Sculpture can concurrently be referenced as the most traditional and the most innovative of the visual arts.  It is among the oldest and most contested forms of representation. In its complexity, sculpture is both noun and verb, both the means and the end to production. It is according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “originally, the process or art of carving or engraving a hard material so as to produce designs, or figures in relief, in itaglio, or in the round.  In modern use, that branch of fine art which is concerned with the production of figures in the round or in the relief, either by carving, by fashioning some plastic substance, or by making a mould for casting in metal.”  Most basically, sculpture can be defined as an artistic medium in so much as it acts as a mode of communication through which the artist emotionally and intellectually expresses himself to the audience.

Historically, sculpture has been defined against, and typically in direct opposition to, painting, largely because sculpture breaks the constraints of the canvas and embraces the possibilities of the third dimension.  It occupies a space in a manner that is impossible to the very nature of painting.  As such sculpture, “…is to be distinguished from painting as the plastic art that gives preference to the tactile sensations as against visual sensations,” (Read, 232) and as an art form that, “…gives satisfaction in the touching and handling of objects (see touch) That indeed, is the only way in which we can have direct sensation of the three-dimensional space of an object” (Read, 228).  Intrinsic to sculptures third-dimensionality is mass and volume, both actualities of form that cannot be captured in painting.  As W.J.T. Mitchell argues, “it [sculpture] does not project a virtual space, opening a window into immensity as (say) a landscape painting does; it takes up space, moves and occupies a site, obtruding on it or changing it,” (166).  Essentially, sculpture takes up real, tangible space.  In fact, it is possible to consider sculpture as the artistic embodiment of space, as does Heidegger in his definition of this particularly artistic medium.  The philosopher explains, “We would have to learn to recognize that things themselves are places and do not merely belong to a place,” and that sculpture is thereby “…the embodiment of places,” (Heidegger, 6-7) (see body, embodiment).

Mitchell proposes that place, “…includes both physical and institutional sites, the cultural location of sculpture among the arts and media as well as its placement in real space,” (169). The reference to architectural place is key here, particularly since among the oldest of western sculpture originates within architecture.  Within ancient Egypt, sculpture was, “…subordinate to architecture, and the nature of architecture determined the nature and even the technique of the sculpture,” (Read, 229).  Sculpture found its place within the architectural structure, largely in relief (Read, 229).  In the Egyptian conception of art, there was no reason for sculpture to be separated from practical function as the, “intention behind Egyptian art is functional.  There is no room for fantasy,” (Read, 229).  There was simply no reason for art, and especially sculpture, to stand on its own as an artifact of nothing more than the creative experience.

The architectural foundations of sculpture, both literal and figurative, continued into both the Greek and Roman conceptions of this medium.  Sculpture was tied to temples, public buildings, and monuments (Rowell, §III, i).  Two significant changes should, however, be noted.  Whereas Egyptian sculpture existed primarily in relief form, Greek and Roman sculpture, the latter of which was mainly inspired in the replication and restoration of Greek sculpture began to experiment with freestanding figures (Rowell, §III, i), as, for instance, in the statue of Aphrodite of Melos.  Furthermore, whereas sculpture has previously been considered merely decorative in nature, it now began to take on a stronger significance as the representation of the gods (Penny, §I, i).  Architecture, and particularly the temple, “…was designed as a showcase for the image of the god within it,” (Rowell, §III, i).  Among the best realized examples of this is the Parthenon and its tremendously complex frieze, which exists in a space all its own; “The concept of space here is not illusionistic.  But the measurable, real space is not the significant factor.  The space in the Parthenon frieze is purely sculptural” (Butler, 39).

Though Classical sculpture certainly paid great attention to religious, sacred artistic creations, there certainly existed a secular sect as well.  The concept of ideal beauty that figures so greatly into the sculpture of this period, “…must have had religious motivations, but it was a severely disciplined aesthetic exercise with an appeal translatable into secular terms,” (Penny, §I, ii).  In the mid 5th century BC, in the aftermath of the Persian wars, the Greek aesthetic centered itself on, “…ideal beauty, pure harmony, and physical perfection, with man wholly at the center” (Butler, 33).  Mortals became artistic subjects presented in the light of aesthetic and ethical aspiration.  Such is Youth, a bronze figure that captures ancient conceptions of perfect beauty.  Important as well though within statue is the exploration of character by the artist.  The figure represented is not merely a representation of ideals but a singular individual as well.  Here, one can see the Classical movement from abstraction to naturalism, through which, “artists learned to search men’s faces for what was revealed there,” (Butler, 43).  The real, as opposed to the ideal, has begun to achieve the significance it would later carry.

