Reviewing the current exhibition of Daumier at the Royal Academy, London, Julian Bell reproduces a cartoon by the artist, which shows a sculpture that has become animated. It is in an enraged state because it is being totally ignored by the Salon visitors. Bell quotes Baudelaire suggesting that naturalistic sculpture is boring and satisfies only hicks and savages because something that can be viewed from all angles gives no scope to the imagination.
I have been thinking about these matters, because earlier this year, I had occasion to view sculptures from four different periods in galleries in Toulouse. The Musée Des Augustins, housed in an ecclesiastical styled building, boasts large collections of Gothic, Romanesque and 19th century sculpture, while the Musée Saint-Raymond has the best selection of Roman busts that I have ever come across.
I can’t work up much enthusiasm for Gothic carving. Much of it is obviously highly skilled, but it seems to be for the glory of God rather than the appreciation of mere mortals and in its original positions, gets lost in the other elaborations of the architectural style. The earlier Romanesque sculpture, on the other hand can be full of interest. It had a teaching function to tell the stories of the Bible or frighten us into good behaviour by its visions of Hell. Thus the Romanesque tympanum is at viewable height unlike so many high neoclassical pediments copying ancient Greek architecture where the sculpture was for the eyes of the gods not humans: the famous Parthenon frieze couldn’t be seen at all in situ.
The Toulouse gallery had an extensive collection of Romanesque capitols mounted at eye level on steel plinths. Carving a story round a relatively small block of stone seems to have inspired sculptors. It may be something similar to the way in which the restrictions of traditional prosody can lead to inventiveness in poetry and, although the examples at the Augustins were not of the highest quality they were far superior to the collection of eminently ignorable 19th century pieces. I could imagine a seething mass of furious marble figures coming to life Daumier-like.
Baudelaire may be on to something. On several occasions, I have asked groups of well-informed people, including artists, how many sculptors they can name in the period between the end of the Renaissance and the abandonment of naturalism in modern times. Many can’t come up with any names at all. A few have managed, Bernini, Canova and Rodin while I am sure they could name many more painters without difficulty.
As I have noted in an earlier blog, many traditional sculptures make an architectural contribution to our stone built cities, but this is largely due to the fine proportions of their classically inspired plinths. Aesthetically, what is on top of them, is often little more than a finial, which is why the proposal of the authorities in Glasgow to heighten their Wellington monument, to avoid the general being perpetually crowned with a traffic cone, was so misguided. Meanwhile, unless we seek out images of figures of historical interest we wander round our great capitals disregarding whole populations of marble citizens and horses. Think of Hansen’s parliament building in Vienna with no less than four, or is it six, quadrigas on its roof and all these toga-clad people atop buildings in Edinburgh, London, Paris and elsewhere.
If there is a lack of interest in full-sized sculpture in the period I have described, that is even more true if we consider portrait busts. We may look at Houdon to see what Diderot looked like, Nollekens to have some idea of Fox. But unless the subject looks distinctive, we will probably retain nothing. In Frankfurt a few years ago, I was delighted to find a sculpted portrait of Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, a French enlightenment philosophe in whom I am very interested. Today, I haven’t a clue as to what he looks like. Why is it then that I was so entranced by the Roman busts at the Musée Saint-Raymond? It is known who the subjects of these works are, but that did not interest me. The sculptures themselves have a power and a presence that I can’t explain. There is nothing in Western sculpture that comes anywhere near them unless perhaps Bernini’s busts of the dignitaries of the church who were his patrons. We are lucky to have one of these in Edinburgh.