The sculptor speaks
It is a mistake for a sculptor or a painter to speak or write very often about his job. It releases tension needed for his work. By trying to express his aims with rounded-off logical exactness, he can easily become a theorist whose actual work is only a caged- in exposition of conceptions evolved in terms of logic and words.
But though the non-logical, instinctive, subconscious part of the mind must play its part in his work, he also has a conscious mind which is not inactive. The artist works with a concentration of his whole personality, and the conscious part of it resolves conflicts, organizes memories, and prevents him from trying to walk in two directions at the same time.
It is likely, then, that a sculptor can give, from his own conscious experience, clues which will help others in their approach to sculpture, and this article tries to do this, and no more. It is not a general survey of sculpture, or of my own development, but a few notes on some of the problems that have concerned me from time to time.
Appreciation of sculpture depends upon the ability to respond to form in three dimensions. That is perhaps why sculpture has been described as the most difficult of all arts; certainly it is more difficult than the arts which involve appreciation of flat forms, shape in only two dimensions. Many more people are form-blind than color- blind. The child learning to see, first distinguishes only two-dimensional shape; it cannot judge distances, depths. Later, for its personal safety and practical needs, it has to develop (partly by means of touch) the ability to judge roughly three-dimensional distances. But having satisfied the requirements of practical necessity, most people go no farther. Though they may attain considerable accuracy in the perception of flat form, they do not make the further intellectual and emotional effort needed to comprehend form in its full spatial existence.
This is what the sculptor must do. he must strive continually to think of, and use, form in its full spatial completeness. he gets the solid shape, as it were, inside his head -- he thinks of it, whatever its size, as if he were holding it completely enclosed in the hollow of his hand. He mentally visualizes a complex form from all round itself; he knows while he looks at one side what the other side is like; he identifies himself with its center of gravity, its mass, its weight; he realizes its volume, as the space that the shape displaces in the air.
And the sensitive observer of sculpture must also learn to feel shape simply as shape, not as description or reminiscence. He must, for example, perceive an egg as a simple single solid shape, quite apart from its significance as food, or from the literary idea that it will become a bird. And so with solids such as a shell, a nut, a plum, a pear, a tadpole, a mushroom, a mountain peak, a kidney, a carrot, a tree-trunk, a bird, a bud, a lark, a lady-bird, a bulrush, a bone. From these he can go on to appreciate more complex forms or combinations of several forms. . . .
Since the Gothic, European sculpture had become overgrown with moss, weeds -- all sorts of surface excrescences which completely concealed shape. It has been Brancusi's special mission to get rid of this overgrowth, and to make us once more shape conscious. To do this he has had to concentrate on very simple direct shapes, to keep his sculpture, as it were, one- cylindered, to refine and polish a single shape to a degree almost too precious. Brancusi's work, apart from its individual value, has been of historical importance in the development of contemporary sculpture. But it may now be longer necessary to close down and restrict sculpture to the single (static) form unit. We can now begin to open out. To relate and combine together several forms of varied sizes, sections, and directios into one organic whole.
Although it is the human figure which interests me most deeply, I have always paid great attention to natural forms, such as bones, shells, and pebbles, etc. Sometimes, for several years running, I have been to the same part of the seashore -- but each year a new shape of pebble has caught my eye, which the year before, though it was there in hundreds, I never saw. Out of the millions of pebbles passed in walking along the shore, i choose out to see with excitement only those which fit in with my existing form-interest at the time. A different thing happens if I sit down and examine a handful one by one. I may then extend my form-experience more, by giving my mind time to become conditioned to a new shape.
There are universal shapes to which everybody is subconsciously conditioned and to which they can respond if their conscious control does not shut them off.
Pebbles show nature's way of working stone. Some of the pebbles I pick up have holes right through them.
When first working direct in a hard and brittle material like stone, the lack of experience and great respect for the material, the fear of ill-treating it, too often result in relief surface carving, with no sculptural power.
But with more experience the completed work in stone can be kept within the limitations of its material, that is, not be weakened beyond its natural constructive build, and yet be turned from an inert mass into a composition which has a form existence, with masses of varied sizes and sections working together in spatial relationship.
A piece of stone can have a hole through it and not be weakened -- if the hole is of studied size, shape, and direction. On the principle of the arch, it can remain just as strong.
The first hole made through a piece of stone is a revelation. the hole connects one side with the other, making it immediately more three-dimensional.
A hole can itself have as much shape- meaning as a solid mass.
Sculpture in air is possible, where the stone contains only the hole, which is the intended and considered form.
The mystery of the hole -- the mysterious fascination of caves in hillsides, and cliffs.
There is a right physical size for every idea.
Pieces of good stone have stood about my studio for long periods, because though I've had ideas which would fit their proportions and materials perfectly, their size was wrong.
There is a size to scale -- not to do with its actual physical size, its measurement in feet and inches -- but connected with vision.
A carving might be several times over life size and yet be petty and small in feeling -- and a small carving only a few inches in height can give the feeling of huge size and monumental grandeur, because the vision behind it is big.
Yet actual physical size has an emotional meaning. We relate everything to our own size, and our emotional response to size is controlled by the fact that men on the average are between five and six feet high.
Sculpture is more affected by actual size considerations than painting. A painting is isolated by a frame from its surroundings (unless it serves just a decoratice purpose) and so retains more easily its own imaginary scale.
If practical considerations allowed me, cost of material, transport, etc., I should like to work on large carvings more often than I do. The average in-between size does not disconnect an idea enough from prosaic everyday life. The very small or the very big takes on added size emotion.
Recently I have been working in the country, where, carving in the open air, i find sculpture more natural than in a London studio, but it needs bigger dimensions. A large piece of stone or wood placed almost anywhere at random in a field, orchard, or garden immediately looks right and inspiring.
My drawings are done mainly as a help towards making sculpture -- as a means of generating ideas for sculpture, tapping oneself for the initial idea; and as a way of sorting out ideas and developing them.
Also, sculpture, compared to drawing, is a slow means of expression and I find drawing a useful outlet for ideas which there is not time enough to realize as sculpture. And I use drawings as a method of study and observation of natural forms (drawings from life, drawings of bones, shells, etc.).
And I sometimes draw just for its own enjoyment.
Experience, though, has taught me that the difference between drawing and sculpture should not be forgotten. A sculptural idea which may be satisfactory as a drawing always needs some alteration when translated into sculpture. . . .
Sometimes I start with a set subject; or to solve, in a block of stone of known dimensions, a sculptural problem I've given myself by attempting to build an ordered relationship of forms, which shall express my idea. But if the work is to be more than just a sculptural exercise, unexplainable jumps in the process of thought occur; and the imagination plays its part.
It might seem from what I have said of shape and form that I regard them as ends in themselves. Far from it. I am very much aware that associational, psychological factors play a large part in sculpture. The meaning and significance of form itself probably depends on the countless associations of man's history. . . . I think the humanist, organic element will always be for me of fundamental importance in sculpture, giving sculpture its vitality. Each particular carving I make takes on in my mind a human or, occasionally, animal character and personality, and this personality controls its design and formal qualities, and makes me satisfied or dissatisfied with the work as it develops.
My own aim and direction seems to be consistent with these beliefs, though it does not depend upon them. My sculpture is becoming less representational, less an outward visual copy, and so what some people would call more abstract; but only because I believe that in this way I can present the human content of my work with the greatest directness and intensity.