Le Cabaret de l’informe: The Sculpture of Medardo Rosso

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[Image: Medardo Ross, Ecce puer (Beyond the Child) (1906), plaster coated with sealant, Museo Medardo Rosso]

The current exhibition of art Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) is staged like an intimate cabaret performance. (Medardo Rosso: Sight Unseen, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, closes 10 February 2018; full catalogue) With the velvet curtains across the door, no natural light and the spotlighting from above, it could be an exclusive brothel or a scene from a David Lynch film. The few heads on display are beautiful, peculiar, delicious and troubling. In this exclusive and luxurious setting (and high-end location, in a street known for its super-expensive boutiques selling jewellery, watches and clothing), we come to commune with something hidden and rare that combines the beautiful and disconcerting.

The display uses lighting carefully. Contemporary writers noted Rosso’s obsession with controlling lighting to increase the impact of his sculptures.[i] The exhibition comprises ten heads and two groups of sculpture, with two vitrines of drawings and photographs of drawings. The photographs are largely vintage prints of drawings, which Rosso printed to exhibit in place of the drawings – a novel decision at the time. The plinths are rough and worn, echoing the rugged and weathered character of the casts they display. It is commendable that the exhibition designers have chosen not to put all behind glass. With such delicate and valuable objects that must have been a conscious gamble to refrain from using glazing. (NB: Images show all the works without glazing.)

[Images: installation view, courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London . Paris . Salzburg. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates]

The selection of work, some of which is borrowed from Museo Medardo Rosso, Barzio, Italy, (including some of his best-known heads) is assembled in London. The early Carne altrui (The Flesh of Others) (1883-4) shows the head of a sleeping prostitute. It falls in line with the work of the Impressionists, with their interest in the anonymous members of the urban under-class, realistic subject matter and a desire to forge non-naturalistic styles to capture effects seen in life. A roughly modelled sculpture of a baby at a breast plays with illegibility, so strong are the marks of Rosso’s tools and fingers. Rosso was one of the few Italian artists who expressed an interest in the recent developments in French art. This played a part in Rosso’s decision to move to Paris, the centre of the avant-garde, in 1889.

The deep purple-mahogany woodgrain effect of Ecce puer (1906), cast in plaster stained with sealant, gives it an organic-mineral character. The impression of worn stone is common in Rosso’s heads. Features of anonymous figures are eroded or blurred as if by water or frost. We can also consider the sculpture of a veiled woman by Raffaelle Monti (1818-1881) especially in relation to Madame Noblet (c. 1897-8).

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[Image: Raffaelle Monti, Veiled Vestal (1847), marble]

Viewing statues of laughing figures is a curious experience in a way that it is not with paintings. Maybe it is the lack of pictorial distance and the existence of the insistent physical presence of an object sharing space with the viewer that makes sculpture more disconcerting to us. We are under the apprehension of being with a person and not having got the joke. Perhaps we are the subject of mockery or are in the presence of a hysteric. That freezing of a momentary action that is one of the more powerful and relatable instance of human contact we experience is significant. It is a joke we can never draw any amusement from, only observe in incomprehending alien fashion. Another unsettling aspect is the way figures are shown in motion, often close to toppling over. This adds to Rosso’s reputation as an Impressionist in that he captured transitory moments.

Rosso used colour in a manner that broke with the monochrome tradition of Italian statuary established in the Renaissance and furthered by Bernini. His colour choices depart from the monochromy of plain material, the tinting of stone by Canova and the polychromy of religious figures. He uses colour in an Impressionist manner – strong, non-naturalistic, roughly blended. In the wax cast of Bambino ebero (Jewish Boy) (c. 1892-4) is an assertively artificial yellow. This is an aspect of his art that is often overlooked.

Rosso produced only around 50 unique sculptures and nothing new after 1906. Most of these compositions were cast by the artist multiple times in different materials. He manipulated each cast, preferring to use fragile plaster and wax instead of bronze. Rosso became known in Paris for his theatrical casting, which privileged insiders, critics and collectors could witness. Rosso used casting as performance and photographs of his studio and his casts were sent by Rosso as postcards and published.

