The Principles Of Aesthetics
by Dewitt H. Parker

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Chapter XII - Sculpture

The sculptor has this advantage over all other artists, that his chief subject is the most beautiful thing in the world–the human body. In two ways the body is supremely beautiful: as an expression of mind and as an embodiment of sensuous charm. In the body mind has become actually incarnate; there purpose, emotion, and thought have taken shape and manifestation. And this shape, through its appeal to the amorous, parental, and gregarious feelings, and through the complete organization of its parts, has no rival in loveliness. What wonder, therefore, that sculptors have always thought of their work as simply one of mere imitation of nature, the divine. Yet in sculpture, as in the other arts, the imitative process is never slavish, but selective and inventive. For the body is interesting to the artist only in so far as it is beautiful, that is, so far as it has charm and exhibits the control of mind; some of its details and many of its attitudes, having no relation to either, are unfit for imitation; and, although inspired by his model, the sculptor seeks to create out of his impressions a still more harmonious object.

To give to his material the semblance of the body beautiful is the technical problem of the sculptor. Although this semblance is primarily for sight, it is not exclusively so. For in sculpture shape is not two-dimensional, but plastic; and for the full appreciation of plasticity, the cooperation of touch is required. Moreover, not only the perception of the form, but also a large part of the appreciation of the charm of the body depends upon touch. Of course we do not ordinarily touch statues, but they should make us want to touch them, and we should touch them–in the imagination. The surfaces of the statue should therefore be so modeled as to give us, in the imagination, the pleasures that we get when we touch the living body. It is well known that these touch values were destroyed by the neo-classicists when they polished the surfaces of their statues. Such sculpture for the eye only is almost as good when reproduced in an engraving that preserves its visual quality, and is therefore lacking in complete sculptural beauty. But no plane reproduction can replace the best Greek, Italian, or French work.

The life of the statue should, however, be more than skin deep. We should appreciate it through sensations of motion and strain as well as through sight and touch, feeling the tenseness or relaxation of the muscles and tendons beneath. We should move with its motion or rest with its repose. And this does not mean that we should merely know that an attitude of quiet or of motion is represented; we should actually experience quiet or motion. In our own bodies sensations corresponding to these should be awakened by the visual image of the statue, yet should be fused with the latter, becoming for our perception its, not ours, in accordance with the mechanism of einfuhlung described in our fourth chapter. The light rhythmic motion of the figures in Carpeaux’s “Dance” should thrill in our own limbs, yet seem to thrill in theirs.

Because it preserves the full three-dimensional presence of the body, sculpture is, next to the drama, the most realistic of the arts. This realism is not, however, an unmixed advantage for general appreciation. For, finding the shape of the body, men sometimes demand its color and life, complaining that the statue is cold and dead; [Footnote: See Byron, Don Juan, Canto II, cxviii.] or else, giving life to the form, they react to it practically and socially, as they would toward the real body. Yet, for the one attitude, the art itself cannot be held responsible, but rather some want of genius in the artist or lack of imagination in the spectator; and as for the other, although only a bloodless dogma would demand the elimination of passion and interest from the appreciation of sculpture–for unless the marble arouse the natural feelings toward the body it is no successful expression–nevertheless, good taste does demand that, through attention to form and a sense of the unreality of the object, these feelings be subdued to contemplation.

In order to keep the statue on the ideal plane, it should not be too realistically fashioned. If it looks too much like a man, we shall first treat it as a man, as we do one of Jarley’s or Mme. Tissaud’s waxworks, and then after we have been undeceived, we shall have toward it an uncanny feeling, totally unaesthetic, as towards a corpse. The statue, therefore, if life-sized, should not be given the colors or clothing of life. Tinting is not excluded, provided no attempt is made at exact imitation; and when the statue is of heroic, or less than the normal size, as in porcelain, both coloring and clothing may be more realistic. No hard and fast rules can be formulated; yet the principle is plain–there should be realism in one aspect, above all in shape, in order that there may be an aesthetic semblance of life, but not in all, in order that the statue may not be a mere substitute for life, awakening the reactions appropriate to life. Moreover, appreciating the beauty of his material, the sculptor may not wish to cover it up, as he would if he tinted it. As in painting, the attainment of beauty in the medium may interfere with full realism in execution. For the sake of beauty of color, the worker in bronze will be content to see the white man black, and for the sake of beauty of line he may even sacrifice something of exactness in the rendering of shape.

