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July 22, 2003

East Meets West


Ever since you quoted from Alistair Shearer's The Hindu Vision: Forms of the Formless (in your posting Hindu Art which can be read here), I’ve been chewing over the contrast that Mr. Shearer draws between Indian and Western sculpture. Is Indian sculpture really so completely opposed to the Western sculptural tradition?

I even made an hour-long trek from the wilderness of the western San Fernando Valley where I live to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to visit their collection of Indian sculpture so I could check out the evidence “in the flesh.”

My conclusion after this visit is that while these two sculptural traditions obviously derive their content from different cultures, religions, etc., I would assert they are both governed by the same formal logic. In other words, good Indian sculpture is good for the same reasons as good Western sculpture.

Sculpture is, of course, about images that actually occupy real three-dimensional space. Historically, sculpture comes in two main varieties: carved (usually from stone or wood) or modeled (usually in a soft substance which is eventually replaced with metal). As Michelangelo put it, there is sculpture that comes about from “taking away” and sculpture that comes about from “adding on.” Old Mike was in no doubt that the “taking away” variety was the dominant form. While this is a value judgment that we don’t have to follow, it derives from a logical view of how the two different traditions engage space and treat human flesh.

Spatially, carved stone sculpture has to work inside the limits of the un-carved stone mass. Traditionally, this has set up a dialogue between the carved image and the shape of the block it was carved from.

Why? The essence of a stone sculpture is the conversion of flesh-and-bone into stone. Thus the transience of human flesh is dignified with the weight and permanency of stone. But this sense of transubstantiation can only work if a sense of the original stone block survives in the final sculpture. This sense of "stoniness" is more or less the same thing as being aware, if only dimly, of the material has been removed to make the image. This awareness of the removed material creates a sort of charged space around carved sculpture--or, at least, in those carved sculptures that communicate a feeling for the size and shape of their original blocks.

Sculpture as Boulder: Front & Side Views of a Ganeesha Sculpture

These sculptures of the Hindu god Ganeesha above illustrate how a carved sculptural image, designed as a series of rectangular masses, can preserve the mental qualities of stone—mass, weight, permanence. Of course, many design elements are the result of the specifically Indian religious tradition. The basic symmetry and frontality of the image are intended to suggest the eternal being of divinity, while the slight deviations from symmetry (the trunk held to one side, the different postures of the feet, etc.) suggest life. The decorative treatment of the back plane suggests its symbolic nature as a sort supernatural energy field radiating from the figure.

Michelangelo, Captive, 1519

A similar example of stoniness can be found in the Western sculptural tradition. [Regrettably, I didn't have enough time to pop over to Florence to document this personally, so for pictures we'll have to rely on my book collection. Sigh. Note to Michael Blowhard--we've got to up our budget.] As we see in one of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures of captives for the tomb of Pope Julius above, the relationship between the carved image and the block from which it is emerging is clearly visible. The limbs and the head have been arranged so that they press against the various faces of the block, making it obvious that even when completed the final sculpture would have preserved a sense of its geometry. Of course, while it’s not that hard to give the image of an Elephant God a massive, boulder-like feeling, it's tougher to do when carving more realistic human figures (the inconvenient fact is that the human body is basically a tall and rather skinny beanpole.) One way around this is a widening and thickening of the proportions, as we see here in the superhuman muscularity of the figure. These exaggeratedly heavy limbs communicate the weight of stone, just as do the heavy masses of our Indian Ganeesha sculpture. The composition, of course, is not symmetrical or frontal, unlike the Ganeesha sculpture. This is because Michelangelo is not portraying a supernaturally calm divinity, but rather an all-too-human being writhing in the world of becoming (there's a reason it's called a "captive.") But the sculptural logic is fundamentally similar.

Both traditions also utilize, in addition to freestanding sculpture, the basically pictorial type called relief. Whether a composition of multiple figures standing out from a back plane or a single figure in a completely frontal presentation, a relief-style sculpture restates the planar nature of the stone block from which it is carved. If you check out the examples below, you'll notice that the similarities between an Indian relief and a Western one are many: both utilize dynamic poses that emphasize the contrasting axes of various body parts; both exaggerate proportions; and both toss in a few carefully selected “thrusts” out into space to emphasize the three-dimensionality of what is basically a two-dimensional image.

Indian Relief Sculpture vs. Michelangelo's St. Matthew, 1503-6

The sense that the Western and Indian sculptural traditions are in contrast derives largely from modeled sculpture, which in the West has escaped the tutelage of carved sculpture to a far greater extent than in Asia. In the West these periods of the independence of or even the dominance of modeled-sculpture include the art of Classical Greece (in which most “originals” were executed first in bronze and only later copied in marble) and the period beginning with the Renaissance and extending to our own day.

Most Classic Greek Sculpture Was Modeled: Poseidon

Because modeled (and usually cast metal) sculpture does not “reference” a pre-existing geometrical shape, the continuing dialogues between the shape of the original block, the pose, and the anatomical details that you get in carved sculpture are rarely present. Moreover, because metal is far stronger and lighter than stone, modeled sculpture encourages centripetal extensions of the image into space.

Centripetal Action in Modeled Sculpture: A. Rodin, Iris: Messenger of the Gods

Ultimately modeled sculpture evolves into the “all-around” sculptural composition, designed to be seen from any angle.

Front and Side Views of an All-Around Composition: J. Dalou, Silenus, 1885

Personally, the mercury in my own taste thermometer starts falling pretty damn fast at this point. The problem, for me, seems to lie at least partially in the fact that the design choices of modeled metal sculpture are spatially unconstrained, and thus ride roughshod over the limited but intense sense of space that, in carved sculpture, derives out of the relationship with the original block. I also have never been able to get much feeling of transubstantiation from metal sculpture, quite possibly because (unlike stone) metal is a man-made material, and thus has no natural associations.

Modeled metal sculpture in the all-around mode (its natural point of evolution) feels similar to photography, in the sense that it captures dynamism brilliantly, but entirely misses out on weight, mass and monumentality. Of course, modeled metal sculpture was largely superceded in the 20th century by assembled metal sculpture (the next evolutionary link in the chain, so to speak). But such sculptures are to me essentially pointless as they have in turn been superceded by the cinema and television, which are even better at portraying a dynamic and de-materialized world.

But if we constrain ourselves to what I consider the central aesthetic of carved sculpture, I believe the similarities far outweigh the differences of the Western and Indian traditions.



posted by Friedrich at July 22, 2003


This was very interesting, Mr. FvB. Thank you! I enjoy your "art" lessons alot tho I am abysmally ignorant and dont comment. Keep them coming!

Posted by: Deb on July 22, 2003 10:42 PM

I am abysmally ignorant, too, I just am also dumb enough to comment and figure others will separate the "wheat" from the "chaff." What I love about these little lessons is not so much that they teach me what I "like"--but they provide a wonderful sense of helping understand why I might like it. I, too, like the "taking away" form of sculpture much better than the "adding on"---this helps me figure out why. Like when that California professor who is so interesting on brain research referenced by 2B said that when the brain and eye take different pieces of data and process them and say "oh!---it's a tiger!" and there is a sense of relief in that---closure, or completion, or whatever he called it. That's how these posts make me feel.

Posted by: annette on July 23, 2003 12:34 PM

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