Against Nature: The hybrid forms of modern sculpture


left: Morgan Le Fay by Pierre Roche (1904).
right: The Rock Drill by Jacob Epstein (1913–14).

An exhibition of ‘fantastic’ sculpture opened at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds last week with some fascinating juxtapositions, ranging from Fernand Khnopff’s Mask to Jacob Epstein’s marvellous Rock Drill which is more commonly one of the landmarks of the Tate Britain collection. Also on display is some work by a Romanian artist I hadn’t come across before, Dimitrie Paciurea (1873–1932), whose chimeras might seem influenced by Symbolism but which look a lot stranger than the usual Symbolist statuary.

Against Nature runs until May 4th, 2008.

Sculpture has frequently been used as a medium of metamorphosis. Its malleable materials allow fantastic forms to become real as it mixes human, animal and vegetal components. This was never more so than during the late 19th century when many sculptors turned their back on classical notions of anatomy and used sculpture as a vehicle for the imagination. This exhibition begins in the late 19th century and presents a common fascination with the world of the hybrid across the various art movements of the 20th century right up to recent years with the work of Louise Bourgeois.

Figures drawn from classical mythology—sphinxes, chimeras and centaurs—were the stock subjects of late 19th century Salon exhibitions. Meanwhile, outside the gallery, the pressures of industrialisation and of Darwin’s theory of evolution provided compelling new contexts for the hybrid. To say that sculpture was ‘against nature’ at this time is to suggest two lines of enquiry: firstly that sculpture could create impossible beings that went beyond the natural order, but which evolution could potentially deliver; secondly, that sculpture presents absurd fantasy creatures by means of realistic modelling so as to suggest their ‘real life’ existence.

Despite the various positions of each successive avant-garde movement—symbolism, futurism, vorticism, constructivism, surrealism—fantasy sculpture and anatomical reinvention run across them all. Sculptors soon moved from taking on mythological subjects to inventing their own modern monsters, drawing on the machine as much as on myth, as with Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill (1913-14).

This exhibition introduces little known sculptors from across Europe and the Americas and places them in a freakish family tree which also includes some of the ‘iconic’ images of modern sculpture. Thus the exhibition includes works by Hans Arp, Umberto Boccioni, Max Ernst, Julio González and Germaine Richier alongside Thomas Theodor Heine and Dimitrie Paciurea. It suggests a new way of looking at the emergence of modern sculpture and at its underlying continuities c.1890s–1980s.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The fantastic art archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Cult of Antinous

6 thoughts on “Against Nature: The hybrid forms of modern sculpture”

  1. Rock drill resonates with me in so many ways.

    I first saw it on the cover of the brilliant industrial/pop album by Hoodlum Priest: Heart of darkness. “rock drill, born to kill,..”[sampling robocop and terminator].

    The story of how he originally had plans to add power to it, and then after world war one he needed to make it less powerfull….cutting off its leg. changing the art for a changing world.

    and then wandering aimlessly through my local art gallery….there it was, I don’t think its considered polite to yelp that loudly in a gallery….but I was excited. :)

  2. I know that Hoodlum Priest album but didn’t remember the Epstein connection. I was impressed with Rock Drill from a very early age when I first saw it in art books, then later in the Tate Gallery in the 1970s. The word robot wasn’t even invented until 1920 yet Epstein predicted a whole style of science fiction imagery with that one piece.

  3. That’s a great selection, thanks. A few of those images have been posted here in the past. Some of the others I may well feature at a later date.

  4. This is a real contrast between form. I like both of the sculptors that appear in this post and how you have juxtaposed them. It reminds me of the humanity of the soul and the rigidness of the machine – the underlying mythological story of Star Wars is about the same juxtaposed forms of life.

    From this juxtaposition, I gather that you may be able to appreciate what I have to offer.

    Dr. Mark Taylor, of Atlanta Live Media, is auctioning a large family collection of pencil and ink drawings by artist Charles S. Gibson (1892-1973) not to be confused with Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944), who created the Gibson Girl. They are really nice pieces of artwork that are over a 100 years old and 75 pieces are available in one bundle.

    I REALLY wish I could embed the pictures in this post for you. This is all pen & ink drawings and some of the drawings of muscles of the face, arms and legs along with some engineer quality structural drawings in this collection are very impressive and not to be missed.

    So if you are interested, check it out. Who knows, it might inspire you to do a post related to it :)

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