Small sculpture

SMALL SCULPTUREThe art of small sculpture is rooted in antiquity; it goes back to prehistoric totems and anthropomorphic figures. The variety of styles, techniques, media, and of application is enormous. Today, too, it is a thriving art form in which much has been achieved. Yet a clear definition of what is or is not small sculpture eludes us. The only criterion that is generally agreed upon is that the maximum height is somewhere in the region of 80 — 100 cm.


The reason lies in the nature of small sculpture. For though it is a medium with its own laws — and an accent on symbolism and the psychological — it is yet closely related to decorative and applied arts for, like these it is often seen cheek by jowl with objects that are purely utilitarian. Porcelain, bone and terracotta are media common to both art and craft. Also, small figures can be mass-produced, a thing that is rare enough with larger sculpture.

Perhaps the relationship of small sculpture and craftwork is best compared with that between architecture and the sculpture that decorates it — they live together in a kind of symbiosis. Kvass jars and pitchers of Gzhel pottery could be cited as a clasical example, for they carry on their shoulders group of soldiers fighting, soldiers manning cannons, or ladies and gentlemen at a festive table.

In the past there have been hybrid works which are part art part craft, such as the royal dinner services of which some pieces were purely ornamental groups of figurines. Such is the Arabesque service by Jean Dominique Rachette in which a figure of Empress Catherine the Great and allegorical figures of Magnanimity, Justice, Government, Philanthropy, etc., designed to grace ceremonial dinners, were a symbol of their epoch.

The dividing line between art and craft is very blurred and many things — such as the bronze candlesticks shaped as caryatids designed by Kazakov, Klodt and Vitali — belong equally to both categories.

The blurriness of the dividing line, the meeting-point of the two arts is inevitable, for all arts stem from the same roots. If this were not so Raphael would hardly have designed ornament, Rubens tapestry cartoons, Matisse and Voronikhin furniture, Vrubel ceramics, Somov and Matveev porcelain, nor Mukhina glass. Hence it is not really urgent to define such sculpture.

Small sculpture won its place in art galleries of the Soviet Union in the last decade and it has been shown regularly both on its own and in combined exhibitions on a republican and all-Union scale. And there is always a clear intention if not of solving, then at least raising the issues.

 

SCULPTUREThe seventies brought no clear-cut definitions, except for the recognition that a small sculpture should be a self-contained work. It is not and should not be a sketch; and while it can be even monumental in concept, it must not burst at the seams, must not leave one feeling that it should really have been much larger. Nor is it understatement. Rather, it tends to be explicite, requiring precision in the artist’s use of his material, in composition, image and emotion. Small sculpture is designed for close examination. The relationship with the viewer is confidential; there is a feeling that the sculptor, through his artistry is addressing the viewer personally, his eyes, his soul, his intellect. The quality of a small sculpture is revealed in close communication. However, size does not limit subject matter. Small forms can carry large content and, on occasion, a social and political message. If we look back to Petrograd (at present Leningrad) in the early twenties, according to an eye-witness account, we see “a jagged desert of roads, empty houses, cold and dark, and windows recently pocked with bullet holes. There, in the 25th October Avenue, a showcase of porcelain — bright red stars on shining white plates, embellished with gold-painted hammer and sickle and the monogram RSFSR written in flowers; figurines of sailors and Red Guards and an exquisite chess set, in red and white. People stopped and crowded round to catch a glimpse into their new future, the future for which their country was fighting hunger, economic disaster and foreign invasion”. This porcelain was exhibited in London, Stockholm, Berlin, Milan, and Paris. Russian propaganda porcelain was as much a document of the epoch as the large monuments put up under Lenin’s Plan for utilising monumental art forms in propaganda.

Today’s small sculpture reflects the artists’ view of our attitudes. Often they deal with the kind of problem that may well be more appropriate for larger sculpture. The artists are concerned with the history and culture of mankind. Often, too, they work with subjects that other sculptors do not handle — motherhood, love, happiness, or the world of other arts such as theatre, music, dancing, and circus; both experienced sculptors and those just starting their careers take an interest in such subjects. Each has his own outlook, his own view of the task and of what small sculpture can achieve; this leads to shifts in interest, new aesthetic attitudes, new trends, in short to a new imagery and new techniques.

There is a special motivation in small sculpture. It has caught on so fast because it is a democratic art form addressed to the people of our time which answers a need to make people’s surroundings more aesthetic in this modern age. And for artists it is an attractive medium that gives wide scope for experiment and improvization.

The seventies brought new approaches to the relationship and interrelationship of mass and texture. Some sculptors concentrate on outline, silhouette, allowing air to pass freely only around the outside, while others allow the air to enter, using the interplay between mass and space, of full and empty shapes to gain expression.

