Many artists describe their work as “narrative” – that there is something more to discover underlying the imagery. Illustrators by nature deliver visual storytelling that conveys a specific message or idea. But what about sculpture?
One time wandering the Louvre, in an obscure upstairs room, Colin and I came across a bronze sculpture by Theodore Gechter – “Le Combat de Charles Martel et d’Abherame, Roi des Sarrazins” (The Fight of Charles Martel and Abherame, King of the Saracens).
We were initially drawn in by the energy and dynamic composition of the piece. As good sculpture will do, it piqued our interest and invited us to walk around the entire piece to see it from all angles. As we looked more carefully, we saw that the artist had left clues for the viewer that made clear the timeline of events that had delivered the characters to this point in their story.
The broken shields and shattered lances tell what happened in their first run at one another. Perhaps this was when the Saracen was unhorsed, resulting in his mount falling to the ground. The Saracen’s empty scabbard and snapped sword at the front indicates the next failed attack.
Now we’ve arrived at the moment of hand to hand combat. The knight is about to strike with his mace, surely winning the contest… but the Saracen has gripped him around the waist and will momentarily pull him off his horse. Once on the ground, the Saracen’s lighter armor will give him the clear advantage, but will he succeed in dismounting his rival before receiving a mighty buffet to the helm, disabling his attack? As viewers, we are poised in the moment with the characters and left to decide for ourselves how this story ends.
Sculpture is uniquely positioned for narrative interpretation given that we can add elements that are only visible from various viewpoints that either enhance or dramatically shift the story.
I’ve mentioned this Ron Mueck sculpture before, but it perfectly illustrates the way a well thought out sculpture can add an intriguing twist for the curious viewer who will walk around to see the back side. From the front, we see a young couple snuggled up next to each other – seemingly a very sweet composition. From the back view however, the boy is gripping the girl’s wrist in an aggressively uncomfortable looking position. Seeing this makes us return to the front view for a closer look. With the new information, we now see the pinched lips, the downcast eyes in her expression and the tension in her left hand – the story of the piece is completely altered. The artist has just taken us on a journey.
Adding a visual surprise to be discovered is not new. Long ago in ancient Rome, as throughout art history, a common sculptural subject was a reclining female nude. Walking around her, we discover that this slumbering lady tells a mythological tale. The nymph Salmacis was in love with Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite. When Hermaphroditis rejected her, Zeus agreed to Salmacis’ wish that their bodies be merged into one single being with both genders.
Blitzing by this next sculpture, we might think, “Ah, cute! The centaur is giving the cherub a ride!” But then on the back, we see the centaur’s wrists are bound. From that vantage point it also appears that angel baby is about to pull his hair and we realize that the old centaur is being tormented by Eros, God of Love. No! Bad Cupid! Old centaurs deserve love too.
Sculptors also use reliefs and inscriptions to illuminate, as artfully demonstrated by Edward Onslow Ford’s “Applause,” which shows a performer clapping in rhythm to a singer. This is a companion piece to an earlier work he created. Reflecting the 19th century fascination with all things Middle Eastern, Ford added silver Egyptian deities to the base plus an inscription from the ‘Song of the Harpist of Thebes’ (which we would have known if only we could read hieroglyphs). The pictorial designs add interest to the pedestal while also furthering the overall theme of the piece.So how do these works inspire our own sculpture? There are various levels of storytelling that we add to our pieces, from subtle suggestion to outright surprise.
For “Tiger Man,” a collaborative sculpture, the story telling components are more subtly suggestive. Colin added relief patterns and embellishments to accomplish a couple things: blend the transition between human and animal, while adding a tattoo-like feeling that brings interest to the surface. He wove prey animals into the designs in keeping with the tigers’ status as an apex predator.
Colin’s “Gift of the Faun” is based on a character in a story he wrote. His name is “Vitus” which means vine. This mythological tale of love also tells the story of how Vitus brought grapes into being. In keeping with this, the designs that wrap around his body are in the forms of grapevine tendrils bursting into life. Whether the viewer is consciously aware of all of these subtleties or not, they help create a more fully developed expression for them to enjoy.
I frequently inscribe text on my sculptures, which incorporates a more literal element of story telling. Words are powerful and the juxtaposition of our visceral response to body language and a more cerebral response to the written word has long intrigued me. I also find that viewers are more inclined to walk around the piece fully in order to read the different passages.
On “The Execution of Lady Liberty,” the text begins on her face with quotes featuring the ideology our country was founded on – words from the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution, the national motto, and Emma Lazarus’ poem from the Statue of Liberty- all momentous words that created a powerful new reality: “We hold these truths to be self evident – that all men are created equal”; “E Pluribus Unum – Out of many, one”; “with liberty and justice for all”; “United we stand, divided we fall” and more…
The words merge around her shoulders into mostly contemporary quotes that document the anger, despair and intolerance being expressed in the current schismatic milieu we appear to have come to. Once people can be convinced that others are somehow inferior, detestable or in some way undeserving of the same liberties and freedoms, it becomes easy to begin to eradicate the rights of the communities that are “different” as they begin to be viewed as undeserving of the same consideration and compassion. Rhetoric that dehumanizes, de-legitimizes or objectifies another race, belief structure, culture, gender, orientation or lifestyle choice is the first step.
Colin and I also incorporate narrative elements in our public art works. “Zemp’s Legacy,” a monument honoring a local community hero and his wide variety accomplishments presented an intriguing creative challenge – how to acknowledge all that he contributed in a cohesive, traditional but contemporary sculpture? We chose to create the sculptural element of a stack of books for Zemp to rest his arm on.
The book stack is a nod to the Carnegie Library where the statue resides, and contains titles representing the myriad facets of his life, accomplishments and contributions including books he wrote, books that inspired him, hints pointing to people who helped him on his way, metaphors symbolizing defining moments and imaginary titles representing stories he told that were familiar and fond memories for the community.
As an interactive element of the monument, we included over 60 of these “Easter eggs” – symbols and stories that members of the community will find and share tales about for decades to come, thereby perpetuating Zemp’s legacy for years beyond the lives of those who knew him.
And finally, another of our collaborative sculptures, “Birth of The Moon Hare.” For eons, patterns in the dark maria visible on the full moon have been interpreted as looking like a rabbit. From this, people around the world have created stories, myths and folk tales of the Moon Hare. In these stories, the Moon Hare often represents rebirth, magic, new beginnings and fertility.
The moon itself has long been associated with water imagery and the sea. From the sea was born Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty who also symbolized femininity and fertility. For this piece, we blended attributes connected with Venus, the sea, the moon and the Moon Hare.
Viewers are encouraged to walk around the piece to interpret the full story. Capitalizing on the narrative capabilities of sculpture in the round, the imagery on the back side of the piece brings to mind the imagination-stirring delight of finding a shell on the beach and “listening for the sound of the ocean” there. Taking this bit of reverie a step further, we create a moment of the “great reveal” where the viewer looks inside the shell to discover a hidden world that reveals the Moon Hare, sheltered within a wave, coming into being, complete with a hand-hewn stainless steel crescent moon.