This article was originally published in The Objectivist (February and March, 1969) and is recommended by Ayn Rand in The Romantic Manifesto. The original article contained no footnotes or images, relying instead on vivid descriptions of the sculptures discussed. ARI is pleased to publish it here with new footnotes containing hyperlinks to images selected by the author.
Mary Ann Sures is an art historian who has lectured extensively, beginning in the early 1960s, on the application of Objectivist esthetics to the visual arts. She did graduate work in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University and at Hunter College, from which she received an M.A. She taught art history at New York University (Washington Square College) and at Hunter College. She is co-author with her late husband, Charles, of Facets of Ayn Rand, a memoir of their longtime friendship with Ayn Rand and her husband, Frank O’Connor.
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“Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” (Ayn Rand, “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” The Objectivist Newsletter, April 1965.)
Given the definition of art, one often hears the question of how metaphysical abstractions can be conveyed in a visual art such as sculpture.
This discussion is a brief historical survey to answer that question: to indicate the means by which sculpture expresses abstractions — and to demonstrate the connection between the dominant philosophy of a given era and its sculpture.
The history of sculpture is a history of man’s view of man — of his body and spirit, i.e., of his metaphysical nature. Every culture, from the most primitive to the most civilized, has held an estimate of man and has wanted to see the objectified reality of that estimate. Man has been the predominant subject of sculpture, whether he was judged to be an object of pride or of shame, a hero or a sinner.
A metaphysical view of man is projected by the manner in which the sculptor presents the human figure. In the process of shaping clay or wood or stone into the form of a body, the sculptor reveals his answer to three questions: Is man a being of free will or is he a helpless puppet of fate? — Is he good or evil? — Can he achieve happiness or is he doomed to misery? — and then mounts his answer on a pedestal and puts it in a tomb or in a temple or over the portal of a church or in a living room in New York City.
The ancient Egyptian put his answer in a tomb or temple; both monuments symbolized his obsessive preoccupation with life after death. In a civilization saturated with magic and superstition, he worshiped gods in human, animal and monster form — gods who, he believed, controlled his destiny and whom he placated with sacrificial offerings. Moving haltingly through what he believed to be an incomprehensible universe, his every step accompanied by ritual prescribed by the priests, he built temples to the gods and tombs for the dead, he chanted hymns to the dead, offered food to the dead, said prayers for the dead — and then accepted payment for his efforts: he joined them.
This was the Egyptian’s concept of man’s nature and destiny: a mindless puppet with strings attached to hosts of deities who manipulated him through an unintelligible life, while beckoning him into a state of non-life. This is the view concretized in most Egyptian sculpture.
Throughout the centuries of Egyptian civilization, sculptors arranged the human figure according to the law of frontality, which divides the body vertically into symmetrical halves. Facing directly forward, with movement restricted to the forward step of the left leg, the body projected a state of rigidity and immobility. Observe that the law of frontality is also an established convention in the practice of undertakers. 1 King Menkaure and His Queen. c. 2530–2500 B.C. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. See also Ramses II. c. 1250 B.C. Open Air Museum, Memphis, Egypt. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
For every living entity, motion is a prerequisite for the achievement of the values that sustain its life. Man, who must initiate the process of thought required to identify and select his values, must also initiate the physical motion required to attain them. Whether it is the motion of writing a treatise or the motion of excavating for the foundations of a skyscraper, the act of bringing his values into reality requires both thought and movement.
The state in which man, while still alive, can initiate neither thought nor movement, is a state of coma. A close approximation of this state is embodied in most Egyptian sculpture. The application of frontality produced an appearance of arrested movement. The sculptor then incorporated other features which, in conjunction with frontality, indicated that the movement of the body could hardly continue: he carved thick ankles and wrists, which suggest an arthritic condition; he minimized the musculature, virtually eliminating it in the arms, barely indicating it in the legs; he placed the arms down, along the sides of the body, often locking them to the torso with a web of stone; he terminated the motionless arms with clenched fists, or, in seated figures, placed the hands on the thighs, palms down. The material was carved in such a way that it retained the quality of stone, of inert matter. The face was usually carved to match the body: motionless, showing neither pleasure nor pain, neither perception nor introspection — a face virtually devoid of expression, reflecting no awareness, no consciousness. The total result projects a state which is neither life nor death, but a grotesque combination of the two: a state of living death.