For there is a beauty in the media of sculpture, apart from what they may represent, quite as real, if not as obvious, as in the other arts. And without this beauty, there is no artistic sculpture. Its subtlety does not diminish its importance or its effect upon our feeling, for it makes all the difference between a mere imitation of nature and a work of art charming and compelling. We do not need to recognize its existence explicitly in order to appreciate it; yet, as soon as our attention is called to it, we admit it and accord to it that rare influence which before was felt but nameless.

In the first place, the color of the material is expressive. The black and gold of bronze have a depth and intensity, the whiteness of marble a coldness, clarity, and, serenity, inescapable. The weight and hardness, or lightness and softness, of the material, also count. If people do not feel the expressiveness of these qualities directly, they nevertheless do feel it indirectly, whenever they appreciate the superior fitness of marble and bronze for the embodiment of the heroic and supernatural, and of the light and fragile porcelain for the more fleeting and trivial phases of life. Size, too, is expressive. There is a daintiness and tenderness about a little statue, contrasting strongly with the grandeur and majesty of one of heroic size. The usual small size of the terra cotta figurines among the Greeks was appropriate for the genre subjects which they so frequently represented, and an Aphrodite in this material is rather the Earthly than the Heavenly Love.

There is also an evident beauty of line in sculpture, similar to the beauty of line in painting. The curved line is expressive of movement and grace; the horizontal, of repose; the crooked line, of energy and conflict. Compare, from this point of view, Rodin’s “The Aged Helmet- Maker’s Wife” with his “Danaid,"–how expressive of struggle and suffering are the uneven lines of the former, how voluptuous the curves of the latter! Michelangelo is the great example of the use of tortuous lines for the expression of conflict. Undulating vertical lines are largely responsible for the “grace and dignity” of the classic sculpture.

There is an organic unity of line in sculpture, similar again to that in painting. And by line I mean not only surface lines, but the lines made by the planes in which the body lies, the lines of pose and attitude. The predominance of a single type of line, the union of many lines to form a single continuous line, balance and symmetry of line, proportion of length and parallelism, are all to be found in sculpture. Especially important is rhythm–the harmonious, balanced movement of lines. In the “Venus de Milo,” for example, the plane of the lower limbs from the feet to the knees moves to the left; there is an opposite and balancing movement from the right knee to the waist; the first movement is repeated in the parallel line from the right hip to the top of the head; this, in turn, is balanced by a line in the opposite direction running from the left hip to the right shoulder, parallel to the second line; but the equilibrium of line is not a rigid one, for the body as a whole moves in an undulating line to the left, imparting grace and a total unity.

The beauty of line in sculpture is, of course, no invention of the artist; for nature has created it in the body itself. The sculptor takes this beauty as the basis of his work, remodeling only by the elimination of details, through which purer effects of line are obtained, or by the selection and emphasis of pose, through which these effects are rendered more intensely expressive. All conventionalization is in the interest of increased beauty of line. But too great a sacrifice of the natural contours of the body, as in some of the work of the Cubists, results in a lifelessness that cannot be atoned for by any formal beauty.

The unification of line in sculpture is a matter not only of lines within the whole and of single contours, but of the total visual form of the whole, of silhouette. Although three-dimensional, every statue casts a two-dimensional image on the retina. It makes as many of these plane pictures as there are points of view from which it can be seen. One can easily convince oneself of this by viewing a statue from a distance, when it will flatten out to a mere outline or silhouette. As such, it should be clear and simple and pleasing, capable of being grasped as a whole irrespective of detail. Michelangelo demanded that every statue be capable of being put inside of some simple geometrical figure, like a pyramid or a cube; that there be no wayward arms or legs, but close attachment to the body, so close that the statue might be rolled down hill without any part being broken off. This last is perhaps too rigorous a requirement, but the best work of all periods exhibits visual clarity and concentration. [Footnote: Compare Adolf Hildebrand, The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture.]

