three-dimensional work of art
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Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Visual arts > Sculpture

Sculpture is a three-dimensional art genre that can take several forms including statues, busts, and reliefs. Sculptures embody the concepts of volume and space. Unlike a drawing or a photograph, they are objects that are often described as round because you can walk around them, view them from above, or (if they're small enough), pick them up and look at the bottom.

The Thinker, Musee Rodin, Paris
David by Michaelangelo, Florence

Understand edit

Sculpture is a very old form of artistic expression. Some of the most valued sculptures are from ancient cultures that existed thousands of years ago, sometimes before the dawn of writing or drawing. Sculptures have been created in every part of the world using a range of materials and techniques. Depending on the material used, sculptures often are among the most durable artifacts of a culture, surviving long after paper or canvas has rotted away to dust.

Iconic sculptures edit

Venus de Milo, Louvre, Paris

Some sculptures are instantly recognizable to people around the globe. They've become symbols of the artists who created them and the cities where they were created. There are only a few examples listed here, because even though we may all have our own favorite artists, not all of their work can be said to make it to the status of an internationally recognized symbol. Some that do include:

  • David by Michelangelo, marble carving created between 1501 and 1504, the original is in the Galleria dell'Accademia, in Florence, Italy
  • The Thinker by Auguste Rodin, bronze casting created in 1904, the original is in the Musee Rodin in Paris, France
  • Venus de Milo is an ancient Greek statue of polished carved marble, likely created in 150 BC by Alexandros of Antioch, it is displayed in the Louvre in Paris, France.

Techniques edit

There are two basic techniques for creating sculptures: reductive and additive. The time-honored practice of chiseling away at a block of marble is the reductive technique, so is carving a block of wood with a knife. Forming a sculpture from a hunk of clay can be referred to additive, but more often would be called modeling. Another way to make a sculpture is to create a mold and then pour in molten metal (most often bronze, but you could use other materials, even wax).

In contemporary art, techniques such as welding are common and materials could include scrap iron, or even industrial waste. Any material that can be manipulated to form a statue or any other kind of sculpture is fair game!

Forms edit

Nefertiti bust, Neues Museum, Berlin
Statue, relief sculpture, and an equestrian statue at a memorial to Simon Bolivar in Buenos Aires

Three forms of sculpture are most common:

  • statue - a carved or cast figure of a person or animal
  • bust - a sculpture of a person's head and shoulders (such as the iconic Egyptian bust of Nefertiti, ca. 1350 BC)
  • relief - n three-dimensional image of a scene against a background material, such as a frieze carved into a wall

A memorial (or monument) is a structure built in honor of a person or event. Though not necessarily a sculpture itself, memorials typically include statues (sometimes several) and often relief sculptures depicting famous events. Up until the 20th century, it was common for war heroes to be depicted on horses, a style sometimes referred to as equestrian sculptures.

A monument might be erected a long time after the commemorated event. Many monuments are shaped by the values of the patron and artist, at times erected as propaganda tools for a government's religion or ideology. Some monuments become controversial to posterity, in a few cases to the extent that they get relocated or dismantled.

History edit

Ancient sculpture edit

Some of the world's most interesting sculptures are those that puzzle and mystify us because the people who created them have long ago perished into the realm of archaeology. The sculptures though, endure as a tangible record of their existence on this world. Iconic examples include:

Great Sphynx of Giza, ca. 2500 B.C.
Olmec head, Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Moai heads, Easter Island
  • Great Sphynx of Giza - head of a man on the body of a lion, carved of bedrock by ancient Egyptians around 2500 BC
  • Olmec Heads of Southern Mexico - enormous heads up to 3½ meters high, carved of basalt by ancient Olmecs around 1200 BC
  • Moai Heads of Easter Island - elongated heads carved of volcanic tuff by Rapa Nui people around the 13th century

Classic sculpture edit

The term classical sculpture can refer to sculptures created in either ancient Greece, or in ancient Rome. Prolific artists using similar techniques could be found in both areas around the same time, generally defined as 500 BC to around 200 AD. (Works older than 500 BC are often referred to as being from the archaic period.) White marble, very fine attention to detail, and polished finishes generally characterize these sculptures, which tend to feature Gods and characters from Greek or Roman mythology. The Venus de Milo, a sculpture of the Goddess Aphrodite, is representative of classic sculpture.

