Impressionist Sculpture

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En passant Impressionism in Sculpture von

How does Impressionism – a style that exploited the materiality of oil paint, the optical characteristic of broken brushwork, colour harmony and contrast – translate into sculpture, which is generally monochrome? How can a style so dependent on qualities of flatness be translated into three dimensions? How can art that depends on delicacy of touch and the impression of fleetingness find any sort of analogy in solid objects cast in metal? There has always been an idea that the very heart of Impressionist technique and priorities make it essentially difficult to translate into solid plastic matter. The reliance on spatial ambiguity presented a particular problem to artists working in a concrete medium.

A recent exhibition explored this paradox. En Passant: Impressionism in Sculpture was an exhibition held at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. The artists covered in detail are Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Medardo Rosso (1858-1928), Paolo Troubetzkoy (1866-1938) and Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916).

The subjects of landscapes, theatre scenes, shops and café interiors lent themselves to descriptions of space as much as of objects. How could these subjects be adapted to solid sculpture modelled in the round. The lighting of sculpture was also – aside from photography sessions and the controlled environment of an exhibition – out of the hands of sculptors. Lighting can reveal the great depth and subtlety of a sculpture; insensitive lighting renders a sculpture illegible.

What is the definition of sculptural Impressionism? Is it defined by the new subjects of art, the style, loose finish, concentration on fleeting motion, a break with tradition (anti-academicism), use of new materials, execution en plein air or in front of the motif, lack of preparation to fix the finished work before it was started or some other measure?

The independent group’s exhibitions at the studio of photographer Nadar, on Boulevard des Capuchines, Paris – which would become known as the Impressionist exhibitions – included sculpture. Seventeen sculptures would be exhibited in the eight Impressionist exhibitions held between 1874 and 1886. The works were by Auguste-Louis-Marie Ottin (1811-1890), whose works were not Impressionist in any meaningful sense, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Degas. Gauguin’s pieces were varied: traditional marble busts, carved wooden reliefs and an adapted wooden statuette with a waxen head. The relief of a child combing her hair and the wood-wax bust of his son Clovis are the most innovative of the pieces. The former could be considered Impressionist due to the handling. Gauguin’s work received some critical praise.

The catalogue for the 1880 announced a statue by Degas, but it did not appear and the case remained empty. It was announced again in 1881 and was late. When it did appear, it caused a furore. Modelled in reddish wax, the statue was a below-life-size representation of a dancer in real clothes: Little Dancer at the age of Fourteen (1878-9/1881), pigmented beeswax, clay, human hair, cotton tutu, silk ribbon, linen slippers, wooden base, 99 cm high. This could be said to be the first Impressionist sculpture: it was a modern subject, created in front of the source; the artist deployed modern materials; the finish was rougher than usual; it had a realist’s engagement with the subject, not an idealistic approach.

The debut of the Little Dancer provoked a powerful reaction in 1881 – most of it negative. Critics found the piece shocking. It was too lifelike; in its glass case, it was more of a carnival sideshow waxwork than a sculpture fit for a display of fine art; it was ugly; it violated so many rules of decorum that it was nothing more than a provocation. Parisians were used to seeing ballet dancers at a distance in theatrical lighting, not close up. The reality (as refracted through Degas’s sculpture) was coarse and ungainly. There was palpable class snobbery about the responses. In an age when phrenology and physiognomy were treated as quasi-science, it was thought that one could tell a person’s character from the shape of their skull and their appearance. Everything about the subject shouted to the urbane Parisian that she was part of the underclass and that her presence in the gallery was an unwelcome intrusion of a sordid reality.

There were kind words from some critics. Huysmans wrote, the Little Dancer was “the only truly modern attempt at sculpture.” However, Degas never exhibited sculpture again.

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[Image: Edgar Degas, Grand Arabesque, Third Time (First Version), c. 1885-1890. Photo © Ken Adlard]

The piece was not a one off. He made sculptures from the 1860s onwards, though it seems the early pieces no longer exist. Degas would build armatures of wire and wood then model statuettes of nudes (dancers and bathers) and horses using unconventional combinations of material: pastiline, clay, plaster, corks, coloured beeswax and other materials. The figurines were often fairly roughly finished; limbs would crack and fall off. When the estate assessed the contents of Degas’s house following his death in 1917, around 150 statuettes were found, many crumbled to dust and fragments. About half were rescued and repaired, with 72 being editioned in bronze.

Whether or not Degas’s decision not to exhibit other sculptures was due to the public mauling his debut had instigated, we cannot know. The artist had an ambivalent attitude towards his sculpture. He spent a lot of time on the art form over decades, he made certain pieces more permanent by casting them in plaster and displayed some in his dining room. At the same time, he never cast anything in bronze, never exhibited anything after the Little Dancer and (according to memoirs of acquaintances) he claimed he was glad that the pieces would crumble.

