Sculpture is the branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions and one of the plastic arts. Durable sculptural processes originally used carving (the removal of material) and modelling (the addition of material, as clay), in stone, metal, ceramics, wood and other materials but, since modernism, shifts in sculptural process led to an almost complete freedom of materials and process. A wide variety of materials may be worked by removal such as carving, assembled by welding or modelling, or molded, or cast.
Sculpture in stone survives far better than works of art in perishable materials, and often represents the majority of the surviving works (other than pottery) from ancient cultures, though conversely traditions of sculpture in wood may have vanished almost entirely. However, most ancient sculpture was brightly painted, and this has been lost.
Sculpture has been central in religious devotion in many cultures, and until recent centuries large sculptures, too expensive for private individuals to create, were usually an expression of religion or politics. Those cultures whose sculptures have survived in quantities include the cultures of the Ancient Mediterranean, India and China, as well as many in South America and Africa.
The Western tradition of sculpture began in Ancient Greece, and Greece is widely seen as producing great masterpieces in the classical period. During the Middle Ages, Gothic sculpture represented the agonies and passions of the Christian faith. The revival of classical models in the Renaissance produced famous sculptures such as Michelangelo‘s David. Modernist sculpture moved away from traditional processes and the emphasis on the depiction of the human body, with the making of constructed sculpture, and the presentation of found objects as finished art works.
History of sculpture
Prehistoric periods Much surviving prehistoric art is small portable sculptures, with a small group of female Venus figurines such as the Venus of Willendorf (24,000–22,000 BC) found across central Europe; the 30 cm tall Löwenmensch of the Hohlenstein Stadel area of Germany of about 30,000 BCE, an anthropomorphic figure that may be a lioness-woman, has hardly any pieces that can be related to it until the Guennol Lioness of 3000–2800 B.C. The Swimming Reindeer of about 11,000 BCE is one of the finest of a number of Magdalenian carvings in bone or antler of animals in the art of the Upper Paleolithic, although they are outnumbered by engraved pieces, which are sometimes classified as sculpture. With the beginning of the Mesolithic in Europe figurative sculpture greatly reduced, and remained a less common element in art than relief decoration of practical objects until the Roman period, despite some works such as the Gundestrup cauldron from the European Iron Age and the Bronze Age Trundholm sun chariot
Ancient Near East
The Protoliterate period in Mesopotamia, dominated by Uruk, saw the production of sophisticated works like the Warka Vase and cylinder seals. The Guennol Lioness is an outstanding small limestone figure from Elam of about 3000–2800 BC, part human and part lioness. A little later there are a number of figures of large-eyed priests and worshippers, mostly in alabaster and up to a foot high, who attended temple cult images of the deity, but very few of these have survived. Sculptures from the Sumerian and Akkadian period generally had large, staring eyes, and long beards on the men. Many masterpieces have also been found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur (c. 2650 BC), including the two figures of a Ram in a Thicket, the Copper Bull and a bull’s head on one of the Lyres of Ur.
From the many subsequent periods before the ascendency of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the 10th century BCE Mesopotamian art survives in a number of forms: cylinder seals, relatively small figures in the round, and reliefs of various sizes, including cheap plaques of moulded pottery for the home, some religious and some apparently not. The Burney Relief is an unusual elaborate and relatively large (20 x 15 inches) terracotta plaque of a naked winged goddess with the feet of a bird of prey, and attendant owls and lions. It comes from the 18th or 19th centuries BCE, and may also be moulded. Stone stelae, votive offerings, or ones probably commemorating victories and showing feasts, are also found from temples, which unlike more official ones lack inscriptions that would explain them; the fragmentary Stele of the Vultures is an early example of the inscribed type, and the Assyrian Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III a large and solid late one.
The conquest of the whole of Mesopotamia and much surrounding territory by the Assyrians created a larger and wealthier state than the region had known before, and very grandiose art in palaces and public places, no doubt partly intended to match the splendour of the art of the neighbouring Egyptian empire. The Assyrians developed a style of extremely large schemes of very finely detailed narrative low reliefs in stone for palaces, with scenes of war or hunting; the British Museum has an outstanding collection. They produced very little sculpture in the round, except for colossal guardian figures, often the human-headed lamassu, which are sculpted in high relief on two sides of a rectangular block, with the heads effectively in the round (and also five legs, so that both views seem complete). Even before dominating the region they had continued the cylinder seal tradition with designs which are often exceptionally energetic and refined.
