The sculpture of this century boasts an amazingly wide repertory of forms and styles—wider, perhaps, than that of any other period in the history of art. Behind much of this profusion, which to the untutored eye looks so arbitrary and bewildering, stands the revolutionary change in sculptural syntax effected by the aesthetics of Cubism. This change was decisive in two respects: it displaced the traditional sculptural methods of carving and modeling with the technique of joinery, or assemblage, borrowed from the Cubist collage; and it applied this new technique to the construction of sculptures in which space—so-called “empty” space—functioned for the first time as the cultural equivalent of solid volumes formerly created by the use of materials such as stone or wood. So fundamental was this renovation that its effects made themselves felt even in the work of those rival traditions—the tradition of modeling which derives from Rodin, and that of carving which stems from Brancusi—which, with Cubism, form the principal conventions governing the production of sculpture in our time.
The historian who undertakes to guide us through the vicissitudes of this rich and many-sided production needs to recognize at the outset, then, that he is writing for the most part about a visual genre whose very premises have been permanently altered by innovations, both conceptual and material, originating outside its own practice. He must be prepared to meet that transformation of pictorial ideas into sculptural realities which, far from comprising an aesthetic sport or an historical byway, makes up the largest and most consequential part of the subject before him.
Now the oddity—or perhaps I should say, the scandal—of Herbert Read’s new book is that, under the guise of giving us a concise history of this subject, he has actually launched a lengthy, repetitious, and poorly reasoned polemic attacking it. As an account of modern sculpture, Mr. Read’s book scarcely exists, but as a guide to its author’s intellectual rancor concerning the most fundamental innovations—and thus the most fundamental achievements—of modern sculpture, it exerts an undeniable fascination. One must not expect a history, however. History, for Mr. Read, is apparently the sum of theoretical ruminations that accumulate around a given work of art and the date of its creation. Of course there are moments in the present work when these ruminations actually have some bearing on the sculpture under discussion; but usually they have none. Mainly they are a kind of intellectual fog—rarely powerful enough to obliterate completely the shape of the object at hand, yet sufficient to generalize and attenuate its essential qualities to a point beyond critical redemption.
Even aside from its inadequacies as a history—taken, say, as an extended causerie on sculpture since Rodin—the book is patently the work of a divided mind. And its divisions are of a sort that render the book very nearly incoherent. Thus, about the nature of Cubism, which he readily acknowledges to be central to his whole discussion, Mr. Read maintains two wholly irreconcilable positions. On the one hand he insists that “Cubism was not one more phase in the evolution of art—an evolution corresponding to social and economic trends: it was a decisive break with tradition. For five centuries European art in all its phases had been committed to representation; from the advent of Cubism onwards it was committed to quite another aim, that of substitution.” But on the other hand, writing apropos the Futurists, whom he is disposed, sixty pages later, to find even more tradition-shattering than the Cubists, he blithely asserts that “…the Cubist protagonists, Braque and Picasso, never made a decisive break with the figurative tradition—Cubism to them was another style for achieving the same ends as Ingres, Degas or Cézanne.”
This contradiction amounts to something more than a verbal discrepancy. Mr. Read’s case against the openform, constructed metal sculpture that derives from Cubism rests on its alleged violation of “tradition.” One is therefore alarmed to find him invoking the authority of “tradition” at the same time that he shows himself to have so fluid an understanding of what this word means. On the relation of these open-form works to “traditional” sculpture, moreover, he turns out to be no more cogent than on Cubism’s exact status as a revolutionary force. He writes about Picasso’s important Construction in Wire (1930): “The idea is to define space by wire outlines—a ‘drawing in space’—which is a complete denial of sculpture’s traditional values of solidity and ponderability.” And again, summing up his attack on all sculpture constructed of wire or sheet metal: “One must then ask a devastating question: to what extent does the art remain in any traditional (or semantic) sense sculpture? From its inception in prehistoric times down through the ages and until comparatively recently sculpture was conceived as an art of solid form, of mass, and its virtues were related to spatial occupancy…What has been gained, and what has been lost, by this transition to a linear sculpture?” (These questions are devastating all right, but not, I think, to the sculpture in question.) He declares, finally: “Virtually everything, one must say, has been lost that has characterized the art of sculpture in the past. This new sculpture, essentially open in form, dynamic in intention, seeks to disguise its mass and ponderability. It is not cohesive but cursive—a scribble in the air.”
