The moment seized

It seems generally agreed now that Rodin was the greatest sculptor of the nineteenth century. But in the shadow of that great tree, another sculptor has grown in stature over the years.

Rodin, at mid-career, was temporarily taken with the work of an unknown Italian, Medardo Rosso, who was in Paris to see what he could achieve. Rodin wrote Rosso a charming note; he lunched with him; and they exchanged a work. However, long after the Balzac controversy in which Rosso accused Rodin of plagiarism, Rodin said he had never heard of him.

Rosso, a minor artist, about whom only one monograph has been written in English, was in fact the originator of a remarkable concept: sculpture might record light, shadow, the surrounding atmosphere itself, an impression, a ''moment,'' a slice of life, a la Degas or Lautrec. The ''statues'' that Rosso despised sought to please in the round from all angles. Might not a work be lit by one light source and be viewed only from one point? Did even the contour matter if it were not relevant to the idea? So Rosso ventured far from academic and traditional sculpture to a new form of expression. Though Rodin, and after him, Epstein, were anxious to catch the light on their broken-up, crumbling clay surfaces, they could not entirely jettison their ingrained sense of draughtmanship, of structure. Rosso, on the other hand, eliminated everything except the effect itself, wishing to leave nothing but the impression of a moment of emotional significance caught in light and shade from one angle only.

Up to this point in Europe there had been lyrical, spontaneous draughtsmen and painters: Rubens, Hals, Watteau, the Impressionists, Degas, Lautrec, whose work remained ''unfinished'' once the initial idea had been sketched. In sculpture, Bernini's fluttering Ecstasy of St. Theresa depends on lighting and one point of view, yet the open undulating diagonal line ripples through all his Baroque figures. Daumier, often cited as the precursor of Rodin, sketched in clay to caricature a judge or a lawyer. No really spontaneous lyrical sculptor preceded Rodin, who died before he could explore the possibilities hinted at in his extraordinary sketches of Nijinsky and Cambodian dancers. Degas's sculptures , discovered after his death, are still imagined and remembered as full figures in the round.

In his search for a suitable medium, Rosso discovered that the intermediate stage between clay and bronze - the wax model used in the lost-wax casting process - possessed the qualities he needed. Whether translucent, soft-edged, matt, or polished, wax traps the light in half-shadows and reflections; edges tail off and seem to merge into the surrounding air. The wax surface, freely modelled, becomes a scumbled impasto, serving as an amorphous support for more carefully modelled areas. Wax looks like alabaster, yet is soft to the eye and touch, and backed or filled with a plaster core becomes relatively permanent as if preserved with care. Its fragility underscores the tender humanity of the subjects Rosso chose to model, some life-size, others much smaller. Much of the work is intentionally arbitrary, deliberately unresolved, indistinct at the periphery of vision to emphasize the more finished, expressive areas. Rosso laboured thus on a piece, like Degas, until it looked like the work of a moment; concealing his skill in a mass of blobs and daubs that presented the idea only in one light from one angle.

Such a medium was ideal for Rosso's themes: a mother hugging her child; the stark silhouette of late night boulevard strollers; the glitter in an actress's eye as she takes her applause under blinding lights; and his masterpiece, a baby in swaddling clothes chewing bread.

Such moments were not the usual themes which sculptors had embodied in the past. Rosso, moved by a particular human situation, sought to capture its essence in its most economic form. Such works are not meant to be pored over, analysed, evaluated, but seen momentarily in a flash of recognition, the way such things are glimpsed in real life. Rosso had a compassionate heart: he loved women, children, and the aged. His triumph was to catch the expression of their souls, represent it in as ''inartistic'' a manner as he could contrive, taking the art of sculpture into the realm of the immaterial, a new achievement in the somewhat limited sphere of traditional sculpture before him. No sculptor has done it since; perhaps none ever will. None could do it better than Medardo Rosso.

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