Within its contours the statue stands alone. This is the essential difference between painting and sculpture; the painted thing is always a part of a larger spatial whole within which it exists in relation to other things, while the sculptured thing exists by itself; the space of the statue is the space which it fills; there is no further space to which it belongs, no background in which it lies. The space of sculpture, like the space of painting, is of course a represented or imaginary space, to be carefully distinguished from the real space of the room in which it is placed and the floor upon which it stands. The pedestal serves the same purpose in sculpture as the frame in the sister art; it cuts off the ideal space which the statue fills from the real space where it is housed, raising it above the common ground of real life, with its practical and social attitudes, into the realm of contemplation. The pedestal should be of a different material from the statue, else it belongs with the latter, and fails to perform its separating junction. The plate, on the other hand, should be of the same material, otherwise the statue would be made to stand on our earth, and in the same space with us.

However, just as in painting every object should be represented as belonging to a wider whole of space, so in sculpture, every part of the body should be represented as belonging to the whole body. If, therefore, only a part of the body is sculptured, it should be evident that it is a part and not the whole. In the portrait statue, for example, if the head alone is represented, there should appear, along with the head, as much of the bust as will suggest attachment to the body, in order that it may not seem decapitated! It is because the torso is so obviously a fragment of an ideal whole that we do not feel it to be an uncanny mutilation of a man or woman. In its present condition, the “Venus de Milo” is not the statue of an armless woman, but a statue of part of a whole woman.

A statue is not sufficiently unified by representing a single individual or several individuals united by some common interest or by participation in some common action; the unity in the object should be expressed through a unity in the material of representation. The finest taste requires that every statue should be made of only one kind of material. One part, say the body, should not be of marble, and another part, say the girdle, of gold or bronze. Such a combination of materials gives the impression of two things juxtaposed, not of a single whole. If in defense of this one were to say that through the difference of materials real differences in the object are portrayed, consistency would require that the principle be carried out, that the hair be of another material, and the eyes of still a third, with the result of making the statue a sheer agglomerate. And when more than one individual is represented, even a unity of material is not sufficient; it is necessary, in addition, that the several figures in the group be in contact with each Other. It is not enough that they stand on the same plate; for the real empty space that we see between them will keep them apart. The ideal space to which they belong, and the spiritual or dramatic oneness, should be mediated by a material touch of hands or other parts of the body. Compare, in this connection, Rodin’s “Citizens of Calais” where this principle is violated, with the three figures from the summit of his “Hell Gate,” where it is observed. In the former we simply know that the figures belong together, but we do not feel them as together. [Footnote: Compare Lipps, Aesthetik, Bd. 2, Fuenftes Kapitel.]

In the normal type of sculpture only one figure is represented. For this, there is, perhaps, a chief point of regard, in front, the same as that which we ordinarily occupy with reference to our fellow men. Yet, since the body is beautiful from every point of view, the statue, unless designed to fit into a niche, should be so made that we shall want to move around it and survey it from every angle. Here is another difference between painting and sculpture. In the group, however, where several figures are represented united by some common interest or by participating in some common action, this difference is already beginning to disappear. For, in order to appreciate the dramatic significance of the group, the point of regard from in front is essential. The other aspects remain important for their corporeal beauty, but, since that is not ordinarily paired with an equal inner significance, they come to acquire a secondary place.

Impressionistic sculpture represents a further departure from the normal and in the direction of the pictorial. Here part of the block from which the statue has been hewn is left an integral member of the piece; and out of it the figure seems to grow, as it were. It performs in the whole a function corresponding to the background of a portrait–the representation of the environment. Thus, in Meunier’s “The Miner,” the block represents the mine; in Rodin’s “Orpheus and Eurydice,” it represents the mouth of Hades; in his “Mystery of the Spring,” a basin. Through the possibility of thus representing the relation of man to his environment a notable extension in the scope of sculpture is obtained.

When a background is introduced, the figure or figures, being members of a larger whole, require less detailed treatment, less clearness of outline. Their parts may even be left in large measure unfinished, the contours melting together with the block. A special point of regard, from which alone the figures are modeled, is obviously essential. Striking is the contrast of this type with the classic, where the utmost precision in modeling is necessary. Along with the diminished emphasis on clearness of form goes an increased effort at the portrayal of the inner, more spiritual life; sentiment and mystery find an unwonted place in the art. Rodin’s “Psyche” is a good illustration. Yet, despite these differences, the classic demand for living surfaces, for rhythmical lines, for perspicuity and totality of silhouette, for singleness and unity of material, abides.