The progression of Classical ideals that would eventually continue through rediscovery in the Renaissance was initially inhibited by a number of factors that would eventually lead to the advent of the Medieval era.  Yet, perhaps the most important of these is the standardization of religion to Christianity, whose doctrine placed great restrictions on idolatry (see iconoclasm).  Sculpture again became largely restricted to architecture, though some autonomy was eventually achieved.  Statues were re-introduced into the architecture as columns and would later occupy niches or free-stand on alters (Penny, §I, iii-iv), as at Reims Cathedral. The Church, and aspiration to its own divine ideals, became the primary motivation and inspiration of sculpture at this time.

The functionalism that marks this extended period in sculptural history simultaneously produced and was produced by the art “theory” of the times.  This is particularly due to the fact that up until the Age of Enlightenment, artists were the prime authors of treatises on art.  Among those ancient texts that dealt with sculpture were those by Polykleitor and Euphranor, both sculptors themselves.  Not coincidentally, the content of these treaties were primarily instructional in nature.  Likewise in the Middle Ages, the absorption into Christianity of ethics and aesthetics reduced the possibility and interest of personal creative exploration.  The artist’s mission was tracked purely into the wills of the Church; “…the paramount requirement for the craftsman – the imagier -was to teach the Church’s lessons…” (Butler, 1).  The expression of the individual was thereby devalued to a greater purpose, which was reflected in sculptural treatise.  This is not to say that theory did not exist in relation to art at these times.  Theory, which can perhaps be better understood as philosophy at this point, simply did not concern itself solely with the study of art.  Rather, it explored art in the service of larger ideals. In both the ancient and medieval worlds, art, including sculpture, was largely defined and constructed towards the achievement of abstract ideals, whether they are divine, ethical, or intellectual in nature (Avery, §III).  Art, and art thought, for its own sake simply did not exist, as we now understand it.

The (re)birth of humanism in the western Renaissance brought with it the beginnings of a revolution in the concept and practice of sculpture.  The nature of the work of art was no longer purely functional in nature.  Rather, art began to take on an autonomous and unique significance as, “…having a purpose manifest in the work itself, independent of any teaching or ceremonial context,” (Butler, 3).  The result was a, “…new self-awareness about the intellect’s involvement in creating the work…” (Butler, 3).  Just as art began a life of its own, so did the artist.  Individual creativity and vision were now recognized in a manner that the Classical artists had only begun to pursue.  The sculptor in particular found himself in a position that had previously been reserved for his product.  No longer was sculpture alone allied with the divine but the artist himself, “…resembled his creator through his ability to shape himself and his world.  To create an image accurately representing his own body and to do it in a beautiful form became a sacred task for Renaissance man,” (Butler, 109).  Among the best known and appropriate of sculpture representative of this time is Michelangelo’s David.  The Classical figure is invoked here in the overall structure of the body.  However, there exists something more natural, more direct than the work of the Greeks and Romans.  The stance is more relaxed and fluid and the sculpture’s expression contorts his face in a manner that is contradictory to conceptions of ideal beauty (Butler 130-131).

This elaboration and exploration of understanding of sculpture and the sculptor was to explode in a conceptual revolution in the 18th century.  At this time, art history and art criticism are born as academic disciplines, particularly in the publication of Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art in 1764.  Furthermore, the critical reviews of Denis Diderot cemented the significance of art criticism and its eventually transformation into art theory (Barasch, 3-4).  A new field of study was established, one concerned solely with the history and theory of art.

Though the approach to conceptualizing art changed drastically at this time, actually sculptural production, though not poor, focused mainly on the re-appropriation of classical style, as an answer to the simplicity lost through Rococo (Butler, 6).  Though style may have been saved, however, innovation was sacrificed. “Winckelmann, Herder, Hegel, and other philosophers and connoisseurs of the time who say sculpture as the leading art form could only recognize it in Greek terms.  Their approach allowed for no progress in sculpture… . The Neoclassical artist’s response often lapsed into imitation” (Butler, 7).