The vitrines contain drawings and vintage prints of photographs of drawings and sculptures which Rosso exhibited, distributed and published. Some of the drawings were made on scraps of hotel stationery, including envelopes. The drawings of figures and street scenes are small, rough, provisional and tonal. They are somewhat similar to Seurat’s, whose drawings Rosso should have known. As drawings they are not especially strong. The practice of using photographs of art as art is innovatory on a conceptual level and worthy of discussion.

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[Image: installation view, courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London . Paris . Salzburg. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates]

The impression of viewing a form which fluctuates between being and not being is characteristic of Rosso’s late sculpture. This quality of extreme mutability generates a type of anxiety we may associate with Georges Bataille’s definition of l’informe. The form before us evades exact classification and calls into question our certitude regarding all categories by being simultaneously of a member of exclusive sets and not of any single one. The informe indicates chaos and entropy and breaches the human ambiguity-discomfort threshold. Thinking about it does not help: the horror of chaos only impinges further. As an animal which evolved to crave the certainty of discerning the edible from the inedible and the spoor of the prey animal from that of the predator animal, homo sapiens seeks certainty above all else. Humans are not developed for dwelling upon the boundary-crossing and profoundly ambiguous. Yet think we must, for as problem-solvers we are drawn to the ambiguous and seek to either resolve the problem or at least grade it as an insoluble or unimportant problem so it can be set aside (however temporarily).

The idea of the informe was broached by Bataille in 1929 in the Surrealist journal Documents; it was revived by art theorists in the 1990s, who put it forward as a historical precursor to one strand of Late Modernist practice and Post-Modernist theory, namely the entropic. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Allan Kaprow, Richard Serra, Eva Hess, Lynda Benglis and others used techniques which harnessed unpredictable physical properties of objects and substances to generate art they could not control in a fine manner, thereby violating one of traditions of art: that of the artist as a maker with supreme control of his materials. These artists did have some control over their materials in the way they selected and manipulated materials but this did not afford full control.

The informe of Rosso gives us material that resolutely refuses to subordinate itself to the designated form. It gives us the human form in fragmentary fashion but much of it remains unshaped; sometimes a majority of the material is unformed. In comparison to the quantity if figural matter, the proportionately large quantity of the unformed superfluous matter challenges the idea that the matter is in the service of representation. The unformed excess, the ostensible setting, takes on an importance by dint of its quantity. The lack of detail and degree of ambiguity in Rosso’s later heads give the impression of matter in the process of making form and form on the verge of returning to primordial matter. Rosso was known in his day for allowing the imperfections of his casts to remain and not be subject remedial post-casting processes. Thus rips, bubbles and cracks in casts, the prominent nails and sprues of the casting process and the excess slurry that would ordinarily have been removed or ameliorated remained as part of the final state of object.[ii] It is true that Rosso’s sculptures do display pure entropic formlessness but they infuse likenesses made in the consummate realistic Western tradition of modelled sculpture with the repugnant presence of unformed matter. Viewed retrospectively, these sculptures stand as precursors to both the abstraction of the Abstract Expressionists and the artful deformations of the Expressionists, Soutine and Francis Bacon.

[link to review of new books and catalogues on Rosso to be added here]

 

6 February 2018

[i] Sharon Hecker, Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form, 2018, Pulitzer , p. 19

[ii] We should not neglect the aspect of debasement that Bataille mentioned in his definition. Semi-liquid slurry – especially when seen in conjunction with the human form – has the connotation of bodily waste and internal bodily substance which we abhor seeing openly, as this associated with injury and death. More broadly, such indistinct matter reminiscent of excreta and internal bodily substance is repellent and horrible to us as dangerous, filthy or irredeemable (that is, an injury so extreme that substantial internal matter was exposed was almost invariably fatal and thus literally unredeemable or unrepairable).

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The Liquidation of History

“One day after a bloody clash between white supremacists and a mixture of non-violent, anti-fascist marchers and violent Antifa activists in Charlottesville, Virginia, a mob of activists destroyed a Confederate war statue in Durham, North Carolina. Fearing more violent action, authorities are concealing or removing potentially controversial public monuments nationwide. Far from easing tensions, this is likely to worsen the situation.

