Form as Modelling and Casting
Modelling is a process of adding form which is traditionally applied with malleable materials like wax or clay. Modelling offers the sculptor more freedom of expression than carving due to the tactility of its media, its speed of application and the adaptability of its techniques. Unlike wood or stone, if you make a mistake in your work you can scrape it out and add fresh material or smooth it down and start again.
Modelling is often a transitional phase in the development of a sculpture. Models in clay or wax, which are soft materials, are usually cast in harder materials like bronze, plaster or reinforced plastics to give them a more durable finish. Good casting can give a perfect reproduction of the surface of the original model.
AUGUSTE RODIN (1840-1917)
Call to Arms (detail of foot), 1878 (Cast Bronze)
In our detail of Rodin's 'Call to Arms', which was originally modelled in clay before it was cast in bronze, you can see the vitality and physicality of the artist at work in the energetic imprints of his fingers and hands as he pushes and pulls the clay over surface of the sculpture.
AUGUSTE RODIN (1840-1917)
Call to Arms, 1878 (Cast Bronze)
Auguste Rodin stands at the cutting edge of modern sculpture in a similar position that Claude Monet holds in relation to modern painting. As Monet was captivated by the changing effects of light on color, Rodin was fascinated by the changing play of light across the surface of a sculpture and how that generated the internal energy of the work.
Since the heights of Michelangelo's mannerism and the baroque dramas of Bernini, the power of sculpture as a creative force had gradually diminished to the level of the academic and the ornamental. Rodin's career as a sculptor followed a conventional path until 1875 when he visited Italy and saw the works of Michelangelo. These had such a profound effect on him that he declared in a letter to his assistant, the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, 'My liberation from academicism came through Michelangelo, who by teaching me rules diametrically opposed to those I had been taught, freed me....' . What Rodin learned from Michelangelo was how to use the human form as a vehicle for emotional expression. Onto the academic rigour of his early training, Rodin grafted the distortion and exaggeration of Michelangelo's mannerist style, the evocative potential of his 'non finito' (Michelangelo's unfinished sculptures) and an expressive modelling technique whose rippling surface lit up his figures with an animated interplay of light and shade. While Michelangelo had carved his figures in stone, Rodin modelled his in clay and it was the fluidity of this material that sparked life into his turbulent forms.
'Call to Arms' was originally designed as a competition entry for a monument to commemorate the defence of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war but the conservative jury rejected Rodin's sculpture as too radical in its concept and technique. However, the work was later cast in 1920 as monument to the French soldiers who fought at Verdun during the First World War. It comprises two figures emerging from a 'non finito' base and back. The lower is a wounded soldier who represents the victims of war and the upper is a Génie ailé (winged genius) who symbolizes the liberty gained through the heroic sacrifice of those who died. Both figures also reference existing icons of sacrifice and liberty: the soldier is remarkably similar to the figure of Christ in Michelangelo's unfinished 'Rondanini Pietà' in the Duomo in Florence, while the winged genius recalls the 'Genius of Liberty' in Francois Rude's relief of 'La Marseillaise' on the wall of the Arc de Triomphe.
Rodin's figure of the winged genius from 'Call to Arms' reappears as an independent form in 'The Spirit of War', a freestanding sculpture of 1883. Rodin often recast figures and used them in different configurations and contexts, an approach to composition that was adopted by many 20th century artists.
ALBERTO GIACOMETTI (1901-1966)
Grande Tête Mince (Head of the artist's brother, Diego Giacometti ), 1954-55 (cast bronze)
Alberto Giacometti had a direct line of artistic descendance from Rodin having studied under Antoine Bourdelle, a former assistant to the sculptor. Rodin, who always worked from life models, had sought to reflect the vitality of the human form through the play of light and shade on his vigorously modelled surfaces. Giacometti, working from both life and from memory, turned the expressiveness of sculpture up a notch by tirelessly modelling and remodelling his subject in an attempt to shape the essence of a figure in a single form.
Giacometti's earlier work was first associated with Cubism, then Surrealism, followed by the influence of the spindly Etruscan bronze votive figures that contributed to his mature style. He claimed that his work of this later period was motivated by witnessing the death throes of his neighbour, Tonio Potosching, in the days before and hours after he passed away. He describes this traumatic event in ‘Le Rêve, le Sphinx et la Mort de T', a bizarre essay for 'Labyrinthe', the art journal published by Albert Skira in 1946: ‘Standing motionless by the bed, I looked at the head which had become an object, a little box, measurable and insignificant. At that moment, a fly approached the black hole of the mouth and slowly disappeared inside.’  This surreal encounter deeply affected his daily life as he experienced disturbing episodes where he envisaged all those around him as lifeless. The existential gap that he perceived between the state of 'Being and Nothingness'  became the theme of his work for the rest of his life. He tried to exorcise his psychological trauma by pursuing the elusive spirit of his subject matter rather than simply describing its physical presence.
When Giacometti started a work like 'Grande Tête Mince' he worked from both the model, in this case his brother Diego, and from his imagination. He would eagerly shape and reshape the head in his search for that ephemeral spirit of 'being'. Giacometti always worked directly in front of the model, so intensively fixed on a perpendicular perspective that his observation and insight concentrated his vision into the pinch-edged form that we recognize as his style. He later tried to explain the artistic struggle that he experienced in this approach, 'The more I looked at the model, the more the screen between his reality and mine grew thicker. One starts by seeing the person who poses, but little by little all the possible sculptures of him intervene. The more a real vision of him disappears, the stranger his head becomes. One is no longer sure of his appearance, or of his size, or of anything at all. There were too many sculptures between my model and me. And when there were no more sculptures, there was a complete stranger that I no longer knew whom I saw or what I was looking at.'  There comes a point in this process where Giacometti exhausts all configurations and possibilities and has to accept a conclusion that is subjectively felt as much as it is objectively observed. The elusive spirit of Giacometti's work is discovered when he achieves that point of balance.
CLAES OLDENBURG (b.1929)
Giant Gym Shoes, 1963 (plaster and enamel paint)
Photo: © Suzanne DeChillo
Claes Oldenburg is a Pop Artist who used humour as an antidote to the self-indulgence of late Abstract Expressionism. Where they looked inside and searched their souls for creative inspiration, Oldenburg looked outside to the aesthetic wasteland of the consumer culture as the subject for his art.
The technique of 'Giant Gym Shoes' is parody of late Abstract Expressionism. First, Oldenburg dramatically enlarges the size of the shoes as a critique of the relationship between the large scale and significance of their artwork. Next, he models their form in the most elementary manner possible using scrim soaked in plaster over a basic chicken wire frame, a comment on the crudeness of their technique. Finally, he caricatures their spontaneous expressiveness in a slapdash simulation of the Abstract Expressionist painting style.
Oldenburg has an amusing sense of irony in the contradictions between his medium and its subject. He subverts the expectation of our senses by making soft objects like the gym shoes out of a hard material like plaster, and hard objects like a drum kit out of soft vinyl cloth. He also plays with the scale of his subjects which lifts them out of context, forcing us to reappraise their form.