Sculpture is one of the visual arts that has been with us since the earliest days of our being human. Long before the first art museum or curator, long before the first school of art, way before even artworks were thought of as art – made by artists, by individual painters, by a sculptor – sculpture was with us.
So, we are talking about a long time before the Greek and Roman ages, long before Hellenistic antiquity, Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, back to the most ancient civilizations of which we know. The history of sculpture is coterminous with the history of humanity.
And sculpture as an art form has come a long way since then – creating lots of different sculptural styles. From religious sculpture and primitive figurines, from prehistoric reliefs and figurative carvings, our sculptural history has blossomed.
Western art and sculpture now include everything from kinetic sculpture to landscape gardens, paper sculpture and glass sculpture to architectural sculpture, snow sculpture and outdoor sculpture to public art, abstract sculpture, and all varieties of cross-disciplinary work.
But who were the big names that made this transition possible? Who were the most important sculptures to take us from the monumental figures of Ancient Greece to the abstract sculptures of today? And how did they do what they did?
It’s time to find out!
The trouble with focusing on sculptors in the history of sculpture is that the notion of the individual artist is a concern of the modern and contemporary world. Back in the Paleolithic and Upper Paleolithic, in the ancient civilizations, and even as late as Roman art and beyond, people didn’t necessarily sign their name on the work.
Consequently, unlike the contemporary artists that need recognition in the modern art economy, some of the most iconic statues of the ancient world were made by people we have no idea about.
Take the Great Sphinx of Giza, a hugely famous statue, or the figurative sculpture of the Löwenmensch or the Venus figurines made of mammoth ivory or ceramics. We could go on: the medieval cathedrals and the stone sculpture tradition of the Scots and Scandinavians, the Greek and Roman statues that remain unattributed, the public art projects that, throughout history have been constructed collaboratively.
Although you won’t find them in any museum of art, all of these forgotten figures deserve a mention.
One of the earliest named figures in the history of sculpture is Phidias, an Ancient Greek, from Athens, who designed and constructed some of the most important works in the classical period.
He is known for having created the statue of Zeus at Olympia – one of the wonders of the ancient world – as well as a number of colossal statues of Athena, at the Acropolis, at the Parthenon, and the Propylaea.
All of these, unfortunately, are now lost. But this doesn’t detract from his importance. Throughout the ancient world, Phidias’s name was known, and he is known for guiding the direction of future Greek sculptural design.
Conveniently, in the fifties, we found the workshop of Phidias – and from this could confirm that all of these masterpieces of sculpture did indeed exist.
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Phidias contributed to the work of some of most marvelous works of ancient Greece
We’re going to call him Donatello. One of the greatest – and most influential – sculptors in history, he turned the attention of Italian sculptors at the time back to the classicist principles of ancient Greece and Rome. With that, he kickstarted the renaissance in sculpture that was to change the course of the history of art.
His most famous work is probably the Bronze David – one of the early Renaissance statues in the round – which depicts a boyish biblical David with a sword. Otherwise, the bronze statue of Gattamelata in Padova is considered one of his masterpieces.
Whilst his works themselves are not exceptionally famous for those outsides of the art world, his work was hugely, indisputably, influential.
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We usually associate the Italian Renaissance with Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Donatello. The fourth name in this last – and the last of the Ninja Turtles – is Michelangelo, whose own sculpture of David is perhaps the most famous sculpture ever.
It’s incredible really that someone can be just so damn talented, but Michelangelo excelled at pretty much everything he laid his hand to. Alongside sculpture, there’s the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – which probably goes down as the most breath-taking work of painting ever produced.
Anyway, he was also hugely influential on the cultural landscape around him and following him. His Statue of Victory was massively influential on the Mannerist style that followed, whilst the marble sculpture of Moses and others at the tomb of Julius II still have an influence over contemporary sculpture today.
For the arts, between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, the home was Italy, where artists were developing the naturalistic, representational, and expressive potential of different materials.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, following in the footsteps of the great sculptors of the Renaissance would only develop further their achievements, moving the history of art into the Baroque. Indeed, it is thought that he wanted to prove himself, in the art of sculpture, a worthy successor to Michelangelo.
His most famous works include the Ecstasy of Santa Teresa, The Rape of Proserpina, and Apollo and Daphne. Yet, he didn’t stop with mere sculpture.
Bernini was also an architect and town planner, and it is impossible to go to Rome and miss the massive influence that he had on the city.
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Bernini continued the spirit of the Italian Renaissance
After Bernini’s Baroque – and subsequently the rococo style that took the dynamism and decoration of this style to a greater extreme – sculptors calmed down a little. They returned to the classical values of Greek and Roman sculpture.
This meant simplicity, nobility, and naturalism – and Antonio Canova was probably the most successful in capturing these values.
His most famous works are Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, Perseus Triumphant, and The Three Graces.
And, yes, he was Italian too – and lived in Venice his whole life.
Canova is known for his neoclassical style
Rodin was one of those artists who was the continuous recipient of criticism throughout his life. Rejected by academic art school, and generally not accepted by his peers, his work was generally seen as quite unconventional.
However, this struggle is one of the great testaments to his originality. These days, he is considered to be the father of modernism – the general description of the concerns of art at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Rather than focusing on classical mythology, allegory, or religious themes and narratives, Rodin’s work was more impressionistic, more focused on the individual subject, and less polished in its finish. He took the statue’s pose off its pedestal and opened the door to the more subversive and innovative works that would follow.
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Incidentally, the Romanian Constantin Brancusi was one of Rodin’s students. However, like Samuel Beckett with James Joyce, he found the instruction by such a genius quite stifling.
Brancusi left Rodin’s studio and made a career of his own in sculpture, developing an immediately recognisable style. Generally considered abstract in his work, Brancusi sculptural style moves away from the figurative sculpture that preceded him. Instead, he focused on simplicity of shape and form.
The Kiss, or the Sleeping Muse, are probably his two most famous works, whilst the Endless Column is perhaps the most famous of twentieth-century outdoor sculpture.
Picasso is one of the most famous names in the history of art – and most people would be able to recognise one of his works. He has an incredibly distinct style, which came to be known as Cubism.
Whilst known primarily for his painting, Picasso was almost as prolific in sculpture – and maintained this style across the different media.
He is also known for pioneering the art form known as the assemblage – something like a three-dimensional collage usually made up of found objects.
In the twentieth century, the limits of what artists could do – and what they could define as sculpture – burst open. It was a century of committed artistic innovation which brought with it a proliferation of styles, media, and themes.
One of the most radical innovators in twentieth-century sculpture was Robert Smithson. His work focused on making art out of the land, manipulating land to make it artful.
His most famous work is probably the Spiral Jetty, constructed in the Great Salt Lake in Utah, US.