By the summer of 1886 a new name was added to the Impressionist group: Italian sculptor, Medardo Rosso, who exhibited his work at the Paris Salon. Medardo Rosso was an Italian sculptor from Milan. He specialised in busts and heads, though he sometimes added backgrounds – something he developed from his work on grave monuments. In the absence of public access to Degas’s sculptural work – aside from one piece – Rosso came to be seen as the Impressionist sculptor even though he never exhibited at the Impressionist displays. Rosso’s output was original and influential. A radical departure was use of wax as a finished medium. Wax is very delicate and subject to damage in high temperatures. It is commonly used in the modelling and casting processes but it had been considered too fragile to be a permanent medium. (Rosso cast a coloured wax outer layer around a plaster core.) Rosso also cast work in bronze, mainly of statuettes. Rosso’s sculpture found echoes in the art of Antoine Bourdelle and Bourdelle’s student Alberto Giacometti. Rosso was close to Eugène Carrière, who worked in a tenebrist style in print and paint. Carrière was later the neighbour of Bourdelle. Carrière was also in regular communication with Rodin. Rosso developed a rivalry with Rodin; as Rodin became ever more famous, so Rosso accused him of stealing his ideas.

Rosso’s output was very limited, confined to about 50 original works in 20 years is meagre. For the last 20 years he made no original work, only casting making new casts of old works. Rosso lived in Paris for 1889 but failed to capitalise on his art’s brilliance until 1902. He then achieved some acclaim but once the Cubist craze took over Paris in 1910, Rosso’s minor star was eclipsed except in Italy, where he moved during World War I. Regrettably, Rosso secrecy and mistrust means we do not have much written material by or about him during his heyday.

Rosso used photography very effectively to control the viewing experience of his art, favouring electric light. His use of coloured wax to mimic qualities of stone, flesh and wood gives the same design different implications. Rosso is considered an Impressionist for several reasons. Firstly, his subjects are modern and taken from everyday life, including street scenes. Secondly, his surfaces imitate the effect of veils, shadow, blurring, movement and speckled highlights. Thirdly, the quality of the finish is deliberately rough – very rough in places – that defies the standards of academic sculpture. From a distance, Rosso’s pieces seem to be hunks of unworked material. Only when approached closer and examined do they reveal their figurative forms. Thus Rosso’s sculptures are the optical inversions of Impressionist paintings. Impressionist paintings appear realistic from a distance and become increasingly abstract close up; Rosso’s sculptures appear abstract from a distance and become increasingly realistic close up. Finally, his use of the mise en scene or tableau introduces a sensation of space and indicates a context for the figure. Some of his pieces verge on the abstract. (For further discussion of Rosso see my review here.)

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[Image: Auguste Rodin, The Head of John the Baptist, 1877/78. Photo © Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe]

Rodin is often seen in connection with the older sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, collaborator Camille Claudel or viewed as a founder of Modernist sculptor – particularly in the light of his sawing up of plaster casts of his pieces. So realistic was the early Age of Bronze figure (1875-7) that Rodin was accused of passing off a life-cast as a modelled sculpture – a very modern tactic, but one which Rodin vigorously disputed. Rodin’s work sometimes remained unfinished, which gave it an affinity with Impressionist practice. The case for Rodin as an Impressionist is more tangential than with the others. Rodin’s radical approach to the Burghers of Calais (1884-9) was compared to that of Monet, whom he exhibited beside once in 1889.

Paolo Troubetzkoy was born in Italy, son of a Russian diplomat. He approached his portrait busts without using preparatory sketches of modelli. His working methods and aesthetic preferences produced bronze busts that showed evidence of their process of creation, with areas showing lesser worked areas along with highly finished areas – akin to a range of focus. He could be seen as a member of the Cosmopolitan Realist movement/tendency, which encompassed Anders Zorn, John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, Giovanni Boldini and others.

Rembrandt Bugatti is now as celebrated as any animalier artist. His small bronze statues of animals (domestic, agricultural and exotic) are justly treasured. The catalogue associates the Italian Bugatti with German Impressionism (Corinth and others). The Nineteenth Century saw the rise of animal art – Landseer, Bonheur, Barye and others – and Bugatti is the end of the classic period. His short working life coincides with the termination of realism and figurative styles as qualities of the avant garde. His bronzes combine naturalism, movement and a lively finish, characterised by a dappled pattern of highlights, giving the impression of movement.

Other sculptors who could be considered potential Impressionist sculptors are listed: Ernesto Bazzaro, Antoine Bourdelle, Ferruccio Crespi, Honoré Daumier, Leonardo Bistolfi and others. (More discussion of Daumier’s sculpture would have been welcome.) There is a section on the display of Impressionist sculpture and another on the way photographs were created and received (with the photographs becoming Pictorialist works of art). The catalogue includes many photographs, drawings and paintings which relate to the sculptures or images related to subjects of sculptures. Often, the sculptural treatment is palpable in the drawings. Rosso’s drawings and photographs will be new to some, though they have been widely published in recent books. Degas’s output is so large that there are always new drawings to encounter. This is an excellent survey of the problems of classification and the shared aesthetics of a set of advanced sculptors working in the 1880-1930 period. Highly recommended.

Alexander Eiling, Eva Mongi-Vollmer (eds.), En Passant: Impressionism in Sculpture, Prestel/Städel Museum (distr. Prestel), 2020, hardback, 360pp, 335 col. illus., $60/£45, ISBN 978 3 7913 5961 8

Video guide of the exhibition installation here.

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art