“From South Africa to Ukraine, statues have become proxy targets for political violence. Statues are soft targets. Often unprotected, easy to deface or destroy and unable to retaliate, they make ideal symbolic targets for those unwilling to endanger themselves. In an age when groups can be quickly mobilised via social-media postings and attacks can be livestreamed around the world, such assaults on cultural property are liable to become more common. Police rarely intervene, prosecutions for these attacks are uncommon and punishment light.

“Now the Culture Wars in the US are being fought on the streets between left-wing and right-wing activists. Civil War statues and memorials are flashpoints for this conflict…”

Read the full article online on Spiked 21 August 2017 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-liquidation-of-history/20226#.WZrPc1V97IU

Lucio Fontana, Constellations and Injured Bodies

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(Image: Lucio Fontana, Pillola (1961-5), polished and lacquered copper, 36 x 22 x 40cm. Image (c) M&L Fine Art, London.)

Lucio Fontana: From the Earth to the Cosmos, M&L Fine Art, 15 Old Bond Street, London W1 (7 March-12 May 2017). Catalogue available.

M&L Fine Art is a new London exhibition venue which is a joint project of two Italian galleries. The current exhibition, Lucio Fontana: From the Earth to the Cosmos, brings together work from different phases of the career of Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) as a sculptor. It starts with a maquette the Italian-Argentinian sculptor made for a public commission in Italy. The bronze cast of two rearing horses (1936, no. 1) shows Fontana’s directness, lack of artifice and ability to convey an impression of energy.

Polychrome ceramics of the 1940s and early 1950s display the theatrical and baroque side to Fontana, which may have been imbued through his training and the influence of his sculptor father. These glazed, vigorously moulded figures are speckled by highlights, which give them a strongly pictorial appearance. In the large plates or plaques embellished with high relief motifs and scorings we notice a demonstration of Fontana’s hypertactility. His works are unusually tactile in form, baroque in character, full of flowing energy. The scene of a bull fight (executed at the same time as the early Spatial Concept (Concetto spaziale) series) is a masterpiece of dynamic form.

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(Image: Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale (1954), terracotta, 25 x 32cm. Image (c) M&L Fine Art, London.)

The most typical works are Spatial Concept works, started in the early 1950s. Those in the exhibition are fired clay tablets which have been punctured and scored while wet. In the 1954 example, white glaze has been applied to the holes, giving the impression of stars radiating light. The impression is further confirmed by gouaches on paper on the subject of constellations which were made as illustrations for the volume of poems Il prato del silenzio by Lina Angioletti. In these simple pieces the black void is punctuated by white dots, dotted lines and slashes. These are Fontana’s meditations on cosmic energy and spatial orders. The drawing-paintings balance chromatic austerity and formal exuberance.

The more highly coloured ceramics (Concetto spaziale: Natura morta (1957, nos. 15 and 16)) are altogether less successful. Restrained coloured forms on white discs look like nothing so much as nouvelle cuisine in ceramic shorthand. The glare of the areas of white and strongly coloured motifs work against each other and strain the eye, not least because the relief forms are unclear. (A case of Bataille’s informe revolting the eye which seeks clarity and order.) The more chromatically restrained yet dynamically energetic reliefs on circular supports – with their slashes of high relief and spatters of glaze – are very satisfying (1956, nos. 13 and 14). They are brusque and elegant, energetic and circumscribed.

The brightly coloured lacquer-surface ovoid forms dominated by single straight slashes are the Pillolas (1961-5, no. 20, red version and white version). As well as being the sculptures that come closest to Fontana’s slashes in canvases, these pieces (designed to be produced as multiples in different colours) are homages to industrial manufacturing and scientific progress. (Apparently, Fontana was impressed by the social liberation that contraceptive pills provided.) These Pillolas are mounted on rods above bases, similar to scientific models, something reinforced by the perfection of the surfaces. Even the slashes are immaculate.

The Pillolas can be interpreted in different ways. They could be seen as stagings of incisions (the creation of objects designed to carry or hold incisions). They could be seen as meditations on exteriority and interiority of forms. The incisions reveal the interiors of the body (or hint at it, they are inscrutably dark) but by doing so they literally make the interior a concave exterior of a form which no longer has a hermetically sealed interior. That is what makes them paradoxical. By ostensibly showing us the interior of a body, the very displaying of that interior eliminates that interior by making the interior part of the exterior which just happens to be extremely concave and illegible.

