The beauty of art history is its infinite variety of different styles, movements, and types of the visual arts. From the figurative the monumental, the site-specific to the expressive, there are more ways of making different art forms than you’ve had hot dinners.
And you’ll walk into a museum of art and be confronted with all of these different artworks and movements, each with its own recognisable style and a language of its own.
If you want to get into this art world, or more specifically into the world of sculpture and sculptural history, then you need to learn this language.
You’ll need to learn the difference between one sculptor and many similar sculptors. You’ll need to be able to tell the masterpieces of modern art apart. You’ll need to understand where contemporary art comes from – and how it draws its inspiration from the Italian Renaissance, say, or the Romanesque styles you’ll see.
But, honestly, this whole enterprise is absolutely fascinating. It’s a ride through history as much as through aesthetics – as each style tends to reflect the different social and scientific concerns of its time.
So, enjoy. And whilst we’re missing some – those prehistoric styles, say, those ones from the Paleolithic or Mesopotamia – there are enough here to get you going.
And you can learn everything about sculpture here.
We’re going to begin by looking at sculptural styles through western art up until the twentieth century in chronological order.
After this, sculptures experience a massive proliferation of styles, innovations, and concerns. When we get to the twentieth century then, we’ll drop the chronological structure and look at some of the major things going on – which were roughly contemporaneous to each other.
So, let’s start – with Ancient Greece.
As a bit of a disclaimer, the expression ‘Greek sculpture’ is necessarily going to be a generalisation: the civilizations that we refer to as ‘ancient Greece’ lasted between about the tenth century BC and 600AD. That’s sixteen hundred years. Things change a lot in that amount of time.
The sculpture that we talk about when we talk about Greek sculpture is from the classical and Hellenistic periods. This means the fifth and fourth centuries BC, and the third, second, and first centuries BC respectively.
Greek sculpture developed into idealised but naturalistic representations of people and deities in this period. Figurative sculpture was the main concern, and people like Phidias are the big names.
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Often, Greek and Roman sculpture, the two major arts of the ancient world, are lumped together. This is because Roman art was heavily influenced by the Greeks (and most of the sculptors in Rome were actually Greek).
However, the main difference is that, where Greece aimed for idealisation – making the perfect form of the thing sculpted – Rome was more deliberately representational. These guys preferred detail and historical events, rather than beauty for beauty’s sake.
This one is a bit out of place, but we should take a moment here to consider the equestrian statue as a discrete art form. Simply put, these are just guys on horses. However, the social significance of these is not to be understated.
There are very few surviving equestrian statues from antiquity. Yet, they were used – and have been used ever since – to convey power and prestige.
To make a life-size horse in bronze or white marble just required a huge amount of stuff. And this stuff has always been quite expensive.
For a few examples, look at the Statue of Marcus Aurelius, Donatello’s Statue of Gattamelata, or Verrocchio’s Bartolomeo Colleoni.
Equestrian statues are one of the most prestigious forms of sculpture
During the period between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance, we don’t know a huge number of names of sculptors. However, we do know that their main concerns were in the decoration of religious institutions, including cathedrals, abbeys, and churches.
Reliefs – in which sculptors would work on raising images from a flat background – and carvings were the main techniques used in this architectural sculpture. And we refer to this period (roughly 600 to 1200) as Romanesque or, later, Gothic art.
Check out the Chartres Cathedral for an excellent example of gothic art.
The Renaissance began in Italy, drawing on classical techniques and themes. Really, it changed the way we thought about art – and still has an influence to this day.
Moving away from the religious concerns that dominated the art of the first millennium, it instead looked at the human figure, taking its knowledge and detail from the developments of science.
Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Donatello are all names from this period.
Whilst High Renaissance sculpture valued naturalism, mannerism attended instead to artificiality and exaggerated beauty – all to compete with the sculptors of the preceding movement.
Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa (from 1554) is one of the iconic sculptures of mannerism.
And if Renaissance sculpture in general was concerned with a sense of stability, baroque, which followed, wanted to import dynamism and movement into sculpture. It was characterised by great decoration and energy.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini is the name you need to know, as his sculptures, fountains, public art, and architectural projects transformed Rome in the seventeenth century.
Rococo, or ‘Late Baroque’, was the extreme end of this movement. It was theatrical, incredibly detailed, and colourful.
Bernini had a very distinctive style of sculpture
As usually happens, history’s response to this movement was to return to simplicity. This is what neoclassical sculpture – obviously taking its name from the classical period – did in the eighteenth century.
Antonio Canova was the main figure in this movement, returning to the principles of design of ancient art.
At the turn of the twentieth century, painters, musicians, writers, and sculptors were galvanised by a different way of doing art. This was what was known as modernism and, for the arts, it was a colossal break from tradition.
In sculpture, the primary figure in this movement was Auguste Rodin, who introduced an impressionistic quality into sculpture. He threw away the sharp lines and chiselled features and focused on a realism, rather than an idealism. A famous work of his is The Thinker.
His student, Constantin Brancusi, was also hugely influential. His outdoor sculpture and more abstract sculptures had a massive influence on the modern and contemporary artists that followed.
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The iconic Chicago sculpture, the Cloud Gate
Contemporary sculpture is hugely multifaceted, incredibly diverse, and unbound from the strict rules that characterised art sculpture up until the nineteenth century. This is because the boundaries of what art and sculpture are have been pushed by artists throughout this period.
Here are some of the directions in which sculpture has been pushed in recent years. They can’t really be detailed chronologically, as many are contemporaneous.
Find out more about the most famous sculptures.
Started by the likes of Pablo Picasso and the Dadaists in the first half of the twentieth century, assemblages are thought of as collages but in three dimensions.
These developed out of an artistic interest in ‘found objects’ – items usually used for quite different purposes, but, in these cases described and presented as art.
Marcel Duchamp’s famous Fountain (1917) is one of the most original versions of this. The artwork is a urinal bought from a hardware and placed on a pedestal. At the time, this piece posed fascinating questions about the nature of art.
Abstract sculpture came primarily out of the work of Brancusi, one of the fathers of modernist sculpture. Rather than figurative art, which sought to represent to greater or lesser degrees of details an object, abstract art did away with the concern for representation.
Brancusi’s work was all about ‘essences’, the simplest possible forms of things. It was hugely influential, inspiring artists like Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Alberto Giacometti.
An incredibly ambitious and monumental style of contemporary sculpture is what is known as land art. This seeks to create sculpture and art out of the land itself.
Take a look at Robert Smithson’s piece Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake in Utah, or Charles Jencks’s Landform in Edinburgh.
Art historians like to argue. And one such argument in the art world regards the start of the movement or kinetic art. Generally, it’s agreed now that it was the brainchild of Naum Gabo, whose Kinetic Construction has been the inspiration for many.
Kinetic art describes works that use movement in their construction and form. In almost any art museum, you’ll find an example of this style.
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