The Picasso etching Le Repas Frugal (1904) demonstrates in two dimensions how the subconscious or intentional actions of the artist can assist the viewer’s eye around the composition without too much effort. The joints of the fingers and arms lead one’s eye from one character to the other and back again.
Whether a contrivance or not, it helps focus on looking at one’s own work, especially where the composition is complex – i.e. more than a few elements – as that complexity can mask understanding of the formal characteristics of the work. Sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska noted ‘The connoisseur loves one spicy cake, but the glutton requires at least six to stimulate his pleasure’ in comments about the virtues of the single statue over a group arrangement.
A few things to consider might be the balance of the forms within the composition – think about their relative sizes and positions, and whether they are similar in feel, or provide contrasts.
Moving from two to three dimensions, it could be found that things become easier; the extra dimension allowing one to see more as a result of having more viewpoints. In two dimensions, there seems to be a visual deceit at play.
How does a three-dimensional sculpture react when glanced at in a similar manner to our consideration of the etching? Does it encourage you to move around it following the masses, occasionally pausing and restarting, or are you stuck still, having to consciously decide which way to move around the work?
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s letters to Sophie Brzeska frequently conveyed his sculptural musings. In May 1911, he wrote:
The great thing is:
that sculpture consists in placing planes according to a rhythm
that painting consists in placing colours according to a rhythm
that literature consists in placing stories according to a rhythm
that music consists in placing sounds according to a rhythm
Whilst now 100 years old, these observations could suggest you might consider art forms you are less familiar with in a similar vein to one you are most comfortable with… as an aid to ‘reading’ the work; understanding why it grabs you (or perhaps does not).
Sculptors are all too frequently working alone and with no regular sounding board to give thoughtful consideration to works which spring into being. Sculptural devices have been used for many thousands of years to increase the visual power of the three-dimensional object. Whilst it may appear formulaic, having a background knowledge of an understanding of sculptural form and mass can only assist rigorous objectivity; to help us realise which could be the emperor’s new clothes before they are made too public. Sadly, the vast majority of works of sculpture today do not rely on a sculptor’s formal understanding; those qualities of mass and space which might subconsciously link to some sort of instinctive response by the viewer are often absent, replaced by slickness, design and cerebral puns – or the wholly representational.
A practical exercise – on composition and flow – links to this piece. If you haven’t previously done so, please sign up for email updates and then request the password for the ‘List of Practical Exercises’ through the contact page.
To read more of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska letters, read Savage Messiah by H.S. Ede, originally published in 1931. For a time he was an assistant curator at the Tate and got to know many of the avant-garde artists of the day. Kettle’s Yard was Jim Ede’s former home and he bought many of Gaudier-Brzeska’s work from Sophie Brzeska’s estate after her death.