Learn About Sculpture

While what often comes to mind when one thinks about the fine arts is various forms of flat images or two dimensional visual renderings, sculpture provides the opportunity to perceive a work of art from multiple perspectives in three dimensional form.


The Scottish National Gallery Unveil Their New Exhibition Of Work From The D. Daskalopoulous Collection (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

As one of the oldest forms of art, sculpture has developed alongside humanity and its individual cultures, reflecting the ever evolving and shifting traditions across mankind. Not only does sculpture remind us of great empires of the past like the iconic marble statues of Ancient Greece but it is a medium that has endures right up to modern times, showcasing contemporary movements and points of view.

What is sculpture?

Sculpture as a form of art is unique in its variety and freedom of techniques and materials. Artists of the long past traditionally used the subtractive process of carving, or the additive process of modeling, using anything from stone, clay, wood, metal, or ceramics as mediums. However, particularly since the advent of Modernism in the early 20th century, there has been a general rule that there are no rules when it comes to creating sculpture. For example in 1917, the Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp used a ceramic urinal for his sculpture titled Fountain.

"Not only does sculpture remind us of great empires of the past like the iconic marble statues of Ancient Greece but it is a medium that has endures right up to modern times, showcasing contemporary movements and points of view."

Greek Sculpture

It is widely agreed upon that in regards to the Western world, sculpture was first popularized as a tradition during the Classical period by the Ancient Greek peoples. Sculptors focused on the human form and body as portrayals for deities and political figures, honoring their status and admirability as important cultural figures. Styles ranged from representations that were highly idealized and symbolic to renderings of extreme detail and realism.

Typically Greek sculptures would have been brightly painted, marrying together both two and three dimensional artistic techniques, however today very little visual evidence of this remains and we recognize such pieces as being blank, pure white marble in most cases. Throughout history since this time, many have considered sculpture from this era to be the pinnacle of aesthetic perfection in art and have sought to emulate it.

Medieval Sculpture

In the centuries following the fall of the Roman empire in Europe, sculptural tradition became increasingly concerned with religion and faith as Christianity gained full momentum and spread across the Western world. Still maintaining a great focus on the human figure, artists sought to portray the pain and passions of great figures in the Christian religion. These sculptural pieces were meant to incite the viewer to agonize and sympathize with the suffering of Jesus Christ and other important Holy figures.

Non-Western Sculpture

Across continents and cultures, a principal aspect of each sculptural tradition is their significance and central role in the religion of each region. Often times the most large scale, impressive sculptures were created to be displayed in religious spaces such as churches, temples, mosques, or any other public place of worship. In Hindu temples, statues of Gods and Goddesses were treated as real life royalty; they were bathed, provided with gifts, and dressed for different occasions; this is a tradition that remains even today. Sculptors of the Aztec empire also created statues depicting deities for the purpose of being included in complex religious rituals, alongside representing both masculine and feminine ideals of beauty and prowess.

Modern Sculpture

Following alongside artists of other genres, at the beginning of the 20th century sculptors across the world shifted from tradition and long standing aesthetic values towards the atypical and reactionary current of Modernism. Sub-genres underneath this category were plentiful, ranging from Abstractionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Installation Art, and a great deal more.  

For the first time popular sculptural convention strayed away from focusing on the human form, and many experimented with new mediums and materials ranging from everyday items to new resources such as plastic and celluloid to, literally, garbage. Pablo Picasso shocked critics with his constructions, which were cubist pieces depicting objective subjects using varying discarded materials such as cardboard, paper, wire, and more.

Sculptors of the 21st century

Today, following in the footsteps of the Modernists of the previous century, contemporary focus on the unconventional and unexpected when it comes to form, material, and subject. Damián Ortega uses everyday mundane items to create fantastical images that balance humor with the addressal of real world issues and contentions. Kiki Smith also uses unconventional materials to depict subjects of sex, birth, and regeneration. Sculptors of today continue to maintain the art form’s status as one of the most highly respected artistic traditions throughout the world.

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