Art Moment: Modernist Sculpture

The seeds of Modernism were sown at the turn of the 20th century. One by one, writers, painters and sculptors rejected traditional forms of art and sought new ways to represent the spirit of the time.

Faced with a world that was increasingly fragmented by rapid industrialization, wars, and social turmoil, artists felt they had to respond to these forces by forging new ways of representing reality. They did so through abstraction in which unnecessary details and clutter were minimized to capture the essence of a subject. Abstraction became a means to rise above the messiness of a chaotic world. 

The Romanian sculptor, Constantin Brancusi (1876 – 1957) was a leader in this movement. He was highly influenced by the simple forms and materials that characterized the sculptures of so-called “primitive” societies like those in Africa and Oceania. This influence shows up clearly in “Sleeping Muse” (1910), which depicts the reclined head of a young woman in highly polished bronze. Here, Brancusi uses simplified, elegant curves to represent the woman’s nose and eyebrows, and grooves to mark her closed eyelids. The choice of highly polished bronze for the sculpture emulates the finish of man-made industrial products. This highly minimalist work was a milestone in modernist sculpture, marking a move away from realism towards the abstract.

Constantin Brancusi, “Sleeping Muse”, 1910, bronze, 16 x 25 x 18 cm, Musee d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) is commonly associated with the Cubist movement in painting. But Picasso was also an accomplished sculptor. His innovative sculpture, “Guitar” (1912-13), was created using everyday materials in the form of sheet metal and wire rather than polished marble or bronze, giving the work a decidedly down-to-earth character. However, it is not only the materials Picasso chose that was revolutionary, but his introduction of the cubist form to a three-dimensional piece of sculpture. Like Brancusi’s “Sleeping Muse”, Picasso’s “Guitar” was abstraction set against the industrial symbolism of the time.  

Pablo Picasso, “Guitar”, 1912-13, sheet metal and wire, 77.5 x 35 x 19 cm, Museum of Modern art, New York.

A few years later, Russian sculptor Naum Gabo (1890 – 1977) forged ahead with the modernist sculpture movement with works that incorporated space and planes to reveal the three-dimensionality of a sculpture. Like Picasso, Gabo used industrial materials liberally, including cardboard, plywood, sheet metal, glass, wire and plastic. “Head No. 2” (1912-13) exemplifies the planar form of sculpture for which Gabo is known.

Naum Gabo, “Head No. 2”, (1916, enlarged version, 1964), steel, 175.5 x 134 x 122.5 cm, Tate Britain, London.

By the 1930s and 1940s, sculpture had become more abstract and stylized. This was a particularly rich and innovative period for British sculpture. Two titans: Henry Moore (1898 – 1986) and Barbara Hepworth (1903 – 1975) made their mark, beginning from the late 1930s through the early 1970s. Their works influenced each other, with both showing a flair for the organic form as can be seen in Moore’s “Reclining Figure” of 1938 and Hepworth’s “Hollow Form (Penwith) executed in 1955-56. Both works also employ the concept of the void or negative space as a way of enhancing the organic form.

Henry Moore, “Reclining Figure”, 1938, cast lead, 14.5 x 33 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Barbara Hepworth, “Hollow Form (Penwith)”, 1955-56, lagos wood, part painted, 90 x 66 x 65 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Leave a Reply