Courthould talk – What is Sculpture? – 22/01/14

The current dictionary definition of sculpture as ‘the art or process of creating representational or abstract forms, either in the round or in relief’, does not tell the whole story.  This notion was first challenged over forty years ago when new practices and a greater diversity in the range and use of materials extended the vocabulary.  The term can now be said to encompass installation, land art, body art, performance art, text-based work, photography and video, as well as the three-dimensional art object.

The beginning of modern sculpture in Britain dates from the first decade of the last century and the arrival in this country of the American Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) and the Frenchman Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915). In looking for new ways of interpreting the outside world they turned to non-Western art for inspiration and this, combined with their approach to materials and interest in carving, was to help to forge a new sculptural language. Gaining momentum in the inter-war years through the work of Henry Moore (1898-1986) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), new developments in sculpture were nonetheless made in the face of adversity.  

The breakthrough came in the 1940s and Moore was to achieve great acclaim after winning the International Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale in 1948.  In the decades to follow, sculpture has been continually redefined and reinvigorated by successive generations of British artists, and in subsequent biennales and international exhibitions up to the present day, sculpture in all its various guises is constantly showcased.

Modern sculpture is generally considered to have begun with the work of Auguste Rodin, – seen as the progenitor of modern sculpture. While Rodin did not set out to rebel against the past, he created a new way of building his works. He “dissolved the hard outline of contemporary Neo-Greek academicism, and thereby created a vital synthesis of opacity and transparency, volume and void”. Along with a few other artists in the late 19th century who experimented with new artistic visions in sculpture like Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin, Rodin invented a radical new approach in the creation of sculpture. Modern sculpture, along with all modern art, “arose as part of Western society’s attempt to come to terms with the urban, industrial and secular society that emerged during the nineteenth century”.

Modernist sculpture movements include Art Nouveau, Cubism, Geometric abstraction, De Stijl, Suprematism,Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Futurism, Formalism Abstract expressionism, Pop-Art, Minimalism,Postminimalism, Land art, Conceptual art, and Installation art among others.

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