In 2015 I nourished my appetite for aesthetic mastery by perusing, slowly but steadily, the following volume:
Georges Duby and Jean-Luc Daval, eds. Sculpture: From the Renaissance to the Present Day (Köhn: Taschen, 2006).
Sculpture has always inspired me with awe–especially realist marble representation of the human form. The masterworks in this historical survey have reignited my desire to visit Europe, particularly Italy and France where many of them are found. High on my list of sculptures presented in this anthology are Michelangelo’s breathtaking Pietà, arresting Moses, and paragon David.
In addition to these mega-hits of world sculpture are many others that demand recognition (see my list below). The Baroque masters are described as “virtuosos,” a characterization which readily invites comparison with the art of music, and the challenge of execution it presents. This comment, and the astonishing display of skill before my eyes, caused me to wonder which of the arts may be the most difficult to master: sculpture, painting, composition, music performance, poetry, dance? Although I can speak of the travail of composition, it seemed to me that the balance leaned toward the representational graphic forms: sculpture and painting. Perhaps this suggestion is like the marveling of a musical novice hearing me play Rondo a la Turca. It is difficult to tell. But with figurative sculpture there is no forgiveness for minor mistakes. One can’t mask them with rubato or some pedal. The subtle mastery required in capturing the human form with such stunning veracity and expressivity as in the work of Michelangelo, Donatello, Bernini, Rodin, and dozens others simply defies belief.
There is grandeur in the art of sculpture. The works I am most drawn to belong to the pre-modernist age when art reflected belief in the Great Levels of Being. To the Renaissance artists, for example, “The human figure was the tangible manifestation of a higher Beauty, that of divine splendour. Thus the perfect harmonious representation of the human body was evidence of the image of God.” Profundity, awe, transcendence, brilliance—these are the qualities that command attention by the classical works featured in this volume. Below are some more of my personal favorites:
Francisque Duret: Chactas Meditating on Atala’s Tomb
James Pradier: Odalisque
Augustin Pajou: Psyche Abandoned
Bertel Thorvaldsen: Jason with the Golden Fleece
Pierre-Jules Cavalier: The River Durance between allegories of Wheat and the Grapevine
Antonio Canova: Theseus Slaying the Centaur