Sculpture is the branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions. It is one of the plastic arts. Durable sculptural processes originally used carving (the removal of material) and modelling (the addition of material, as clay), in stone, metal, ceramics, wood and other materials but, since Modernism, there has been an almost complete freedom of materials and process. A wide variety of materials may be worked by removal such as carving, assembled by welding or modelling, or molded or cast.
Sculpture in stone survives far better than works of art in perishable materials, and often represents the majority of the surviving works (other than pottery) from ancient cultures, though conversely traditions of sculpture in wood may have vanished almost entirely. However, most ancient sculpture was brightly painted, and this has been lost.
Sculpture has been central in religious devotion in many cultures, and until recent centuries large sculptures, too expensive for private individuals to create, were usually an expression of religion or politics. Those cultures whose sculptures have survived in quantities include the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean, India and China, as well as many in Central and South America and Africa.
The Western tradition of sculpture began in ancient Greece, and Greece is widely seen as producing great masterpieces in the classical period. During the Middle Ages, Gothic sculpture represented the agonies and passions of the Christian faith. The revival of classical models in the Renaissance produced famous sculptures such as Michelangelo’s David. Modernist sculpture moved away from traditional processes and the emphasis on the depiction of the human body, with the making of constructed sculpture, and the presentation of found objects as finished art works.
Materials and techniques
The materials used in sculpture are diverse, changing throughout history. The classic materials, with outstanding durability, are metal, especially bronze, stone and pottery, with wood, bone and antler less durable but cheaper options. Precious materials such as gold, silver, jade, and ivory are often used for small luxury works, and sometimes in larger ones, as in chryselephantine statues. More common and less expensive materials were used for sculpture for wider consumption, including hardwoods (such as oak, box/boxwood, and lime/linden); terracotta and other ceramics, wax (a very common material for models for casting, and receiving the impressions of cylinder seals and engraved gems), and cast metals such as pewter and zinc (spelter). But a vast number of other materials have been used as part of sculptures, in ethnographic and ancient works as much as modern ones. Sculptures are often painted, but commonly lose their paint to time, or restorers. Many different painting techniques have been used in making sculpture, including tempera, oil painting, gilding, house paint, aerosol, enamel and sandblasting.
Many sculptors seek new ways and materials to make art. One of Pablo Picasso’s most famous sculptures included bicycle parts. Alexander Calder and other modernists made spectacular use of painted steel. Since the 1960s, acrylics and other plastics have been used as well. Andy Goldsworthy makes his unusually ephemeral sculptures from almost entirely natural materials in natural settings. Some sculpture, such as ice sculpture, sand sculpture, and gas sculpture, is deliberately short-lived. Recent sculptors have used stained glass, tools, machine parts, hardware and consumer packaging to fashion their works. Sculptors sometimes use found objects, and Chinese scholar’s rocks have been appreciated for many centuries.
Stone Stone sculpture is an ancient activity where pieces of rough natural stone are shaped by the controlled removal of stone. Owing to the permanence of the material, evidence can be found that even the earliest societies indulged in some form of stone work, though not all areas of the world have such abundance of good stone for carving as Egypt, Greece, India and most of Europe. Petroglyphs (also called rock engravings) are perhaps the earliest form: images created by removing part of a rock surface which remains in situ, by incising, pecking, carving, and abrading. Monumental sculpture covers large works, and architectural sculpture, which is attached to buildings. Hardstone carving is the carving for artistic purposes of semi-precious stones such as jade, agate, onyx, rock crystal, shard or carnelian, and a general term for an object made in this way. Alabaster or mineral gypsum is a soft mineral that is easy to carve for smaller works and still relatively durable. Engraved gems are small carved gems, including cameos, originally used as seal rings.
Metal Bronze and related copper alloys are the oldest and still the most popular metals for cast metal sculptures; a cast bronze sculpture is often called simply a “bronze”. Common bronze alloys have the unusual and desirable property of expanding slightly just before they set, thus filling the finest details of a mold. Their strength and lack of brittleness (ductility) is an advantage when figures in action are to be created, especially when compared to various ceramic or stone materials (see marble sculpture for several examples). Gold is the softest and most precious metal, and very important in jewelry; with silver it is soft enough to be worked with hammers and other tools as well as cast; repoussé and chasing are among the techniques used in gold and silversmithing.