Ancient Greece tore away the heavy shroud of mysticism woven for centuries in murky temples, and achieved, in three centuries, what Egypt had not dreamed of in thirty: a civilization that was essentially pro-man and pro-life. The achievements of the Greeks rested on their confidence in the power of man’s mind — the power of reason. For the first time, men sought to understand the causes of natural phenomena, and gradually replaced superstition with the beginnings of science. For the first time, men sought to guide their lives by the judgment of reason, instead of resorting exclusively to divine will and revelation.
The Greeks built temples for their gods, but they conceived of their gods as perfect human beings, rejecting the cats, crocodiles and cow-headed monstrosities enshrined and worshiped by the Egyptians. Greek gods personified abstractions such as Beauty, Wisdom, Justice, Victory, which are proper human values. In the Greek religion, there was no omnipotent mystical authority and no organized priesthood. The Greek had only a vague idea of, and little interest in, an afterlife. His religious practice was, essentially, an affair of state; the gods were honored with civic rites and festivals. On the whole, in his private life, he was left free to think and to seek happiness on earth. To quote Sophocles: “Wonders are there many — none more wonderful than man. His the might that crosses seas swept white by storm winds . . . He the master of the beast lurking in the wild hills . . . His is speech and wind-swift thought.” (Quoted in Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way to Western Civilization, New York, New American Library, 1948, p. 46.) Observe the characterization of man in terms of his essential attribute: his capacity to think.
In its earliest phase, in the seventh century B.C., Greek sculpture showed the influence of the Egyptian style in its featuring of frontality, clenched fists and the left-foot-forward posture in standing figures. However, while relying on Egypt for these features, the Greek sculptor introduced a startling change, one which undoubtedly would have shocked the Egyptian, but which was to remain a characteristic of Greek sculpture from its beginning to its end. The Greek carved man naked. 2 Statue of a Youth (Kouros). c. 590–580 B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it; also, different views can be selected by clicking the small images found below the main image.
Throughout the thirty centuries of its history, nudity was rare in Egyptian art, and was usually reserved for children or slaves. To reveal the body of an adult was taken, by the Egyptian, as a sign of degradation. The featuring of the naked body in early Greek sculpture is a sign of a different estimate of man, which broke through the Egyptian stylistic conventions that the Greek had borrowed. That estimate is also revealed by other elements. The Greek began to make distinctions between the parts of the body, by carving subtle indications of the rib cage, the collarbone, muscles in the legs, and joints in the knees, wrists, ankles and elbows. The Greek sculptor was beginning to give his image of man the physical endowment that would enable man to take his first steps — just as, at the same time, Greek philosophers were beginning to take the first steps of thought. Reason, as a consciously defined concept, was born in ancient Greece.
The history of Greek sculpture from the seventh to the fifth century B.C. is a record in marble of the gradual development of the concept of man as a self-confident being, able to live. The subject matter was predominantly religious, consisting of representations of the gods. However, since the gods were representations of ideal men, it was man’s body that they glorified, and it was an affirmative view of the human spirit that their statues projected. Gradually, the Greek sculptor eliminated the Egyptian conventions of frontality and rigidity; he studied anatomy, in order to represent man realistically. He reached the day when he rejected the lifeless automatons of Egypt, just as he rejected the comatose state they expressed.
Whether representing gods or athletes, Greek sculptors strove to objectify their concept of ideal physical beauty. This passion for the ideal body led one sculptor of athletes, Polykleitos, to work as if he had devised a canon of proportions for the physically perfect male figure. The size of every part of the body was calculated according to a fixed ratio. Sculptors eliminated the accidental imperfections which an average man might happen to possess, and featured only those physical attributes which contributed to the image of a healthy, perfect and sensuous body. 3 Polykleitos. Doryphorus (Spear Bearer). Roman copy after a bronze original of c. 450–440 B.C. National Archeological Museum, Naples, Italy. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
The potentiality of movement is evident in all Greek sculpture. Sculptors carefully articulated the joints and musculature, in recognition of the fact that no body can move without them. They distributed the body’s weight so that the figures were balanced, but not frozen into rigid positions. Consequently, the statues suggested the capacity to shift their weight and move easily.