Rennaissance edit

Sculpture pretty much died out as an art form for several centuries during the Dark Ages and the medieval era, but it became more prevalent in Italy during the Renaissance era, starting around the late 15th or early 16th century. Religious themes became common, as did sculptures that included children and animals, and busts became important as a sculptural form, often commissioned by vain merchants or politicians who probably also commissioned a few painters to do portraits. Florence was a hotbed of artistic activity, and Michaelangelo is one of the best-known Renaissance artists from that city.

During this era, the Catholic church was extremely rich and powerful and it held quite a bit of influence over the art world. The church frequently commissioned sculptors to create iconic statues for its churches and cathedrals. As colonialism expanded the reach of the church, so to did it expand the need for artists to produce work for the new colonies.

Modern and contemporary sculpture edit

Modernism brought with it new ideas about what sculptures should represent and how they should be made. Sculptures started to represent concepts rather than people (or events) and materials could be anything, from common household items to garbage. Dutch artist Willem de Kooning once complained that art dealer Leo Castelli was such a shmoozer, he could even sell beer cans as art. Jasper Johns supposedly tested that theory by producing a sculpture titled Painted Bronze, which consisted of two cans of Ballantine Ale. Not only did Castelli sell it, the work is now displayed in the Whitney Museum in New York City.

Contemporary artists push the envelope of meaning even further with sub-genres like light sculpture and sound sculpture, which create an experience, but not a three-dimensional object with roundness. In many cases, the works may seem ephemeral, here for an instant, gone the second the power switch gets turned off. Are these really "sculptures" at all?

Museums edit

Sculptures are such an integral part of the visual arts that every major art museum in the world will have some good sculptures. Some that stand out are:

Parthenon Marbles, British Museum, London
  • Louvre, Paris: If the Venus de Milo isn't reason enough, the Nike of Samothrace is arguably cooler looking and also ancient Greek from about 190 BC (and of course there are hundreds of other sculptures to keep you busy all day)
  • Vatican Museum, Rome: If you're expecting a religious museum, you might be disappointed, but if you're expecting one of the world's great art museums with tons of really old stuff including a great collection of classical Roman sculpture, then you're in luck. The most iconic sculpture is probably The Discus Thrower from about 190 AD, but be sure to check out August from Prima Porta: a full statue of the first Roman emperor, from about 20 BC.
  • British Museum, London: There's been a big row between the UK and Greece around a series of relief sculptures (often referred to as the "Parthenon Marbles" or "Elgin Marbles") that British cultural vandal, Thomas Bruce, stole from the Parthenon in Athens in 1801 and then sold to the British government. Greece wants their sculptures back but London says, "Robbers keepers, losers weepers." Meanwhile, you can see the controversial looted sculptures for the mere price of a museum admission ticket. They really are quite stunning.
  • Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum, Xi'an: One of the world's most amazingly complex and intricate works of sculpture is China's infamous Terracotta Army, consisting of over 8,000 warrior sculptures plus horses pulling chariots and horses with mounted cavalry warriors. The sculptures were made following the death in 210 BC of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The sculptures were buried with him to protect him in the afterlife. The site had been lost to the shifting sands of time until 1974 when Yang Zhifa and his brothers discovered the mausoleum while digging a well on their farm.

Sculpture gardens edit

Sculptures are frequently displayed in outdoor settings. Many art museums, grand houses, and royal residences have elaborate gardens that include any number of statues or other sculptures. At some point, the focus on sculptures becomes greater than the focus on the plants in the garden, and people start calling it a "sculpture garden" rather than simply a "garden".

In the 20th century, it became common for cities to build large parks as a showcase for contemporary artists to create site-specific sculptures. The larger ones are typically called "sculpture parks" rather than gardens. Some well-known sculpture gardens and parks include:

Asia edit

Symphonic Sculpture at Hakone
  • 1 Hakone Open Air Museum, Hakone, Japan. Japan's first outdoor art museum opened in 1969. It occupies 17 acres of land with 120 outdoor sculptures and an indoor gallery. The indoor gallery includes 300 works by Pablo Picasso. The park includes works by a number of internationally known contemporary artists. The most popular sculpture is Gabriel Loire's Symphonic Sculpture, a steel and glass tower with stained glass interior.
  • 2 Changchun World Sculpture Park (43.8233), Changchun, China. Over 450 sculptures from artists around the world, divided into areas for each continent. Also includes works of Maya and Maoi. The star attraction is a towering concrete sculpture titled Friendship, Peace and Spring that was built by five Chinese artists.

