Rodin, Duchamp-Villon, Brancusi: The Modern Origins of Contemporary Sculpture

Contemporary sculpture owes much to the work of Modern sculpture and those who influenced it, and so to shed some light on the genre ....

Contemporary sculpture owes much to the work of Modern sculpture and those who influenced it, and so to shed some light on the genre as a whole, this article will focus on three artists who were especially important in the process. In their different ways, they contributed significantly to the skill and beauty of sculpture as it is today.

Scholars widely deem Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) to be the father of Modern sculpture. His use of traditional, centuries-old materials, including bronze, terracotta, and marble, may cause casual art enthusiasts to doubt Rodin’s place in the development of Modern art, especially considering the endless variety of subjects and malleable materials now seen in contemporary sculpture. However, Rodin’s ties to Modernism stem from his challenging of the archetypical modes of sculpture. Rather than using trained models that intentionally recreated Greco-Roman and Neoclassical poses and expressions, Rodin modeled his works after ordinary people. In doing so, he captured individualistic and innovative gestures and poses that offered the spectator a glimpse into the internal human condition. As Albert Ten Eyck Gardner eloquently suggested, Rodin “broke the dead plaster molds of the conventions of his time and opened the way to the revolution [which occurred in the first half of the twentieth century].” Interestingly, the father of Modern sculpture was quick to reject the geometric abstractions that began to emerge in French art in the years before his death.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) brought forth Cubism, a style that looked beyond the curvilinear silhouette of the human form and experimented with the planes of the body, transforming them into dynamic geometric forms. Despite the movement’s prominent ties to twentieth-century painting, sculpture inevitably played a role in the Cubist dialogue as evidenced in the work of Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876-1918). Before adopting these Cubist forms, Duchamp-Villon initially experimented with styles ranging from “the linear arabesque of Art Nouveau to expressive naturalism in the manner of Rodin.” Eventually, as he grew more aware of the burgeoning modernist ideas, he abandoned the Rodinesque mode and brought forth works characterized by a “planar simplification of sculptural form.” He went on to propose his own revolutionary ideas in the hopes of revitalizing monumental sculpture. Unfortunately, following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Duchamp-Villon’s artistic career came to an unexpected standstill and his untimely death came soon after. However, before this turn of events, Duchamp-Villon made an audacious and equally groundbreaking statement concerning the goal of modern sculpture: “we can at the most summarize the qualities to be achieved in a rather meager formula: SEEN FROM A DISTANCE THE WORK MUST LIVE AS DECORATION THROUGH THE HARMONY OF VOLUMES, PLANES, AND LINES–, the subject being of little to no importance at all.”

Duchamp-Villon’s vision for modern monumental sculpture materialized in the works of Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), a Romanian-born French sculptor whose impact continues to be felt well into our own time. Originally trained in his native Romania, Brancusi ventured to Paris in 1904, where he continued his scholastic endeavors at the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Like Duchamp-Villon, Brancusi’s early works were in keeping with Rodinesque naturalism. However, he eventually separated himself from the Rodinesque mode in hopes of fostering his own style. Brancusi looked beyond the European archetypes, adopting motifs from African and Romanian folk art for their “primitive vitality” and eventually rejecting academic modeling in favor of carving. In turn, his aesthetic approach became increasingly abstracted and biomorphic; the wooden, marble, and bronze works of his mature period were characterized by their “progressive reduction and simplification of form.” Artists ranging from Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) to Henry Moore (1898-1986) soon drew inspiration from these seemingly lithe creations. Brancusi’s sculptures and functional object-sculptures, including his furniture pieces and bases for sculpture, are now celebrated by contemporary scholars and emulated by contemporary artists for “the richly poetic quality of their forms.”

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This article was written for ARTmine by J. Alexander Lemoine.

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