Welding is a process where different pieces of metal are fused together to create different shapes and designs. There are many different forms of welding, such as Oxy-fuel welding, Stick welding, MIG welding, and TIG welding. Oxy-fuel is probably the most common method of welding when it comes to creating steel sculptures because it is the easiest to use for shaping the steel as well as making clean and less noticeable joins of the steel. The key to Oxy-fuel welding is heating each piece of metal to be joined evenly until all are red and have a shine to them. Once that shine is on each piece, that shine will soon become a ‘pool’ where the metal is liquified and the welder must get the pools to join together, fusing the metal. Once cooled off, the location where the pools joined are now one continuous piece of metal. Also used heavily in Oxy-fuel sculpture creation is forging. Forging is the process of heating metal to a certain point to soften it enough to be shaped into different forms. One very common example is heating the end of a steel rod and hitting the red heated tip with a hammer while on an anvil to form a point. In between hammer swings, the forger rotates the rod and gradually forms a sharpened point from the blunt end of a steel rod.
Glass Glass may be used for sculpture through a wide range of working techniques, though the use of it for large works is a recent development. It can be carved, with considerable difficulty; the Roman Lycurgus Cup is all but unique. Hot casting can be done by ladling molten glass into molds that have been created by pressing shapes into sand, carved graphite or detailed plaster/silica molds. Kiln casting glass involves heating chunks of glass in a kiln until they are liquid and flow into a waiting mold below it in the kiln. Glass can also be blown and/or hot sculpted with hand tools either as a solid mass or as part of a blown object. More recent techniques involve chiseling and bonding plate glass with polymer silicates and UV light.
Pottery Pottery is one of the oldest materials for sculpture, as well as clay being the medium in which many sculptures cast in metal are originally modelled for casting. Sculptors often build small preliminary works called moquette’s of ephemeral materials such as plaster of Paris, wax, unfired clay, or plasticine. Many cultures have produced pottery which combines a function as a vessel with a sculptural form, and small figurines have often been as popular as they are in modern Western culture. Stamps and molds were used by most ancient civilizations, from ancient Rome and Mesopotamia to China.
Wood carving Wood carving has been extremely widely practiced, but survives much less well than the other main materials, being vulnerable to decay, insect damage, and fire. It therefore forms an important hidden element in the art history of many cultures. Outdoor wood sculpture does not last long in most parts of the world, so that we have little idea how the totem pole tradition developed. Many of the most important sculptures of China and Japan in particular are in wood, and the great majority of African sculpture and that of Oceania and other regions.
Wood is light, so suitable for masks and other sculpture intended to be carried, and can take very fine detail. It is also much easier to work than stone. It has been very often painted after carving, but the paint wears less well than the wood, and is often missing in surviving pieces. Painted wood is often technically described as “wood and polychrome”. Typically, a layer of gesso or plaster is applied to the wood, and then the paint is applied to that.
The first known sculpture in the Indian subcontinent is from the Indus Valley civilization (3300–1700 BCE), found in sites at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa in modern-day Pakistan. These include the famous small bronze female dancer. However, such figures in bronze and stone are rare and greatly outnumbered by pottery figurines and stone seals, often of animals or deities very finely depicted. After the collapse of the Indus Valley civilization there is little record of sculpture until the Buddhist era, apart from a hoard of copper figures of (somewhat controversially) c. 1500 BCE from Daimabad. Thus the great tradition of Indian monumental sculpture in stone appears to begin, relative to other cultures, and the development of Indian civilization, relatively late, with the reign of Asoka from 270 to 232 BCE, and the Pillars of Ashoka he erected around India, carrying his edicts and topped by famous sculptures of animals, mostly lions, of which six survive. Large amounts of figurative sculpture, mostly in relief, survive from Early Buddhist pilgrimage stupas, above all Sanchi; these probably developed out of a tradition using wood that also embraced Hinduism.
