The Meaning And Function Of Sculpture

WE shall take sculpture first, in the effort to show the function of each of the arts, because it is the most severely limited of them all, and therefore most satisfying within its limits. Let us study a few characteristic works, choosing well-known and almost hackneyed examples, that the reader may easily call them up before his own imagination, and ask what they do to him and how they accomplish their end.

Let us take first one of the best-known and most widely copied of all statues—the Venus de Milo. When you make your way down the long corridor of the Louvre to the small room at the end, and stand for the first time before the Venus de Milo, seen against the dark hangings of the room, your initial impression is one of sensuous pleasure in the beauty of the forms before you, enhanced by the mellow color of the millennium-old marble. The harmony of the lines of the figure, the noble pose, the poise of the small head upon the curved neck, the beauty of the face, the soft color of the stone—all unite in creating an impression of sensuous joy. Let me say here, this sensuous pleasure is enough. It justifies the work, and is in itself worth while, if we go no further. We do not stop here, however. Through the vision of the forms, is borne in upon the mind the conception of noble womanhood. The Venus de Milo is not a woman, but woman-not the copy of a particular woman, but what all Greek women aspired to be. Balanced, harmonious, nothing too much—not too much physical development, not too much mental or spiritual development, every element in harmonious relation to all others—the Venus de Milo is divine because she is so perfectly human.

Beyond the sensuous pleasure and the definite conception, the student experiences a deeper esthetic joy in the perfect harmony between idea and execution. The way the conception flows forth into the living stone, the perfect marriage of thought with form, gives a pleasure deeper than sensuous, of the mind and spirit.

The conception of womanhood is given through forms copied directly from nature. There is a satisfying reality in them. You can go about the statue, or turn it upon its base; from every point of view there is the same satisfaction from the complete realization of form for the physical vision. These forms, moreover, are represented together in a single moment of time. The sculptor, presenting forms in space relation, is always limited to the representation of one moment; and the pose, here wisely chosen, is not over-strained, so that the eye rests in it without distress.

The forms are not merely copied from nature, however, but are exalted in the imitation. This is the face and body of every woman, and yet of no woman. It is every-where in the world, yet lifted above life with an element of idealism.

So far we can all go together. The sensuous pleasure, the definite conception, the aesthetic joy are universal, being given for all appreciative beholders, through forms copied and idealized from nature, and presented with complete realization in a single moment of time. What of the deeper emotions we experience in the presence of this statue? Ah, here we are on debatable ground. The answer must be purely personal. It is true that, beyond the sensuous and aesthetic joy, the calm dignity of the statue, with the appeal of the soft, mellow color of the marble, may tend to inspire a generic mood in the beholder; but aside from this, one’s emotions depend upon what one brings. I can but state my own, recognizing that they are wholly personal. Each time I have stood before the Venus de Milo I have experienced a certain joyous exultation that men did once rise to this conception of glorious woman-hood and were able to embody it, if only in the form of ideal art. Then, as my thought has gone back to the old Greek world, I have felt an almost sad hunger for its sunny youth, its adequate realization of ideals, attainable because limited, in striking contrast to the feverish restlessness of our deeper life. I must recognize, however, that these feelings result from my own convictions and experience, and that others may see the statue with equal sincerity and quite different emotions. I know thoughtful persons who have confessed to a feeling of mere repugnance in the presence of the statue, caused by the different proportions of the figure from the type of woman’s body conventionally admired to-day. In other words, the same conception, given in the statue, carried a different range of emotions, depending upon the taste, belief and associations they brought to it. Is it not clear, then, that in this work of sculpture the sensuous appeal, the conception and the aesthetic pleasure are given, and, in proportion to the measure of appreciation, are the same for all; while the emotional response is brought by the beholder and associated with the conception, depending upon his character, experience and training?

Near the, center of the long corridor dedicated to the Elgin marbles in the British Museum, reposes the group of three goddesses, perhaps the most glorious surviving example of Phidian art. Headless, mutilated, they are still instinct with life. As a scientist, from the bone of some prehistoric animal, can reconstruct in imagination the creature as it was, so the broken fragment of a Greek masterpiece—a mere headless and limbless torso—carries all the mystery of life, and the beholder can see in imagination the work as it left the creator’s hand. So with these goddesses. The fluid, yet settled drapery reveals rather than conceals the splendid limbs. The figures are strong, majestic, not showing the exaggerated voluptuousness of Michael Angelo’s female figures on the Medicean tombs, yet without the feminine softness of the later Praxitilean art, but with the grave, exalted beauty fitting to the gods. As always in sculpture, the work is limited to the representation of a single moment of time, yet the moment chosen has the sense of eternity. They repose there forever, calmly viewing the Panathenaic procession as it winds its eternal way up the Acropolis hill.

Sculpture must plan for the environment of its figures; thus these forms, while completely realized, are grouped to be seen from in front and below, placed against the temple and under the radiant sky. One responds with sensuous joy to the beauty of line and form, the harmony of the grouping, the play of light and shadow, and the warm color of the stone. More deeply, one realizes the conception of the three goddess types, grouped in the dramatic moment, with the aesthetic pleasure in the harmony of idea and execution.