A quality of life was achieved also by the manner of carving the surface texture. Sculptors created the illusion of flesh that was both firm and soft, emphasizing the subtle rise and fall of the skin as it moves over the complexity of the underlying skeletal and muscular structure. In this way, they stressed the sensuous aspect of the body.
When a sculptor created statues of goddesses clothed in loose gowns, he flaunted their bodies by carving the marble in the style called “wet drapery.” 4 Nike Fastening Her Sandal. c. 410 B.C. Relief from the parapet of the Temple of Athena Nike, Acropolis Museum, Athens. This term designates transparent, fragile cloth which appears to have been applied to a moist body. At every point of contact between the body and the garment, the cloth clings and reveals the body’s subtlest curves. When the Greek carved a female statue, he left no doubt of its femininity, dressed or undressed.
Nike, the goddess of Victory, was a favorite of the Greek navy, and wooden statues of Nike were mounted on the prows of ships. In a marble version, the famous Winged Victory of Samothrace, the goddess stands on the prow of a ship, as an embodiment of motion. Her figure rises in an upward-sweeping curve and thrusts forward to meet the forceful winds of open seas. Wind whips her fragile gown across her torso, revealing its vibrant sensuousness. Proud and courageous, she embodies the attitude with which the Greeks set out to sea. 5 Winged Victory of Samothrace. c. 190 B.C. Louvre, Paris.
Few of the heads of classical Greek statues have survived; but those that have, convey one quality: serene awareness. A calm face with a smooth brow — a face with no sign of inner conflict — was the Greek ideal. 6 Attributed to Praxiteles. Hermes with the Infant Dionysus (head and torso). c. 340 B.C. National Archaeological Museum, Olympia, Greece. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
An entirely different view of man dominated the medieval Christian civilization. Man, according to Augustine, is “crooked and sordid, bespotted and ulcerous.” Medieval mystics regarded man as an evil creature whose body is loathsome because it is material, and whose mind is impotent because it is human. Hating man’s body, they said that pleasure is evil, and virtue consists of renunciation. Hating this earth, they said that it is a prison where man is doomed to pain, misery, calamity. Hating life, they said that death and escape into some other dimension is all that man could — and should — hope for.
Man as a helpless and depraved creature, was the basic theme of medieval sculpture until the Gothic period, whether he was shown being pushed into Hell or accepted into Heaven.
Once again, a naked body was regarded as a sign of humiliation and was reserved for representations of Adam and Eve, and of the damned in Hell. Saints were dressed, their shapeless bodies hidden beneath heavy garments. But, whether man was represented naked and damned or dressed and blessed, hatred for the body permeated every inch of the sculptured stone.
The medieval sculptor faced the problem of making the body recognizable as a material entity while, at the same time, depriving it of its material attributes. He solved the problem by dematerializing the body in a number of ways. Although sculpture is a three-dimensional medium, the medieval sculptor presented the body primarily as a two-dimensional unit: he flattened it out, so that it retained its attributes of height and width, but very little of its third dimension. Free-standing sculpture (i.e., a figure carved on all sides) rarely appeared in Egypt; it was a typically Greek phenomenon. It was practically non-existent in medieval sculpture prior to the thirteenth century. Instead, the thin, weightless bodies remained attached to the stone from which they were made. The arms were often drawn in to rest against the chest or sides of the torso, so as not to project into the surrounding space. When carving a seated figure, the sculptor often pushed the thighs and knees out to the sides of the body, compressing it into a two-dimensional plane. Thus the figures were dematerialized and confined to narrow spatial areas. The human body, apparently, was not to be allowed an earthly reality. 7 Last Judgment. c. 1130–1145. St. Lazare, Autun, France. Note especially the central figure of Christ.
One of the first features to reappear in medieval art was the law of frontality, along with the effect of immobility. As a rule, when a body was shown in a moment of action, the movement was not natural. The figure was shaped into a twisted, contorted position which would be possible only with broken limbs and disconnected joints. Whether frontal or contorted, the figures do not suggest the capacity to move. 8 Isaiah. c. 1150. Sainte Marie de Souillac, Souillac, France.