However, when the block attains prominence, the unification of the different figures through contact is no longer of equal necessity. The background serves the purpose of bringing the figures together, of providing a material bond between them. This is especially true in the various kinds of relief, between which and sculpture in the round, impressionistic sculpture is a sort of compromise. In relief there may even be a representation of perspective, the figures seeming to lie behind each other, flatter and smaller to indicate distance. But we shall not enter into the technique of this, which obviously approaches that of painting.

When the charm of the body is the prime object of expression, those actions and poses which exhibit grace and vigor are the ones naturally chosen. This beauty is best revealed in the single figure, because in the group there is usually some dramatic interest which diverts attention from it. The figure is preferably wholly or partially undraped, or when drapery is used, it should reveal the body underneath and possess beauty of line of its own. Elaboration of drapery for its own sake, or in order to display virtuosity in modeling, shows lack of true sculptural vision, which always has its eye on the naked form. Aside from lack of charm, the old and crippled are avoided because their inharmonious lines would appear again in a statue which reproduced them; it is not possible, as in painting, to make a harmony out of them through relation to other lines in the total work, for no other lines exist; nor can their natural ugliness be so easily made acceptable through beauty of color and light. Nevertheless, no one can dogmatically assert that the artist must confine himself in his choice of subjects. If by harmonizing the distorted lines of an ugly body with each other, and by enhancing the given purity and expressiveness of his material, the artist can create a beauty of form overlying the repellence of the subject, and if he can make us feel the tragedy or pathos of age and disease, no one can gainsay his work. In his “Aged Helmet-Maker’s Wife,” Rodin has perhaps accomplished this. [Footnote: See Rodin’s own defense of this statue in his L’Art, chap. II.]

In the classic sculpture the expression of the inner life is subordinate to the expression of corporeal beauty. Or, so far as mind is revealed, the revelation occurs through the body as a whole,–through attitude and pose and act. In this way complete unity between the inner and the outer beauty is preserved. For when through subtle modeling of the face the expression of the intense and individualized life of thought is attempted, the beauties of soul and body tend to fall apart and become rivals for attention. In classic sculpture, therefore, the face is rightly somewhat inexpressive, or better, is expressive of only the broad and typical human emotions. Fine or deep qualities may, however, be expressed; for dignity, poise, intelligence, sorrow, and active joy make themselves manifest in the total habitus of the body no less than in the face.

The work of Michelangelo is a further proof that sculpture can express the spiritual life, not only in the face, but in the body also. The expression there is no different in essential kind from that found in the heroic classic sculpture. It is universal, typical, not individual, personal; of the gods, not of men. Its quality alone differs; it is monstrous, pathological, grandiose, instead of serene and happily balanced.

But sculpture can also portray the individualized psychic life. [Footnote: Consult the discussion in Rodin’s L’Art, chap. VII.] For this, the portrait bust is the most appropriate medium of expression. By separating the head, the natural seat of mind, from the rest of the body, the rivalry between the beauty of soul and form is obviated. How much sculpture can do in this way is shown by the work of the Greeks and Romans in ancient times, and by such men as Houdon and Rodin among the moderns. Think of the intense and concentrated expression of thought and emotion in the “Voltaire” of Houdon and the “Dalou” of Rodin! Success depends largely upon the modeling of the subtle lines of the face, where the more highly specialized workings of the mind leave their impress. Whatever of character the face may express can be expressed over again in its image. Of course the unique responses of mind to definite situations, such as, for example, the conversation of a man with his fellows, cannot be portrayed in sculpture, which isolates the individual. But the characteristic mood and attitude, the permanent residuum and condition of these responses, can be portrayed; and this constitutes personality or character. As Schopenhauer declared, the character of a man is better revealed in the face when he is in repose than when he is responding to other men, for there is always a certain amount of dissimulation or insincerity in social intercourse. The impossibility of rendering the color and animation of the eye constitutes a real deficiency, but, as has often been pointed out, this is partly minimized through the fact that the expression of the eye depends largely upon the brows; by itself, the eye is inexpressive. The portrait statue has much the same purpose as the bust, and hence should be draped. The heroic, equestrian statue, however, expresses rather the imposing, socially perceptible side of the man, than the inner life of thought and sentiment revealed in the bust.