Beyond this satisfaction, what does one feel? Again the answer must be personal. My own first feeling was one of sadness that these marbles must be here in the solemn museum, amid the smoke and fog of London, instead of on the dazzling temple crowning the Acropolis hill, in the transparent air, under the blue of the sky, with the bluer sea and still bluer islands beyond. Then I have experienced an immeasurable lift of the spirit as I have been carried back to the great days of Athens, to the splendid heroism of the Persian wars, the memories of Marathon and Salamis, the rebuilding of the city, the glories of the brief period of Pericles, when the whole population rose to a splendor of artistic achievement never equaled in the history of the world. Finally, I have been filled with a kind of homesickness for that old Greek world, where men were glorious children, combining the spontaneity of youth with the wisdom of maturity, when life was undisturbed either by transcendent aspirations or the horror of the abyss of sin, when limited, earthly ideals only were attempted, and realized in forms of beauty that are the despair of subsequent ages. These emotions, how-ever, are not given in the work of art, but depend upon one’s own knowledge and associations, and might not be identical in any two students of the same work.

It is true, Greek sculpture made greater use of color than is customary in that art to-day. When modern research forced us to accept the fact that the Greeks, even of the great days, so frequently painted their statues, we did so with great reluctance. It seemed to us impossible that a people so artistically gifted as the Greeks, should have wished to obscure the natural tints of the marble with artificial coloring. Perhaps the changed taste can be explained in the different relation the art of sculpture sustains to our civilization. Sculpture is by no means the dominant art of our time; its position, indeed, is less prominent than that of painting. We turn to it largely for the peace that comes from the complete representation in form of limited subjects, especially of calm and dignified types. In the field of this art the past overshadows the present. We are accustomed to viewing the old masterpieces in the halls of museums; and the color of the marble, softened by the long centuries, seems singularly appropriate to the antiquity of the work and the flood of memories it awakens. With us, therefore, tinting a statue seems often an unworthy striving for novelty, and easily becomes a somewhat decadent appeal to jaded sensibilities. With the Greeks, on the other hand, sculpture as a dominant art was the major expression of civilization. Much that we expect from painting, the Greeks received from sculpture, and vastly more. Thus the brilliantly painted statues may have been no less in harmony with the active, versatile, dazzling civilization about them, than the mellow-toned, mutilated marbles are with the subdued galleries in which we have placed them, and the mood of escape from our busy world in which we ponder them.

The element of color has some direct emotional effect, but only in a vague, generic way. With the Greeks, this phase of emotional appeal in sculpture was somewhat stronger than with us. Still, it merely meant life rather than repose, and was wholly subordinate to the conceptions definitely expressed, while the larger range of emotional response, for the ancients as with us, was brought to the work by the observer and associated with the conception there given.

To realize this, stand before the best of the surviving representations of the Amazon—that one from the Villa Mattei, now in the Vatican. This type of womanhood is peculiarly attractive to us to-day. Without sacrificing any aspect of feminine grace and beauty, the Amazon combines a dignity and independent, self-affirming strength, rare in the ancient Greek ideal of womanhood, but increasingly strong in the aspiration of our time.

The sensuous pleasure in the beauty of this statue would be even stronger for the ancients than for us, because of their keener artistic sensibilities; so, too, with the joy in the satisfying harmony of ideal and execution. The clear conception of womanhood, at once strong and graceful, independent in character but exquisite in beauty, they would perceive as we do; but I question whether many Greek observers would share at all the emotional response of joyous satisfaction that the majority of modern students would feel in the presence of the statue, because of our aspiration toward the ideal of womanhood revealed in it.

Let us now cross the long centuries to the great period of sculpture that came in Italy, and to its climax in the little chapel erected and adorned by Michael Angelo for the Medicean tombs. You make your way out from the service in San Lorenzo to the severe chapel, planned in all its grave lines by the master, its half-light fitting the somber marbles it contains. On one side is the tomb of the younger Lorenzo de’ Medici. Above is the seated figure of the duke in an attitude of sinister meditation, named by the Italians Il Pensiero. Below on the tomb are the recumbent figures representing Twilight and Dawn. The Twilight, a masculine figure, left unfinished, probably intentionally, broods in somber meditation. Across from it is the gigantic feminine figure of the Dawn, to me the most beautiful of all, almost every detail of the statue exquisitely finished, the splendid voluptuous limbs moving as if in distress, on the sternly beautiful face a look of pain, as if in sorrow at wakening to the agony of another day.

On the other side of the chapel is the tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici. The seated statue here represents action, as if about to spring to some vigorous deed, heroic or evil. Below, the two figures represent Day and Night. Day, again an unfinished masculine form, Night, a wonderfully executed feminine one. It was this statue that so moved the contemporaries of Michael Angelo that numerous poems were written regarding it, one of them, by Strozzi, beginning with the stanza:

“La Notte, che tu vedi in si dolci atti Dormire, fù da un Angelo scolpita In questo sasso; e, perchè dorme, ha vita; Destala, se no’l credi, e parleratti.”

