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Saturday, March 3, 2001


The critical mass

The current exhibition of 127 sculptures at the Yokohama Museum of Art is not only interesting from an artistic point of view, but also provides a fascinating insight into much of the intellectual Sturm und Drang of the 20th century.

"Walking Man" by Auguste Rodin (top); "Model of the Monument to the Third International" by Vladimir Tatlin (above); "Bird in Space" by Constantin Brancusi (below) [Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art/ Fuji Television Gallery/ Yokohama Museum of Art photos]

Sculpture has always lagged behind the more mercurial art of painting. This is because the canvas allows artists to conveniently fix their visions within one viewpoint, while paint offers less resistance than stone or bronze to the expression of that vision. When the Impressionist-led revolution shook the art world in the late 19th century, the traditional art of sculpture, like a huge statue, also began to teeter.

The key figure at this time was Auguste Rodin. His sometimes rough and seemingly unfinished works were often lumped together with the paintings of the Impressionists. His "Walking Man" (1900), a pair of legs held together by a broken torso, shows the urge to escape from the shackles of neat representation and to focus on essence.

Interestingly, this work is reflected in Umberto Boccioni's masterpiece, "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space" (1913), which shows a figure in a similar stance. Boccioni's work, however, reveals the full influence of Cubism, with different planes clashing but also streamlined together to create perhaps one of the most beautiful and dynamic sculptures ever made. Ironically, the Italian Futurist didn't have much of a future himself, being killed at age 33 in 1915 by a fall from his horse while in the army.

Few of the other works match Boccioni's for sheer power of conception. One that almost does is Raymond Duchamp-Villon's "Big Horse" (1914), which looks like a shiny, black engine using its pistons to twist itself into a beautiful thoroughbred. Unfortunately this great artist also died an untimely death in the First World War, at age 41. The dynamic forms of these two great bronze works counterbalance the solidity and gravity of their material, providing a lasting memorial to the genius of their creators.

Modern sculpture reflected industrial society by creating increasingly depersonalized works such as those produced by the Constructivists in the Soviet Union. The visitor will be awed but little moved by Vladimir Tatlin's 4.7-meter-high "Model of the Monument to the Third International" (1920), a lopsided skeleton of the Tower of Babel.

"Unique Form of Continuity in Space" (1913), by Umberto Boccioni, bronze

Constantin Brancusi's cold, polished forms, like his "Bird in Space" (1926), exist on their own terms, eliminating all traces of the artist's own hand as well as the original organic form. As icons of materialism stripped of all meaning, it is not surprising that works like this became the prototypes of the corporate sculpture that so soullessly adorns many of the foyers and lobbies of major companies.

The French Dadaist and Surrealist Marcel Duchamp had already taken this nascent depersonalization of art to the ultimate level with his "ready-mades," random objects selected by the artist to challenge the idea that art must be an expression of the artist's personality. His "Fountain" (1917) is nothing other than a urinal outside its normal context.

The need of modern artists to always top the last generation created a rapid turnover of ideas, not always to the benefit of art. After the early excitement of the liberation from representative figurism in the years leading up to World War I, sculptural art often seems lost and confused. Many of the later pieces therefore only warrant a cursory glance. Hans Arp's rounded abstracts in brown bronze look like something Aibo might leave behind on the carpet if its house-training chip malfunctioned, while Dali's "Venus of Milo With Drawers" (1936) is a joke that soon grows tired in the retelling.

The primitivism and surrealism of some works testify to the struggle against the suppression of human instinct by modern urban life. The Futurist and socialist-inspired works are redolent with the utopian urge to create Brave New Worlds that led to totalitarianism, while new ways of treating the void as if it were mass reveal the atomic model of the universe starting to take root in the minds of artists. Seen in this light, these works become milestones on the highway of the 20th century. The overall impression, however, is of a brilliant explosion of ideas of gradually diminishing force.

"Modern Sculpture -- The Object Age" runs until March 31 at the Yokohama Museum of Art, (045) 221-0300, a short walk from Sakuragicho Station on the JR Keihin Tohoku and Tokyu Toyoko lines. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m (Friday until 8 p.m.). Admission is 1,000 yen for adults, 700 yen for students and 400 yen for children.

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