The development of sculpture has produced nothing more beautiful than the solitaire statues which the Greeks have left us; and when we think of Greek sculpture we usually have in mind these marble or bronze images of gods and heroes. But we should not forget the figurines of terra cotta, a genre sculpture, representing men and women in the acts and attitudes of daily life, at work and at play. The ideal of sculpture should not be pitched too high. There is no reason why, with the example set by the Greeks, sculpture should not portray the lighter and more usual phases of human life. If sculpture is to strike new paths, and be something more than a repetition of classical models, it must become more realistic. And, as we have already noted, by making use of the block as a sort of background, even some relation of man to his environment can be represented. Through the group the simpler relations of man with his fellows–comradeship, love, conflict, or common action–can be expressed; although the power of sculpture is greatly limited in this direction. Sculpture is often taxed by people who emphasize the importance of the political and industrial mechanism with inability to portray large groups of men and the more complex relations arising out of the dependence of man upon nature and society. But one may well urge the compensating worth which sculpture will always possess of recalling men to a sense of the value and beauty of the individual as such, especially in an age like our own where they tend to be forgotten.

The principles that apply to the use of historical, literary, and symbolic themes in painting hold with increased force in sculpture. We must admit the right of the sculptor to illustrate simple and well-known historical or fictitious situations. At the same time, however, we must remember that a work of this kind is subject to a twofold standard: first and indispensable, the sculptural, is the form animate and beautiful; then, are the life and action appropriate to the idea? The first is alone absolutely unequivocal. The second, on the other hand, is largely relative; for unless the sculptor has carried out the idea in so masterly a fashion that we can think of no other possibility–as Phidias is said to have done with his statue of Zeus–there must always be something arbitrary about any particular representation. This arbitrary element is increased in symbolic sculpture. You can perhaps depict an actual or fictitious human situation by means of sculptured bodies and make your image seem inevitable; but how can you make bodies the vehicles of abstractions? Moreover, sculpture is a realistic art; it presents us with the semblance of living forms, and if these forms are monstrous or are shown accomplishing impossible things, they cannot escape a certain aspect of the ridiculous. I have in mind Rodin’s “Man and His Thought." If the man were only represented fashioning the figure with his hands, his hands guided by his thought; but the hands are inactive, and the figure grows by thought alone! Or consider “The Hand of God” by the same artist. To say that we are in the hands of God is a good metaphorical way of expressing our dependence upon the Destiny that shapes our ends; but it is another thing to exhibit us as actually enfolded by a hand.

The more sensitive we are to the beauty of the body and of the mind, so far as manifest through the body, the better content we shall be with normal sculpture and the less urgently we shall demand symbolism. Of course all statues may become symbolic, as all works of art may, in the sense of possessing a universal meaning won by generalizing their individual significance. Symbolic in this legitimate way were the statues of the Greek gods; thus Aphrodite, who was lovely, became Love, and Athena, who was wise, became Wisdom. But there is nothing arbitrary in such symbolism.


Preface  •  Chapter I - Introduction: Purpose and Method  •  Chapter II - Definition of Art  •  Chapter III - The Intrinsic Value of Art  •  Chapter IV - The Analysis of the Aesthetic Experience: The Elements of the Experience  •  Chapter V - The Analysis of the Aesthetic Experience: The Structure of the Experience  •  Chapter VI - The Problem of Evil in Aesthetics, and Its Solution Through the Tragic, Pathetic, and Comic  •  Chapter VII - The Standard of Taste  •  Chapter VIII - The Aesthetics of Music  •  Chapter IX - The Aesthetics of Poetry  •  Chapter X - Prose Literature  •  Chapter XI - The Dominion of Art Over Nature: Painting  •  Chapter XII - Sculpture  •  Chapter XIII - Beauty in the Industrial Arts: Architecture  •  Chapter XIV - The Function of Art: Art and Morality  •  Chapter XV - The Function of Art: Art and Religion  •  Bibliography

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