“This Night, whom thou seest slumbering in such a sweet abandon, was sculptured by an Angel in this marble; she is alive, although asleep : if thou wilt not believe it, wake her, she will speak.”

Michael Angelo responded with the stanza:

“Grato mi è il sonno, e più l’esser di sasso: Mentre che il danno e la vergogna dura, Non veder, non sentir m’ è gran ventura; Però non mi destar; deh parla basso!”

“Sweet is my sleep, but more to be mere stone, So long as ruin and dishonor reign ; To bear nought, to feel nought, is my great gain; Then wake me not, speak in an undertone !”

For every beholder of these statues there is sensuous pleasure in the beauty of form, grouping, light and shadow, and subdued color, though perhaps somewhat lessened by the somberness of mood and conception. On the other hand, there is profound joy born of the wonderful artistic harmony between idea and execution throughout. For each statue, one moment is chosen, and the entirely definite conception of the character portrayed is realized in that moment of time. The forms, drawn from life, are lifted and strengthened to an impressiveness just short of exaggeration. So far, the appeal is universal.

What of our emotion? Here again all depends upon what the student brings. Take the last of the statues described—the Night; it may seem trivial so to express it, but this figure in profound sleep does not make you feel sleepy. It is the conception of night and sleep—of relief from the bitterness of the waking life, that is expressed; and it may awaken and stimulate, instead of giving the mood of sleep. Let one recall the poems upon the statue with their revelation of the master’s attitude toward his time; let one re-member the old biographer’s statement that Michael Angelo spent the days building fortifications to protect Florence from Medicean enemies, and the nights working “stealthily” upon these statues to decorate Medicean tombs ; let one call to mind all the heartache and world-weariness, the succession of artistic tragedies in the life of the master; and then one feels, beneath the joy in his wondrous achievement, a rush of profound human sympathy with his gloom and sadness; and the mood in which one leaves the chapel is akin to that, with which one goes from witnessing some great tragedy, such as Lear or (Edipus the King.

Turn now to the sculpture of our own time in its best examples—the work of the French school. There is in Paris a characteristically modern statue of Joan of Are by Chapu. The girl is half-sitting, half-kneeling, the strong maiden arms stretched down and out and the hands clasped upon the knees, while in the face, with its grave brooding upon the vision, is a look of earnest devotion, not only to the nation but to humanity.

Imagine two Greeks from the days of Phidias and Pericles standing before this statue.

They would receive, perhaps even more than we, the sensuous appeal of the beautiful forms, the artist’s satisfaction in the adequacy and harmony of execution. They would get, quite as fully, the conception of earnest maidenhood devoted to a great cause ; yet I question whether their feelings in the presence of this statue would be at all comparable to those of a modern observer. Each time I have stood before this work, after the first flush of pleasure at its beauty, I have felt up and down my back the peculiar shiver one feels when, for the first time, one hears in the distance the roar of London, or looks across the desolate Campagna, in the evening hour, and sees in the distance the domes and towers of Rome. It is the mood of humanity, the sense of the dignity and tragedy, comedy and romance of our common human life. This mood, however, depends upon one’s response to the social ideal remolding our civilization; and I can imagine our two Greeks enjoying the statue, with no share whatever in the feeling I have described. Indeed, many moderns would be similarly untouched.

So with the multitude of modern works springing from the same motive in the age: The People Who Weep,* The Cold,t AEdipus at Colonus,t+ The Pardon,11 The Kiss of the Grandmother§—with them all, the sensuous and aesthetic appeal and the conception are universal ; the emotional association is brought by the beholder, and depends upon his character, knowledge and experience.

Let me give a crowning, if somewhat whimsical, illustration of the principle. In the Leipzig museum is a tinted bust by Max Klinger, called Salome. At either side of the base of the bust is a mask—the one, the face of a youth just beginning the career of vicious indulgence; the other, the blear-eyed, coarsened face of a middle-aged voluptuary, who has gone down in the slough of vice. Between them is the Salome bust. The face is repulsively fascinating, the eyelids heavy, the nostrils expanded with sensual desire, the lips full, the two sides of the face unsymmetrical, subtly suggesting the stigmata of degeneration. It is simply a remarkable portrayal of one of the most dangerous and perverse forms the power of darkness takes in our time.

For some time a photograph of this bust stood on the desk in my study. This curious experience followed: every man friend who entered the study exclaimed on seeing the photograph, “What is that?” “It is interesting,” “Tell us about it.” Every woman who came in said, “What is that terrible thing?” “Put it out of sight!”

It is not necessary to explain the difference in attitude. The point is, that, in reference to a work expressing one entirely definite conception, the emotional response divided into directly opposing types in the two sexes. Is a better illustration needed of the fact that we bring the emotional response to a work of sculpture, and that what that response is depends upon us and our experience?

Let me sum up : sculpture can present in any statue or group but one moment of time; it works in completely realized form, directly copied from nature, but usually lifted above nature. The appeal of color is present, but quite subordinate. Each work expresses a definite conception or range of conceptions—the same for all who appreciate. So, too, the appeal of beauty in form and color, in harmony and adequacy of execution, is universal; but the emotions felt by the observer are brought by him, and depend upon his character, knowledge and experience, thus varying with each person.