The knowledge of anatomy and human proportions, acquired by the Greeks and inherited by ancient Rome, was not applied to medieval sculpture. Sculptors barely hinted at joints and musculature; they created bodies in which bone, joint and muscle appear to have melted into one another, each losing its identity. Human proportions were ignored: the bodies were unnaturally elongated with disproportionately small heads, or unnaturally squat with disproportionately large heads. The surface texture was uniformly hard and stone-like. By making no distinctions among flesh, hair and cloth, sculptors eliminated the sensuous aspects of the bodies.
The result was a lifeless figure recognizable as man, but man stripped of most of his human characteristics. For such bodies, sculptors carved heads which featured large, vacant eyes in an expressionless face — or a face grimacing in pain, bewilderment or fear, or a combination of all three.
Eve, especially, was regarded as an object of loathing. In the twelfth century church of St. Lazare in Autun, she is shown part-lying, part-kneeling, part-crawling, her body twisted into an ambiguous and tortured position. A curved gash in the stone indicates her rib cage, and two small lumps serve as breasts. Her face wears an expression of unfocused stupor, with enormous eyes that stare ahead as she reaches out behind her for the fatal apple. 9 Eve, from St. Lazare, Autun. c. 1130. Musée Rolin, Autun, France. See also detail of head, Eve.
In the same church, figures of naked men and women are shown in Hell, in a scene of the Last Judgment. Distinctions between the sexes are barely indicated. Spineless, jointless, muscleless bodies crouch in fear and huddle in shame. One figure, sex indeterminate, sits in helpless resignation as the enormous hands of some monstrous creature reach down to enclose its head and neck in a strangling grip. 10 Detail of the Damned, from the Last Judgment. c. 1140–1145. St. Lazare, Autun, France.
In the medieval versions of the Virgin mourning the body of Christ, called the Pietà, the aspects most often emphasized were physical torture and spiritual torment. A late medieval German example (Provincial Museum, Bonn, West Germany) presents the Virgin holding the emaciated body of Christ across her lap; blood spurts from wounds in his chest, hands and feet; his head is thrown back, unsupported; his face is twisted in agony; both the Virgin and Christ are helplessly and completely overcome by the horror of the Crucifixion. 11 Roettgen Pietà. c. 1325–1360. Rheinisches Landesmuseum (formerly Provincial Museum), Bonn, Germany.
Suffering as an ideal or suffering as punishment was all that medieval art offered to its heroes or its sinners here on earth.
Part II (Conclusion)
For the classical Greek world, its statues of gods and athletes were models of perfection and a source of inspiration. For the medieval world, its pathetic, huddled images of man were constant reminders of depravity and a source of shame and humiliation.
There was no place in the medieval culture for a statue that glorified man; and so, after the collapse of ancient civilization, the classical statues were abandoned to the hostile barbarism of the populace. The early Christian church fathers are said to have considered them dangerous, believing them to be inhabited by devils. Large numbers of these statues were destroyed. Some were hidden in private collections. The rest were forgotten and gradually buried under the rubble of centuries — just as the human spirit they embodied was buried by medieval mysticism. Both the statues and the spirit remained buried until the Renaissance.
The Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was a conscious rebellion against the anti-human, otherworldly values of medieval Christendom. In its metaphysics and epistemology, the Renaissance was essentially Aristotelian. Every aspect of the period, from science to literature to art, reflected the Aristotelian view that man is a worthy being, capable of understanding the universe, and that the universe is worthy of man’s interest and study. Mysticism, which had saturated every aspect of medieval life and culture, lost its stranglehold on man’s mind. A rebirth of reason and of concern with this earth, was the base of all the achievements of the Renaissance.
In terms of its morality, the Renaissance was split in two: it was part-Aristotelian, part-Christian. As Aristotelians, the men of the Renaissance displayed the virtues of intelligence and pride, and pursued the value of happiness on earth. As Christians, they upheld the virtues of humility, renunciation and self-sacrifice, and the value of rewards in Heaven. Thus the existentially brilliant era of the Renaissance was marred, spiritually, by a profound moral conflict.
That conflict appeared, in different degrees, in virtually all of the Renaissance art. For the most part, sculpture did reflect an affirmative view of man. Although the subject matter was largely Christian, sculptors abandoned the stylistic features of medieval art. They restored weight, three-dimensionality and natural proportions to the human body. They reintroduced free-standing figures. They were keenly aware of human anatomy, and created images of potentially active bodies, or of bodies engaged in energetic movement. And, equally significant, the naked body was featured in the representation of both Christian and pagan subjects.