The pink sandstone Hindu, Jain and Buddhist sculptures of Mathura from the 1st to 3rd centuries CE reflected both native Indian traditions and the Western influences received through the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara, and effectively established the basis for subsequent Indian religious sculpture. The style was developed and diffused through most of India under the Gupta Empire (c. 320–550) which remains a “classical” period for Indian sculpture, covering the earlier Ellora Caves, though the Elephanta Caves are probably slightly later. Later large-scale sculpture remains almost exclusively religious, and generally rather conservative, often reverting to simple frontal standing poses for deities, though the attendant spirits such as apsaras and yakshi often have sensuously curving poses. Carving is often highly detailed, with an intricate backing behind the main figure in high relief. The celebrated bronzes of the Chola dynasty (c. 850–1250) from south India, many designed to be carried in processions, include the iconic
In the early days of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso revolutionized the art of sculpture when he began creating his constructions fashioned by combining disparate objects and materials into one constructed piece of sculpture; the sculptural equivalent of the collage in two-dimensional art. The advent of Surrealism led to things occasionally being described as “sculpture” that would not have been so previously, such as “involuntary sculpture” in several senses, including coulage. In later years Picasso became a prolific potter, leading, with interest in historic pottery from around the world, to a revival of ceramic art, with figures such as George E. Ohr and subsequently Peter Voulkos, Kenneth Price, and Robert Arneson. Marcel Duchamp originated the use of the “found object” (French: objet trouvé) or readymade with pieces such as Fountain (1917).
Similarly, the work of Constantin Brâncuși at the beginning of the century paved the way for later abstract sculpture. In revolt against the naturalism of Rodin and his late-19th-century contemporaries, Brâncuși distilled subjects down to their essences as illustrated by the elegantly refined forms of his Bird in Space series (1924).
Brâncuși’s impact, with his vocabulary of reduction and abstraction, is seen throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and exemplified by artists such as Gaston Lachaise, Sir Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró, Julio González, Pablo Serrano, Jacques Lipchitz and by the 1940s abstract sculpture was impacted and expanded by Alexander Calder, Len Lye, Jean Tinguely, and Frederick Kiesler who were pioneers of Kinetic art.
Modernist sculptors largely missed out on the huge boom in public art resulting from the demand for war memorials for the two World Wars, but from the 1950s the public and commissioning bodies became more comfortable with Modernist sculpture and large public commissions both abstract and figurative became common. Picasso was commissioned to make a maquette for a huge 50-foot (15 m)-high public sculpture, the so-called Chicago Picasso (1967). His design was ambiguous and somewhat controversial, and what the figure represents is not clear; it could be a bird, a horse, a woman or a totally abstract shape.
During the late 1950s and the 1960s abstract sculptors began experimenting with a wide array of new materials and different approaches to creating their work. Surrealist imagery, anthropomorphic abstraction, new materials and combinations of new energy sources and varied surfaces and objects became characteristic of much new modernist sculpture. Collaborative projects with landscape designers, architects, and landscape architects expanded the outdoor site and contextual integration. Artists such as Isamu Noguchi, David Smith, Alexander Calder, Jean Tinguely, Richard Lippold, George Rickey, Louise Bourgeois, and Louise Nevelson came to characterize the look of modern sculpture.
By the 1960s Abstract expressionism, Geometric abstraction and Minimalism, which reduces sculpture to its most essential and fundamental features, predominated. Some works of the period are: the Cubi works of David Smith, and the welded steel works of Sir Anthony Caro, as well as welded sculpture by a large variety of sculptors, the large-scale work of John Chamberlain, and environmental installation scale works by Mark di Suvero. Other Minimalists include Tony Smith, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Anne Truitt, Giacomo Benevelli, Arnaldo Pomodoro, Richard Serra, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, and John Safer who added motion and monumentality to the theme of purity of line.
During the 1960s and 1970s figurative sculpture by modernist artists in stylized forms was made by artists such as Leonard Baskin, Ernest Trova, George Segal, Marisol Escobar, Paul Thek, Robert Graham in a classic articulated style, and Fernando Botero bringing his painting’s ‘oversized figures’ into monumental sculptures.