Europe edit

  • 3 Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, England. England's first sculpture park, the 500-acre facility has a permanent collection of 80 contemporary sculptures, mostly by English artists, but there are a few well-known international artists like James Turrell and Joan Miró. The park also hosts temporary exhibits.
  • 4 Ekeberg Park, Oslo, Norway. Eclectic sculpture collection with bronze castings from early 20th century masters like Auguste Rodin and Salvador Dali to more contemporary works from Norwegian artists, including Knut Steen and Hilde Maehlum. Several works are presented from female artists including Jenny Holzer, Sarah Lucas, and Sarah Sze.
  • 5 Kröller-Müller Museum Sculpture Garden, Otterlo, Netherlands. The museum is best known for its large collection of paintings and drawings by Vincent van Gogh, but it also has an excellent 60-acre sculpture garden with more than 160 pieces set in the Hoge Veluwe National Park.

North America edit

  • 6 Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 158 acres of botanical gardens with three temporary sculpture exhibits and more than 100 permanent sculptures, many by famous artists including Auguste Rodin and Ai Weiwei.
Storm King Wavefield by Maya Lim
  • 7 Storm King Sculpture Park, Windsor, New York. 500 acres of rolling fields with well over 100 sculptures including some monumental works such as Maya Lim's Storm King Wavefield and Andy Goldsworthy's Storm King Wall, which is a half-mile long stone wall.

South America edit

  • 8 Inhotim, Brumadinho, Brazil. Set in a lush tropical botanical garden, the sculpture garden features over 700 sculptures by a wide range of contemporary artists including Danish artist Olafur Eliasson's Viewing Machine, a kaleidoscope of mirrors that provides unexpected insight into the surrounding landscapes.

Memorials edit

Map of Sculpture

Many monuments and memorials either are, or contain statues or other types of sculpture. Some of the world's most iconic examples are:

  • 1 Statue of Liberty (New York City). Dedicated in 1886, the 151-foot high copper statue was designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.
  • 2 Statue of Unity (Gujarat). At 182 meters (597 feet), India's Statue of Unity is the world's tallest statue, overlooking the banks of the Narmada River. It was designed by contemporary Indian sculptor Ram V. Sutar and depicts Vallabhbhai Patel.
  • 3 Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) (Rio de Janeiro). Designed by French sculptor Paul Landowski, the 30-meter high statue is built of reinforced concrete and soapstone.
  • 4 Manneken Pis (Little Pissing Man) (Brussels). Belgium's most famous sculpture is a 500-year-old bronze statue of a kid taking a whizz. Hey, it's true! Wikivoyage wouldn't make this stuff up!

Oddities edit

Sculptors sometimes use their creativity in unexpected ways, producing grand works that makes people scratch their heads thinking, "What the heck is that thing?" These may be considered "visionary art". Sometimes these become tourist attractions in their own right.

  • 1 Las Pozas, Xilitla, Mexico. Edward James, British heir to a fortune and fanatic supporter of the surrealist movement, sold the world's best collection of surrealist art to fund his creation of a fantastical sculpture garden in a tropical jungle area of a lightly traveled corner of northeastern Mexico. The 80-acre tract of rainforest includes waterfalls, streams, and pools where James created bizarre structures that sometimes seemed to serve no purpose other than his own amusement.
  • 2 Park Guell, Barcelona, Spain. Created by Antoni Gaudí, the park was originally intended as a utopian community in harmony with nature. Mosaic covered statues fill unexpected spaces, staring with the magnificent friendly dragon at the park entrance. The park is a   UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • 3 Watts Towers, Los Angeles. Italian-American Simon Rodia built a series of 17 towers using rebar and found items over a period of 33 years from 1921 to 1954. The city of Los Angeles tried for years to tear down the structures. Today, they are recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
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