The statues present men who have intelligence, courage, determination and strength of character; but they do not convey a sense of happiness. The moral conflict tinged the Renaissance view of life, and in the faces of the statues there is a touch of sadness or uncertainty or tragedy, an expression of longing for an ideal never fully reached.
The statue of St. George by Donatello is a youthful knight in armor, facing existence with an upright posture and a firm stance, exhibiting competence and energy. The face, however, is troubled; the wrinkled brow suggests both concentration and uncertainty. 12 Donatello. St. George. 1415–1417. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
Turning for a moment to painting: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus features a graceful, naked goddess whose delicate face reveals a serene spirit, but it is serenity mixed with melancholy and wistfulness.
Botticelli. The Birth of Venus. c. 1482. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
See also detail of head, The Birth of Venus.
Michelangelo was the greatest artist of the Renaissance, and his work may be taken as representative of the spirit of that era. The same conflict appears in his sculpture, but with an intensity unequaled in the work of others. When he began, as a young man, his statues conveyed near-triumph. Then, the triumph gave way to struggle and tragic heroism, then to frustration, and, at the end, to despair and futility.
In his first version of the Pietà, Michelangelo eliminated the emphasis on physical torture and spiritual agony. The Virgin has the strength to support the body lying across her lap; her hand is held out in a gesture of quiet resignation; her head is bowed in solemnity. There are no tears on her face; she expresses sorrow, not suffering. Christ’s body and face are relaxed and smooth; the wound in his chest is unstressed and clean. Michelangelo portrayed the subject in a manner that ennobled both figures: they are not broken by physical or spiritual pain, but transcend it. Compare the style and spirit of this work to the medieval example of the same subject, discussed earlier. 14 Michelangelo. Pietà. 1498/99–1500. St. Peter’s, Vatican, Rome.
Michelangelo’s David is one of his most eloquent works. Earlier Renaissance versions of the subject had presented David after his triumph, standing with sword in hand and with the head of Goliath at his feet. Michelangelo chose to present David in the moment before he hurled the stone — to portray a youth who has to and will be triumphant. He stands with his head held high, his slender, strong body prepared for the encounter. The side of the figure facing the enemy, is posed in insolent defiance; the leg is relaxed, the arm is raised to hold the sling in readiness. The other side of the figure is tense; the straight leg supports the weight of the body, while the fingers of the powerful hand curl around the stone. The statue conveys the victory of the mind over brute, physical force. It portrays man as fearless, intelligent and triumphant, but man with a troubled brow, looking out with a touch of apprehension.
Michelangelo. David. 1501–1504. Academy, Florence, Italy. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
See also detail of head, David.
By the time Michelangelo carved the Dying Slave, about ten years later, the near-triumph of the David had given way to tragic heroism. The figure is shown at the moment when he has ceased struggling against the fetters binding his chest, when — with one knee bent — his youthful body gives in to exhaustion and begins to collapse. One arm presses tightly against his torso, but its hand rests limply on his chest, its energy gone. The statue conveys the futility of man’s struggle. It portrays man as a being for whom existence means struggle and who will respond to the challenge, but who will struggle in vain.
Michelangelo. Dying Slave. 1513–1516. Louvre, Paris. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
See also detail of head and torso, Dying Slave. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
In one of Michelangelo’s last works, another version of the Pietà (which was left unfinished), Christ’s body sags helplessly at the feet of a figure who is unable to support him. The Christian elements in Michelangelo’s soul had won. 17 Michelangelo. Rondanini Pietà. 1564. Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
Whether intensified, as in the work of Michelangelo, or subtly implied, as in the work of some of his contemporaries, such was the conflict torturing and undercutting the spirit of the Renaissance.
From the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century, the growing currents of a profound retrogression engulfed the realm of philosophy. It was a gradual movement from an Aristotelian to a Platonic base — from the conviction that reality is intelligible and reason is man’s means of perceiving it, to the belief that reality is unknowable, and reason, at best, is limited. The climax and victory of that trend were represented by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, in the late eighteenth century. After Kant, as Platonism’s influence gained momentum, man’s stature, in the eyes of philosophers, sank rapidly, undercut by the currents of mysticism and skepticism.