Through this point, sculpture maintained itself as a purely visual medium, striving to, “…create a pictorial illusion in which the ponderability of the material was etherealized…. The sculptor worked  with and for the eye and never conceived his work as possessing any other unity than that of the visual image,” (Read, 235).  However, developments in painting throughout the course of the 19th century, and most particularly French Impressionism, transformed the concept of the picture in such a way alluded the very nature of sculpture.  In response, and out of necessity, there came the introduction of the tactile in to sculpture, particularly through the work of August Rodin (Butler, 10, 11).  The sculptor embraced the complexity of depth, though not only physically but emotionally and intellectually as well.  As in his The Thinker , Rodin’s figures speak to, “…the human condition-about solitude, longing, rapture, despair,” (Butler, 225).  No longer was sculpture purely an exercise in prescribed form, but an exploration of intuition and dynamics (Butler, 225).

Herein can be located the next break in sculptural practice and theory, the point Rosalind Krauss defines as the fissure between the pre-modern and the modern sculpture.  The former is allied with the Heideggerian definition of sculpture earlier proposed.  The author recognizes that when sculpture was allied with the monument (pre-modernity) it held a specific place, “…and speaks in a symbolic tongue about the meaning or use of that place.”  In other words, monument and place are allied together to produce a sculptural cohesive whole.  However, with the birth of modernism, Krauss argues that the internal logic of the monument begins to crack.

This is not to say that place no longer holds a necessary spot in sculptural success.  However, whereas the monument incorporated space positively, modernist space embodies it only as a negative.  The birth of modernist sculpture enters into,  “…its negative condition–a kind of sitelessness, or homelessness, an absolute loss of place,” (Krauss, 34).  The monument becomes, “…functionally placeless and largely self-referential,” (Krauss, 34). The modernist rejection of space, she argues, demands that sculpture now be defined in the negative.  It no longer “is” but has become the embodiment of what it “is not” (Krauss, 34-35).  In the birth of modernism, “Sculpture, it could be said, had ceased being a positivity and was now the category that resulted from the addition of the not-landscape to the not-architecture,” (Krauss, 36).  Not insignificantly, it is in Modernism that one sees the severance of sculpture from architecture.  Essentially, sculpture becomes the complex opposite to what Krauss defines as the combination of architecture and landscape: site-construction.  With the advent of the postmodern, one begins to see the development of an even more complex comprehension of sculpture.  Sculpture is no longer a simple negation of place, and subsequently a rejection of landscape and architecture.  Instead, as Krauss argues, sculpture begins to explore the avenues of possible combinations between the negative and the positive: landscape and the not-landscape, architecture and the not-architecture (Krauss, 41).

In this construction rests the various experiments of 20th century sculptural placement.  For instance, the sculptural garden takes on a renewed significance, though at this point, the gardens are largely associated with a single sculptor.  Taking one step further, Land Art developed in the 1960′s.  Site and sculpture have become a cohesive whole.  A more contained and accessible version of this is the installation.  Here too, the particularization of place is realized (Rowell, §III, ii).

The 20th century has also witnessed the re-configuration of painting and sculpture.  However, this time, sculpture became the defining force, and painting adopted the concerns of, “…plastic values, geometric forms, and the analysis of objects in terms of their weight, density, and volume,” (Butler, 14).  What then was sculpture to do?  What else but to re-constitute the medium so that, “…the qualities of three-dimensional mass, contained surfaces, stability, and certain types of materials and settings are not essential to sculpture” (Butler, 18).  The sculptural medium has freed itself to explore other dimensions, that are rooted not in the physical, but in the emotionally and intellectual.

Diana Konopka
Winter 2003


Aphrodite of Melos



Reims Cathedral

Michelangelo, David

Rodin, The Thinker

Henry Moore


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Butler, Ruth. Western Sculpture: Definitions of Man. Boston: The New York Graphic Society, 1975.

Heidegger, Martin. “Art and Space.” Trans. Charles H. Seibert.

Krauss, Rosalind. “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” October. Cambridge: MIT Press Journals.

Mitchell, W. J. T. “What Sculpture Wants: Placing Antony Gormley.” In Antony Gormley. Phaidon, 2000.

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