Chapter 4 - Sculpture
Sculpture dates back to prehistoric times and may even pre-date cave painting. Thousands of years ago, ancient man created carvings of female fertility figures in stone and ivory. Like the paintings on cave walls the figures were very stylized and look to our eyes, primitive and yet modern.
Today as in ancient times, sculptors think and work in three-dimensions. Sculptures are meant to be touched (though museum signs will advice you to the contrary—"do not touch," they say!). It is a pleasure to "see with your hands," exploring sleek surfaces, or bumpy, jagged ones. Sculpture is sensual.
A few years ago I had a customer come into the gallery who became interested in a collection of small bronze sculptures of marine life. The artist had created a jewel of a series depicting dolphins, turtles, swordfish and whales. In our gallery we encouraged the customers to touch the work, to enjoy the smooth coolness of the bronze. I noticed that the gentleman would close his eyes as he touched each of the pieces and run his hand slowly over them, feeling their contours. He finally said, "I'll take the marlin." He later explained that he was buying the piece for his daughter, who was blind.
The popularity of marine sculpture here in Hawaii has mirrored the popularity of marine painting just as movements in sculpture have traditionally reflected movements in painting through the centuries. The break with traditional painting in the latter part of the 19th century which marked the beginnings of modern art was also reflected in sculpture. In fact, many sculptors turned to painting and vice-versa. Painters such as Degas and Picasso were superb sculptors, and sculptors such as Giacometti and Moore also painted.
Like painters, sculptors who carve works out of wood or stone can only make one piece at a time. As there are multiple editions of prints, multiple editions of sculptures can be created if a mold is made and the piece is cast in bronze. Rodin, the greatest influence on 20th century sculpture, created multiple editions of his work by doing this. It's confusing, but here's how it's done.
The sculptor creates the original piece which is usually carved in clay. Once the clay has hardened, the piece must be taken to a bronze foundry to continue the process. A mold of the piece is made by coating the clay with liquid rubber. Once the rubber has dried, the mold is removed from the clay sculpture and voila, you have a "negative" of the original piece.
The interior of this mold is coated with liquid wax. Once the wax has hardened it is removed from the mold and you now have a hollow "positive" of the clay sculpture. This wax positive is filled with a wet substance akin to Plaster of Paris called an "investment" and placed into a heat-proof box with holes bored through the investment to the surface of the wax. The piece is buried in investment as well. When the investment has dried and hardened the object is heated and the wax runs out of the holes. Bronze is poured into the empty space formerly occupied by the wax. Once the bronze is cooled and has solidified, the investment is broken away.
Through this "lost wax" process any number of exact replicas of the original clay sculpture can be produced, albeit one at a time. The sculptor must develop a close working relationship with the foundry to produce desired results and is intimately involved in the casting process. It is labor intensive and costly for the sculptor to reproduce his/her work in bronze.
Once the piece has been cast, it must be sanded and buffed and a protective patina applied to keep the bronze from corroding. Nowadays, patinas come in a variety of colors and combinations that are the result of experimentation by the sculptor with a variety of chemicals combined with heat.
The sculptor decides what the size of an edition will be. The piece's number in the edition along with the edition size is etched into the sculpture (i.e., 3/10 means this piece is the 3rd produced in an edition of 10) along with the sculptor's signature. The practice of signing sculpture was created in the 20th century so you probably won't find the sculptor's name on a piece that was created before then.
Just as there have been forgeries in painting, even more so there have been forgeries in sculpture. A sculptor will limit an edition size because the clay original and mold are fragile and deteriorate with use resulting in an inferior casting. An unscrupulous foundry could make unauthorized copies of the sculpture. Always check the provenance when buying a piece of sculpture by a deceased sculptor and insist on a certificate of authenticity. As you would in buying prints or paintings, only buy from reputable and trustworthy dealers.
Today, not all castings are done in bronze. Aluminum, chromium, steel and Lucite are modern alternatives, but the essential process still remains the same. Contemporary artists also experiment with all manner of materials such as sheet metal, scrap metal, wire, plastic, papier maché, ceramic, you name it. Nowadays, anything goes.
About display - Unless a sculpture is meant to be a wall piece such as a bas-relief, the sculptor has worked in the round. It is preferable if you can view it in the round as well. By placing the sculpture in a place where you can walk around it 360 degrees you can enjoy the piece from all angles, or a mirror strategically placed behind a sculpture will enable you to see the back of the piece. Also, a specially designed sculpture stand or pedestal with a rotating "Lazy Susan" is an attractive and functional way to display a piece of sculpture.
Lately, "sculpture gardens" have become increasingly popular. Sculptures in stone, wood, bronze, ceramic or even glass are woven into the landscape adorning gardens and "outdoor rooms." Some works, especially those of monumental size, are specifically created to live outdoors. Remember, should you choose to display a bronze or wood sculpture outdoors, you can expect it to "weather." Over time, the surface of the bronze sculpture will come to resemble that of the general on horseback in the park.