One could also see the holes as motifs. They are paradoxical kinds of motifs in that their only presence resides in the concentrated instances of an absence of ground.

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(Image: Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale (1960-5), terracotta, 21 x 45 x 21 cm. Image (c) M&L Fine Art, London.)

The most surprising work in the exhibition is Concetto spaziale (1960-5, no. 19). The black, terracotta ovoid form (a kind of Euclidean and Platonic solid) is puckered by a line of gouges and a single curving incised line is very sensual. The tiniest of wrinkles on the surface resemble skin, or the processed skin of leather; an impression which is deepened by the delicate soft surface texture of the whole of the body. It is the most visually arresting of the works here.

The aesthetics of the cuts in the exhibited pieces is significant. There is the slit, the line, the hole, the wrinkled hole, the gouge, the puckered rip, the partially incomplete injury (the scratch, the scuff, the divot). It is hard to observe these markings as anything other than violent and anything other than corporeal. One is reminded of bodily injuries, surgical incisions, orifices, soft bodies afflicted by distortions. This is especially true of the forms in soft clay, less so for cuts in smooth hard surfaces, still less for slits in canvases, least of all for holes in paper. Fontana may have publicly discussed ideas of cosmology and atomic science, but the cuts and punctures in soft clay are often viewed of proxies for flesh. This does not seem an invalid response to the pieces. Our responses to seeing a hard object smashed or damaged by a blow is very different to how we see these pieces.

Our first response to all art is as viewers inhabiting human bodies, with bodily knowledge and concerns. We automatically relate material resembling flesh in terms of flesh, our own and that of others we have known.

When we view visibly and humanly manipulated material we understand how it feels to make such manipulations. We imagine making those marks. We mentally re-enact the manipulations and thus we experience a kind of theatre of the imagination where we participate in making the object before us. We imagine holding the stick and stabbing the clay tablet; we imagine holding the gouge and goring the perfect form; we imagine holding the knife and slashing the canvas. We are artist surrogates and the object is something we have – in our theatre of imagination – made. We take the art personally because we feel able to have done the act that made the art; we have imagined making it; we feel responsible for the art. Mentally, we run our hands over the surface, noticing the clamminess of the wet clay under our hands; we weigh the objects; we feel the tools in our hands. There is no mystery. It is our art. The only odd thing is that somehow the work we made in our theatre of the imagination happens to be on a plinth and happens to be venerated as art. Everything about it is fathomable and prosaic except that step of status elevation.

This well-chosen and carefully displayed exhibition reminds us of some of the fundamentals of what art is and how it operates.

26 April 2017

Edme Bouchardon Reappraised

“Edme Bouchardon (1698-1762) was a leading figure from the Generation of 1700 who was greatly admired by contemporaries and for some decades later, but his name gradually slipped from public recognition. Chardin is famed, while Bouchardon is obscure to even the most informed layperson. This neglect should be partly redressed by an exhibition catalogue, available in both an English and a French version, and a monograph on the artist’s drawings that have been published to mark the exhibition of Bouchardon held at the Louvre, Paris (closed December 2016) and at the Getty Center, Los Angeles (closes 2 April 2017).

Edme Bouchardon, Philipp von Stosch
1. Edme Bouchardon, Baron Philipp von Stosch, 1727,
marble 85×62×33cm., Eigentum des Kaiser Friedrich-
Museums-Vereins, Skulpturensammlung und Museum
für Byzantinische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

(photo: bpk, Berlin / Jörg P. Anders / Art Resource, NY)

“Edme Bouchardon trained in Paris at his father’s workshop and, upon winning the Prix de Rome, moved to Rome to take up residency at the Académie Française, remaining there from 1723 to 1732. He initially attracted interest due to his marble and terracotta portrait busts, which follow the Roman tradition yet manage to be lively and (apparently) good likenesses and became influential in France…”

Read the full review online at 3rd Dimension, 31 March 2017, website here: https://3rd-dimensionpmsa.org.uk/reviews/2017-03-31-edme-bouchardon-reappraised