But the influence of philosophy does not penetrate and change every human activity at once; sculpture remained comparatively untouched during this period. From the Renaissance to the mid-nineteenth century, sculpture continued to reflect a positive view of man; the Greek classical tradition remained a strong influence. There were stretches of time when sculpture became predominantly imitative and superficial, especially in the first half of the nineteenth century. But, for about two hundred and fifty years, man’s body was presented in a natural manner, and his spirit was neither glorified nor degraded.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, the philosophical views of generations of intellectuals had emerged from the theoretical realm and permeated the general culture. Holding that existence is unknowable, abandoning the quest for certainty and for moral values, philosophy shattered man’s self-confidence. It fashioned a view of man which raised a mixture of disillusionment, doubt and hopelessness to the status of man’s essence. That view was given visual expression in the work of Auguste Rodin.
As a characteristic of his work, Rodin introduced an element that had been rare in sculpture since the end of the Middle Ages: human ugliness. His figures combine ugliness with extreme physical discomfort, expressing his subjects’ state of mind. His figures are presented in bent, twisted, strained, squatting and huddled positions; musculature is distorted; faces are left unfinished. The surfaces of the material, usually bronze, are highly polished, but beneath the sheen one can distinguish uneven ridges and hollows that make the skin texture look broken and unhealthy.
She Who Was Once the Helmet-Maker’s Beautiful Wife is the seated figure of an old, naked woman, with gnarled limbs, sagging skin and shrunken breasts. Her sharp, thin shoulder blades protrude from her wasted back; one arm is drawn behind her, with the hand open, palm out, fingers outstretched, as if she is repelled by her hideous appearance and cannot bring herself to touch her own body. 18 Auguste Rodin. She Who Was Once the Helmet-Maker’s Beautiful Wife, also called The Courtesan. Modeled 1887, this bronze cast 1910. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
Another statue, Eve, stands wrapping her arms around her chest, hiding her breasts in anguish and shame. 19 Auguste Rodin. Eve. Modeled 1881, this bronze cast 1911. Rodin Museum, Paris. Note: This image can be enlarged by hovering the mouse over it; also, different views can be selected by clicking on the small images found below the main image.
One of Rodin’s most famous and popular works, The Thinker, sums up his view of man’s wretched state. 20 Auguste Rodin. The Thinker. Modeled 1880, this bronze cast 1903. Rodin Museum, Paris. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it. The figure is seated, hunched over in a position that combines strain and limpness. The muscles in his arms, legs and toes are knotted and cramped. The size and development of his body indicate that it was once powerful and energetic, but is now exhausted. His external, physical state reveals his inner strain: the strain of engaging in mental activity.
Rodin’s despondent figures were only a hint, a mild foretaste, of what was to come in the generations that followed — when both philosophy and sculpture collapsed under the weight of twentieth-century irrationalism.
The contemporary view of man’s nature is summarized in the following observation: “We have been made aware of how small a part of the human being is represented by the reason, which could be likened to that part of the iceberg which is visible, the mere cap of a submerged mass, deep and dense, which is the human psyche, whose profound levels are not to be measured quantitatively by the scientific method.” (Samuel M. Green, “The Unthinks: The Distrust of Reason as Seen in the Contemporary Arts,” Wesleyan University Alumni-Faculty Seminar, June 1959, p. 21.) Man, according to contemporary philosophy, is fundamentally irrational; his reason is not merely limited, it is a barrier to the expression of his “true” nature.
The neo-mystics of philosophy have discarded, as a useless endeavor, the study of epistemology and ethics; and, while one school bickers over the meaning of words, another tells man that life can have no meaning. What is the nature of reality? Reality — according to a prevalent answer — is an indeterminate flux, a flow of contradictions and ambiguities. Can man acquire knowledge of the world? Knowledge, they all answer, is impossible to man; faced with an unintelligible world, his reason is useless; all he can do is snatch a few disconnected experiences from the flux. How is man to guide the course of his life? Man, they answer, cannot guide his life; he cannot define values or set goals. Consequently, say the psychologists, man is run by a multitude of powers outside his control and beyond his comprehension — by his genes, by social forces, by inexplicable feelings, whims and urges (the “profound levels” of the “human psyche”). Man, they declare, must live from day to day, from urge to urge; there are no principles or standards to guide his conduct. As a starting point, the existentialists say, man must accept the fact that life is anguish and that his appropriate and constant response to being alive is nausea.