What is clear from this conclusion is the author’s failure even to see the objects he is ostensibly analyzing. A sculpture consisting of slender (as distinguished from bulky) masses certainly occupies space as emphatically as the solidest Greek god, but it attempts something else which Greek sculpture had no interest in doing: it inflects the space it encloses in order to transmute that, too, into a form of mass. As Naum Gabo put it in his 1959 Mellon Lectures: “…in a constructive sculpture, space is not a part of the universal space surrounding the object; it is a material by itself, a structural part of the universal space surrounding the object; it is a material by itself, a structural part of the object—so much so that it has the faculty of conveying a volume as does any other rigid material.” Mr. Read, who appears to admire Gabo, seems not to have grasped the syntactical principle which Gabo and others have placed at the very center of all modern sculpture.
What, then, are we given in place of this sculpture, which one had supposed to be the subject of Mr. Read’s book but which he has obviously always intensely disliked? I wish I could say with certainty. After the innovations of of Gabo and the Russian Constructivists—innovations based directly upon their analysis of Cubist painting and collage—the most important event in modern sculpture is the collaboration of Picasso and Gonzalez in the late Twenties and early Thirties. This collaboration occupies in sculptural history a place comparable to that of Braque and Picasso in the history of painting. Mr. Read accounts for it with some mumbo-jumbo about “magic” art, and there follows not a discussion of how Picasso and Gonzalez arrived at their characteristic (and immensely influential) sculptural method, but, alas, an account of the meanings which modern anthropologists and philosophers attribute to—magic! Behind an intellectual smokescreen in which the names of Tyler, Frazer, Malinowski, Lévi-Strauss, and Collingwood shine with dazzling irrelevancy, one of the key episodes in modern sculpture disappears from view.
If one turns to Mr. Read’s analysis of the older traditions of modeling and carving, the result is no better. To say that “the modernity of Rodin lies in his visual realism” is to deprive the concept of modernity of any useful application: Rodin was a modernist insofar as he revitalized the expressive materiality of the modeling process—something his fellow realists conspicuously failed to do. As for Brancusi, we are given the usual cant about his mysticism, his (non-existent) peasant background, etc., and, on the specific matter of his carvings, the standard guff about “the nature of materials.” One would suppose that a sculptor who cheerfully turned his own stone carvings into polished metal replicas might give pause to a critic given to rhapsodizing over the “truth” of materials but Mr. Read appears not to have noticed this peculiar practice in an artist he venerates as a kind of Jungian emanation who just happened to materialize amongst the Parisian avant garde.
Undoubtedly the artist who fares worst in this book is the one its author admires most—Henry Moore. The preposterous claims made for Moore in this History are certain to contribute to the artist’s already unjustly declining reputation in this country. An entire movement—something called “vitalism,” which Picasso is said to have “inspired” but which Moore easily dominates—is invented for the purpose of placing the artist at the historical center of modern sculpture. (Rodin, it turns out, was a precursor, and the only legitimate heir is another English sculptor, Eduardo Paolozzi.) Nothing as prosaic as an account of Moore’s actual sculptural development—one of the most interesting of the 1930s—is included. Instead we are given the news of Moore’s “deepening sense of the numinous,” of his special access to “a deeper level of the unconscious,” and, in general, of spiritual powers that would have reduced Buddha Himself to helpless envy. What it comes down to is that Moore is—or at least was—a carver; he has not indulged in the hated “easy methods of assemblage,” and that, for Mr. Read, is the test of the sculptor’s vocation.
There remain two other oddities in cioni’s Technical Manifesto of Futurist loss to explain. The longest section devoted to a single movement (twentysix pages) has been lavished on Futurism, which produced one noteworthy sculptor (Boccioni) who was anything but prolific. The whole section is actually a muddled gloss on Professor Joshua Taylor’s monograph, published in 1961 by the Museum of Modern Art. It is perhaps significant, moreover, that in discussing Boccioni’s ideas, Mr. Read never mentions the artist’s prophetic remarks about a sculpture that might consist of “twenty different materials…in a single work…glass, wood, cardboard, iron, cement, horsehair, leather, cloth, mirrors, electric lights, etc.” This passage from Boccioni’s Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture, crowning the artist’s attack on the use of marble and bronze, clearly violates Mr. Read’s strict notions of sculptural rectitude.
Then there is the unexplained relation of the illustrations to the text. Anyone looking through this History would suppose that its author took an altogether enlightened, catholic view of the entire sculptural scene. It comes as a shock to discover that about a third of the plates are blatantly discredited in the text.
Yet one knows very well that, owing to Herbert Read’s international reputation as profound interpreter of the art of this century—indeed, as virtually a philosopher of the modern movement—A Concise History of Modern Sculpture will be widely used in college classrooms, will have a lively sale in museum bookstalls the world over, and for years to come will find its way into libraries wherever a “standard work” on modern sculpture is called for.
December 3, 1964