, much more closely tied to public architecture, had not, and was left stranded. Established power did not abandon art patronage immediately or completely, nor did the traditional styles disappear instantly, but the Twentieth Century artist's conception of who he or she was, and who the audience was, changed profoundly during this time. Suddenly, the tide of history was with artists who saw themselves as the vanguard of a cultural revolution.

Painting flourished in this period. An already vigorous avant-garde of painting responded to the the cultural chaos with an explosion of movements and styles that continues even to the present day, with most of the new styles violently rejecting Academic Realism. Much of the new Modernist art was abstract, and the figurative work that remained tended towards expressionism. The size of paintings from this period hints at another aspect of the cultural change: the works of the Modernists, extending the trend of their extra-Academic predecessors, tended to be on a scale that could be executed by an unassisted individual and displayed in an apartment or townhouse--no estate or palace required.

Even apart from the tastes of the market, little about full-scale figurative stone sculpture was consistent with the self-image of the Twentieth Century bohemian artist. Painting is inherently avant-garde friendly because paintings are cheap to make2. It's an exceptional painting that costs more than a few day's pay in materials; the painter paints what he or she pleases, and the patron can take it or leave it. But the economics of stone and bronze could hardly be more inimical to the bohemian spirit. Figurative sculpture is not made in a garret--a single piece might take a year or more, and there is a huge up-front cost for materials, equipment, long-term studio space, and assistants. The capital expense and the severely limited opportunities for placement usually imply that a commission is required, even for a well-established artist3. The social dynamic for sculptors was as unpropitious as the economics: the need for a prior commission reverses the canonical Twentieth Century relationship of artist and patron, in that with figurative stone sculpture, it is usually the patron who decides what gets carved, and the sculptor who can take it or leave it. It was the century of the avant-garde, but the figurative realist in stone is almost always working for the man.

By the 1950's the reaction against academic traditions had become so strong, and so institutionalized and entrenched, that countless Beaux Arts structures, especially in England and the United States4, were wantonly demolished, and the sculpture destroyed or dispersed, and much late 19th Century painting and sculpture consigned to the museum basement. Even in this climate, stone carving, even realistic figurative carving, never completely disappeared, but the styles changed overwhelmingly.

In consequence, many the manual techniques that were commonplace at the end of the Nineteenth Century were no longer interesting enough to make it into the how-to books written a generation or two later; the aesthetic concerns they supported no longer applied, if indeed practicing sculptors remembered them at all. The sculptors who followed the generation of Rodin tended not to come out of the Academy, nor did they aspire to it; they came from the bohemian world, and their works was not subordinated to an architectural canon. Artists of those generations had little reason to know or care about either the aesthetics or the techniques of the Beaux-Arts or the Classical tradition--they were of a new world.

As a result, most of the currently available books on stone carving are not comprehensive, and even the best, e.g., Malvina Hoffman's Sculpture Inside and Out, 1939, are significantly out of date, having been written just before the new generation of tools came along. The relatively few sources in print tend to repeat each other, even to the extent of re-using the illustrations from earlier books, and are often factually incorrect even about the basics. Moreover, mid-Twentieth Century authors are often extraordinarily prim about certain issues of technique and composition, taking a curiously moralistic view of practices that were unremarkable when carving was more widely practiced. But times change, and these viewpoints are showing their age. The rebellion against academic traditions in which those antipathies originated is now itself ancient history, as distant from the present as the Napoleonic Wars had been when the influence of the academies collapsed.

The information is all out there--it hasn't been lost--and there are fine sculptors of stone practicing today, as well as many commercial sculptors and art restorers, but figurative carving remains a somewhat specialized area, outside the mainstream of contemporary art. A few schools still teach academic techniques, and more are coming up, but most artists who are new to carving must scrape the knowledge together from obscure sources, or rediscover it by trial and error. Information on advanced topics is hard to find, for instance, how do sculptors carve the arms and fingers without breaking them off? How do you copy a plaster original into stone, or enlarge a maquette to full size? Why do some carvers work from all sides, and others from front to back? How were the ancient works carved before there were power tools, steel, and tugsten carbide?

The aesthetics of stone carving also have a rich history that remains as relevant as ever to contemporary sculptors, if only as a starting point. Yet in every generation, presentations of these issues are inevitably colored by the current state of the ongoing culture wars--each new generation requires a fresh presentation filtered though the most up-to-date prejudices. Why does the use of mechanical measuring devices arouse furor? Why did generations of artists, critics, and historians obsess over the use and abuse of the drill? Why have artists and critics argued vehemently about the number of viewing positions a sculpture should be composed for: one, two, four, eight, or infinitely many? Why did some of history's greatest sculptors assign bronze and painting to one category, and put carving in a category of its own?

The late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries produced some of the most beautiful figurative stone sculpture in history, yet after a century of aesthetic revolution, Western art is once again nearly as culturally distant from the Classical tradition as it was in the late Middle Ages. It's still all around us, but to most of us it is ancient history, even though the world that made it ended only one long lifetime ago. This book represents an attempt to bring together as much this diverse knowledge as possible for a new generation of artists, critics, and aficionados. Inevitably, there will be omissions, errors, and vehement disagreements. Readers are invited to contribute corrections, opposing views, comments, and suggestions, which will be folded into as appropriate, and gratefully acknowledged.