The impact of a sculpture depends on whether the artist’s style, his moulding, the very touch of his hands have been preserved with mathematical precision. Thus it is vital for the artist personally to control all stages of the casting or conversion into another material. In this respect the work of Klodt, Bach, Lieberich, Aubert, and Beklemishev set a very good example to their artists, because the bronze castings of their work are truly excellent.

Bronze was used more than any other metal in the seventies. For some reason cast iron, which is just as malleable and interesting, has been neglected though the artists mentioned above as well as Bure, Lanceray and Trubetskoi were all widely known for their cast-iron figures which were produced in large numbers at the very famous Kasli art foundry.

Stone has become increasingly popular. In this medium there are two main trends: the one, solid blocks and shapes typical of the Armenian and Baltic schools, and the other, smaller works with very fine detail. The Kyzyl school have a quite astonishing mastery of this medium. Their compositions, mainly of shepherds and cattleherders, are quite meticulous and sufficiently talented to avoid naturalism. Their works, which are no bigger that 10 or 12 centimeters, are unique. The Tuva school are equally distinctive, as are the woodcarvings from Nukus — Karakalpak wood-carvers understand and love the texture of their material — their touch breathes life into the wood itself.

Wood is popular with artists of all Soviet republics who sometimes attempt to colour it. The current trend is obviously to subject the. material completely to the artist’s will. The artists of the seventies do not seem to have the attitude to wood that Konionkov, an eminent sculptor in wood, had when he sought out unusual pieces and then completed what nature had begun. The woodcarvers of the seventies have tended to use their wood merely as a workable medium. Today it is the folk artist who gets inspiration from his material and works in partnership with nature. However, as in all art forms it is a rare artist who never looks back to the past for support, who does not turn to that spring of all art, folk art, for ideas. Carvers and potters often draw on the bottomless well of folk images and techniques. Yet whereas earlier artists made only superficial use of folk images, or merely copied primitive techniques, there seems to be no danger now of stylization. The accent has shifted to interpretation of the traditional, the artist using his own currenttechniques, which lovingly bring to life national custom, outlook, character. Inevitably there is great emphasis on characters. Woodcarvers, in their search for characters are looking to the early nineteenth century wooden toys from the Village of Bogorodskoye near Moscow, whose central figures were mowers, horn-players, woodcutters, carpenters, and the like.

There is a similar situation in porcelain. Many modern artists are looking to the eighteenth century series, The Peoples of Russia, from the Imperial Porcelain Factory (now called the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory in Leningrad) for inspiration. The Koryak, Yakut, Estonian woman, Tatar, and other figurines can truly be called sculpture. They have very fine detail — clothing, face, even hands, and they stand up to close examination from all angles, which is in keeping with the contemporary approach.

Howerver, modern artists are not slavishly following the past: they are developing a genre of their own.

Porcelain figures have a longer history of serial production than and other small sculpture medium, and present-day artists undoubtedly benefit from past experience. Contemporary porcelain tends to be complex in composition and the range of colour is wide enough for the form. There is a notable desire to make use of the shining white surface natural to porcelain, either alone or in a delicate palette. But there are also many examples in which the painter’s bright and emotional palette is used. All the techniques used for polychrome figures have something in common and all are justified, for in each the elements are felt as if they were the artist’s parts of speech. There still appears to be a definitive preference for majolica and faience at the present stage there seems to be a link between the experiments of Lebedeva, Kepinov, Yefimov and Chaikov at the Konakovo Factory, which in the Soviet Union leads the field. Their laboratory was set up in the early thirties by the sculptor Frikh-Khar, famous for his faience pieces, A Black Man under a Palm-tree, And Old Town and An Uzbek Shashlik Vendor, wich undoubtedly influenced modern artists considerably.

Fire-clay is also a popular medium. Artists from all republics are welcome to come to Latvia and experiment with their red Jelgava clay. Sculptors value the easy availability of clays, but, which is more important, a clay model is a oneoff, is unique. You cannot make several alike, identical, as you can with castings. Even the artist himself cannot make a perfect replica. And if he could, the glaze decoration and density would be different, so there would be two originals, similar in subject, form and colour. The fact that each piece is an original (this is, of course, not restricted to ceramic) is an attraction in itself.

There have always been two mainstreams in small sculpture, the multiple and the individual work. The purpose for which a piece is intended will also affect its character. The purpose of much of the contemporary work is to remove the sameness, the mass-produced look from people’s standard interior, to give individuality to their homes. This need items that preserve the artist’s feel.

In the seventies, modellers and woodcarvers have tried to gain a foothold in the open air. In this period, a third of the pieces displayed at the USSR Artists’ Union open-air exhibitions in Riga and Moscow have been small. And small sculpture has become an integral part of some backyards, garden squares and little parks, creating space around themselves, spaces of human proportions. Human proportions— that perhaps is the real root of the attraction.