Man as an irrational creature who lives in a perpetual state of anxiety and terror, is the theme of the sculpture offered today.
Man’s desire to see the objectified reality of his basic self-estimate can lead him to search for the art of cultures other than his own, as the men of the Renaissance searched for the art of ancient Greece and Rome. Observe an eloquent symptom of the spiritual state of today’s culture: the popularity of the primitive art of the jungle.
For example, consider the following excerpt from a press release announcing an exhibition held in New York City in 1958, at the Museum of Primitive Art. The exhibition was entitled “African Sculpture Lent by New York Collectors.” The release explains that the sculpture was: “Drawn from the collections of people in a wide variety of professions, including businessmen, museum directors, a sculptor, a photographer, a composer and a psychiatrist …The objects range from bronze portrait heads and stylized wooden human figures through fantastic masks used in secret society rites and fetish figures decorated with mirrors, nails and feathers. Both human and animal forms are used and occasionally the two are even combined.”
“. . . the Museum’s founder and president thanked the lenders to the exhibition and . . . [said] ‘that there has been a great increase in the public’s awareness and interest in primitive art.’ ”
This museum’s founder and president is Nelson A. Rockefeller.
The following are examples of what the public is aware of and interested in:
From the Congo, the statue of a woman. 21 Standing Female Figure. Late 19th century. Democratic Republic of the Congo. Brooklyn Museum. Note: The figure described in the article is not available on the Internet; however, this figure is similar in many respects. The size of her head is one-third the length of her body; human proportions have been totally destroyed. The torso, which consists of a protruding stomach and huge breasts that originate where one would expect a collarbone, rests on two curved hunks of wood that serve as legs. There being no joints or muscles in the legs, and virtually no thighs, the capacity for movement is non-existent. A head with pursed lips and gashes for eyes completes the figure.
From Easter Island, a male figure. 22 Male Figure. Early 19th century. Easter Island. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Note: The figure described in the article is not available on the Internet; however, this figure is similar in many respects. Elongated and emaciated, the length of his torso is twice the length of his scrawny legs and thighs. Enormous staring eyes, a grimacing mouth and slumped shoulders complete the figure.
From the prow of a Polynesian canoe, a small, stiff, muscleless figure, sex indeterminate. 23 The figure described in the article is not available on the Internet. However, it is similar to the male figure referenced in footnote 22 above. With its arms pressed to its stomach and its face wearing an expression of mild bewilderment, it served to placate the many gods with which the Polynesians had populated their universe; it was there to plead that the canoe might pass, unharmed. If one compares this figure to the Winged Victory of Samothrace, one grasps the power of sculpture to express man’s soul by means of shaping his body. 24 Winged Victory of Samothrace. c. 190 B.C. Louvre, Paris.
The alternative to primitive sculpture, in today’s art circles, is the work of the contemporary “anxiety school,” which turns out mutilated images of man. Contemporary philosophy, constantly chipping away at the “mere cap” of reason, seeks to destroy man’s confidence in the power of his mind. Members of the “anxiety school” of sculpture move in and, like buzzards, finish off his body.
Man’s body, in this type of sculpture, is stretched out, flattened, punctured, disfigured, dismembered. He is shown without a head — or with arms that have no hands, or with hands that have no fingers — or with a face that has no mouth, and a head that has no face.
He is a tall, skinny, stick-like figure with a tiny head, with club feet, and with flesh and skin like dripping lumps of rot (by Alberto Giacometti). 25 Alberto Giacometti. Falling Man. 1950. Musée Calvet, Avignon, France.
He is an inflated bug on its side, with a knob for a head, with a swollen belly, and limbs like stumps of charred wood projecting from the misshapen mass (by Kenneth Armitage). 26 Kenneth Armitage. Figure Lying on Its Side (Version V). 1957. British Council of the Arts.
He is a bloated thing infected all over with elephantiasis, metamorphosing into a gigantic pretzel (by Henry Moore — those that are recognizable). 27 Henry Moore. Reclining Figure. 1939. Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan.