New methods of exhibiting small sculpture have been explored in the last decade. Since for true appreciation all sculpture requires to be seen from many angles, it is important to allow sufficient space. At combined exhibitions it has been found helpful to put the smaller works in the middle of the hall, in good lighting. A special technique of exhibiting was called for. Sculptors have been wide awake to this, have worked with this in mind. Some have even produced works in several pieces which can be arranged in several way. They call this “free composition”.

However much works of the seventies vary — by way of media, intention, experiment, the sculptors are all expressing their outlook, whether they are doing portraits, compositions, still lifes, or landscapes. The portrait sculptor, in particular, wants to understand the human personality, to show its inner value; and to pay homage to the greatness of man, they do portraits of people whose names have gone down in history, especially of Lenin.

Lenin portraiture does not have to be monumental. There have been many very different styles and approaches to small Lenin portraits. In monuments and memorials, Lenin, the leader of the first socialist state, is, to quote Lunacharsky, grows larger than life. But in small portraiture, the relationship with the subject is more intimate, more human in scale, so that we see Lenin’s simplicity and humanity.

In small portraits likeness and the psychology of the sitter are of great importance, though in no way does this mean that essence sould be replaced by detail. All portraiture is in a sense metaphorical — that is after all, the difference between portraiture and simple image (as in a mirror or a snapshot).

Yet a metaphor can be flattering or ironic, or, as Ingres points out, can be exaggerated to the point of caricature. In the seventies, the element of the grotesque has been so prominet that at Gabrovo (Bulgaria) biennial exhibitions of small satyrical sculpture are now held, entitled Laughter Saved the World.

The language of small sculpture is changing perceptibly. There has been a complete break with the tiresome and not long ago still popular small busts. Modern portrait artists tend to enrich their work by introducing accessories and symbols, and group portraits, moving off towards the composition, are gaining in popularity. Exhibitions of the seventies also included many compositions about everyday life, which, though the subject matter is commonplace, at the artistic level we will find concern with the ethical and the aesthetical.

Still life and ladscape also featured, sometimes as background, sometimes as a meaningful accent on the artist’s intention. Of course, they also exist in their own right, as subject motif or perhaps as inspiration; both, but especially still life, tend to be treated in great detail (though not detail for its own sake, but rather as an expression of love for the subject, the thing).

I would also like to say a few words about animal subjects. We find here a refreshing absence of anthropomorphism. Rather we see a world peopled by character and temperament — nature in all its wealth of form, colour and motion.

In evaluating the Soviet small sculpture of the seventies, we find that it is in line with world trends, as seen at the biennial and triennial shows in Budapest (Hungary). The authority of the Hungarian school of modellers and woodcarvers is widely recognized. Hungarian sculptors themselves point out that in the inter-war years they could only express themselves within the framework of 50 centimeters. There was little doing in large and monumental sculpture in those years, so most of the best artists in those years were working in miniature.

Year by year the “small form” is attracting more artists and a larger public. Hower, this has not resulted in the clarifying of definitions — the criteria are different on each of the five continents. Meanwhile Budapest accepts exhibits which are strictly decorations, toys or utilitarian craft items.

In their endeavours to regularize the position, the organizers of international exhibitions in Hungary have attempted to set new paramenters. Under the rules for the 1978 and 1981 triennials, there is a new maximum base length of 50 centimeters. However, as exhibits are still being sent in — and accepted — under the old rules, the experiment has had no effect to date.

Soviet sculptors send in to all the Hungarian exhibitions, and among the regulars we should make special mention of Olita Abolina, Margarita Voskresenskaya and Lazar Gadaev. The international jury held that the professional techniques, the weight of content and progressive character of their exhibits was representative of the generally high level of small sculpture in the Soviet Union. This is in line with our conclusion that in the last decade small sculpture has become a medium in its own right in the Soviet Union. And it is developing purposefully. There is a clear desire to differentiate the medium. Of course it should not cease to be a part of the mainstream of sculpture. However, the general trends in sculpture do show up more clearly when we look at them through trends that we discern in small sculpture. Let us remember that the small form, too, is seeking a place in parks and gardens, in the open air where its manageable size diverts people from the noise and bustle of the modern city street. Or let us see the way it is at home in public places — libraries, offices, hotels, like all decorative sculpture. Meanwhile the tendency towards the self-contained, the individual is a pointer to processes taking place in the fine arts.

Small sculpture has many aspects, and the artists in the field are not averse to absorbing new ideas and techniques from other parts of the world, though they remain true to the traditions of Soviet peoples that they draw on, to their outlook and their feeling for form.

Small sculpture is indeed a contemporary art form.

Small sculpture has many aspects, and the artists in the field are not averse to absorbing new ideas and techniques from other parts of the world, though they remain true to the traditions of Soviet peoples that they draw on, to their outlook and their feeling for form.

br /Year by year the “small form” is attracting more artists and a larger public. Hower, this has not resulted in the clarifying of definitions — the criteria are different on each of the five continents. Meanwhile Budapest accepts exhibits which are strictly decorations, toys or utilitarian craft items.


 

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