He is a mummy bound in corroded metal strips, with spikes stuck into what is left of his body (by Leslie Thornton). 28 Leslie Thornton. Crucifix. 1958. Private collection. Note: The referenced image is ninth from the top of the page.
These are the creatures offered to man as visual embodiments of his metaphysical nature. They are the inhabitants of a world made by Heraclitus, Plato, Kant, Hegel, James, Sartre and Wittgenstein, a world in which man can know nothing, desire nothing, achieve nothing.
Philosophy is the sculptor of man’s soul. And sculpture is philosophy in stone.
Citations & Notes
- 1 King Menkaure and His Queen. c. 2530–2500 B.C. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
See also Ramses II. c. 1250 B.C. Open Air Museum, Memphis, Egypt. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
- 2 Statue of a Youth (Kouros). c. 590–580 B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it; also, different views can be selected by clicking the small images found below the main image.
- 3 Polykleitos. Doryphorus (Spear Bearer). Roman copy after a bronze original of c. 450–440 B.C. National Archeological Museum, Naples, Italy. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
- 4 Nike Fastening Her Sandal. c. 410 B.C. Relief from the parapet of the Temple of Athena Nike, Acropolis Museum, Athens.
- 5 Winged Victory of Samothrace. c. 190 B.C. Louvre, Paris.
- 6 Attributed to Praxiteles. Hermes with the Infant Dionysus (head and torso). c. 340 B.C. National Archaeological Museum, Olympia, Greece. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
- 7 Last Judgment. c. 1130–1145. St. Lazare, Autun, France. Note especially the central figure of Christ.
- 8 Isaiah. c. 1150. Sainte Marie de Souillac, Souillac, France.
- 9 Eve, from St. Lazare, Autun, France. c. 1130. Musée Rolin, Autun, France.
See also detail of head, Eve.
- 10 Detail of the Damned, from the Last Judgment. c. 1140–1145. St. Lazare, Autun, France.
- 11 Roettgen Pietà. c. 1325–1360. Rheinisches Landesmuseum (formerly Provincial Museum), Bonn, Germany.
- 12 Donatello. St. George. 1415–1417. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
- 13 Botticelli. The Birth of Venus. c. 1482. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
See also detail of head, The Birth of Venus.
- 14 Michelangelo. Pietà. 1498/99–1500. St. Peter’s, Vatican, Rome.
- 15 Michelangelo. David. 1501–1504. Academy, Florence, Italy. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
See also detail of head, David.
- 16 Michelangelo. Dying Slave. 1513–1516. Louvre, Paris. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
See also detail of head and torso, Dying Slave. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
- 17 Michelangelo. Rondanini Pietà. 1564. Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
- 18 Auguste Rodin. She Who Was Once the Helmet-Maker’s Beautiful Wife, also called The Courtesan. Modeled 1887, this bronze cast 1910. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
- 19 Auguste Rodin. Eve. Modeled 1881, this bronze cast 1911. Rodin Museum, Paris. Note: This image can be enlarged by hovering the mouse over it; also, different views can be selected by clicking on the small images found below the main image.
- 20 Auguste Rodin. The Thinker. Modeled 1880, this bronze cast 1903. Rodin Museum, Paris. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
- 21 Standing Female Figure. Late 19th century. Democratic Republic of the Congo. Brooklyn Museum. Note: The figure described in the article is not available on the Internet; however, this figure is similar in many respects.
- 22 Male Figure. Early 19th century. Easter Island. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Note: The figure described in the article is not available on the Internet; however, this figure is similar in many respects.
- 23 The figure described in the article is not available on the Internet. However, it is similar to the male figure referenced in footnote 22 above.
- 24 Winged Victory of Samothrace. c. 190 B.C. Louvre, Paris.
- 25 Alberto Giacometti. Falling Man. 1950. Musée Calvet, Avignon, France.
- 26 Kenneth Armitage. Figure Lying on Its Side (Version V). 1957. British Council of the Arts.
- 27 Henry Moore. Reclining Figure. 1939. Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan.
- 28 Leslie Thornton. Crucifix. 1958. Private collection. Note: The referenced image is fifth from the top of the page.
- 29 Marino Marini, Horseman. 1947. Tate Gallery, London.
- Copyright © 2013 Mary Ann Sures