The monumental sculpture of Ancient Egypt is world-famous, but refined and delicate small works exist in much greater numbers. The Egyptians used the distinctive technique of sunk relief, which is well suited to very bright sunlight. The main figures in reliefs adhere to the same figure convention as in painting, with parted legs (where not seated) and head shown from the side, but the torso from the front, and a standard set of proportions making up the figure, using 18 “fists” to go from the ground to the hair-line on the forehead. This appears as early as the Narmer Palette from Dynasty I. However, there as elsewhere the convention is not used for minor figures shown engaged in some activity, such as the captives and corpses. Other conventions make statues of males darker than females ones. Very conventionalized portrait statues appear from as early as Dynasty II, before 2,780 BCE, and with the exception of the art of the Amarna period of Ahkenaten, and some other periods such as Dynasty XII, the idealized features of rulers, like other Egyptian artistic conventions, changed little until after the Greek conquest.
Egyptian pharaohs were always regarded as deities, but other deities are much less common in large statues, except when they represent the pharaoh as another deity; however the other deities are frequently shown in paintings and reliefs. The famous row of four colossal statues outside the main temple at Abu Simbel each show Rameses II, a typical scheme, though here exceptionally large. Small figures of deities, or their animal personifications, are very common, and found in popular materials such as pottery. Most larger sculpture survives from Egyptian temples or tombs; by Dynasty IV (2680–2565 BCE) at the latest the idea of the Ka statue was firmly established. These were put in tombs as a resting place for the ka portion of the soul, and so we have a good number of less conventionalized statues of well-off administrators and their wives, many in wood as Egypt is one of the few places in the world where the climate allows wood to survive over millennia. The so-called reserve heads, plain hairless heads, are especially naturalistic. Early tombs also contained small models of the slaves, animals, buildings and objects such as boats necessary for the deceased to continue his lifestyle in the afterworld, and later Ushabti figures
The first distinctive style of Ancient Greek sculpture developed in the Early Bronze Age Cycladic period (3rd millennium BCE), where marble figures, usually female and small, are represented in an elegantly simplified geometrical style. Most typical is a standing pose with arms crossed in front, but other figures are shown in different poses, including a complicated figure of a harpist seated on a chair.
The subsequent Minoan and Mycenaean cultures developed sculpture further, under influence from Syria and elsewhere, but it is in the later Archaic period from around 650 BCE that the kouros developed. These are large standing statues of naked youths, found in temples and tombs, with the kore as the clothed female equivalent, with elaborately dressed hair; both have the “archaic smile“. They seem to have served a number of functions, perhaps sometimes representing deities and sometimes the person buried in a grave, as with the Kroisos Kouros. They are clearly influenced by Egyptian and Syrian styles, but the Greek artists were much more ready to experiment within the style.
During the 6th century Greek sculpture developed rapidly, becoming more naturalistic, and with much more active and varied figure poses in narrative scenes, though still within idealized conventions. Sculptured pediments were added to temples, including the Parthenon in Athens, where the remains of the pediment of around 520 using figures in the round were fortunately used as infill for new buildings after the Persian sack in 480 BCE, and recovered from the 1880s on in fresh unweathered condition. Other significant remains of architectural sculpture come from Paestum in Italy, Corfu, Delphi and the Temple of Aphaea in Aegina (much now in Munich).
There are fewer original remains from the first phase of the Classical period, often called the Severe style; free-standing statues were now mostly made in bronze, which always had value as scrap. The Severe style lasted from around 500 in reliefs, and soon after 480 in statues, to about 450. The relatively rigid poses of figures relaxed, and asymmetrical turning positions and oblique views became common, and deliberately sought. This was combined with a better understanding of anatomy and the harmonious structure of sculpted figures, and the pursuit of naturalistic representation as an aim, which had not been present before. Excavations at the Temple of Zeus, Olympia since 1829 have revealed the largest group of remains, from about 460, of which many are in the Louvre.
The “High Classical” period lasted only a few decades from about 450 to 400, but has had a momentous influence on art, and retains a special prestige, despite a very restricted number of original survivals. The best known works are the Parthenon Marbles, traditionally (since Plutarch) executed by a team led by the most famous Ancient Greek sculptor Phidias, active from about 465–425, who was in his own day more famous for his colossal chryselephantine Statue of Zeus at Olympia (c. 432), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, his Athena Parthenos (438), the cult image of the Parthenon, and Athena Promachos, a colossal bronze figure that stood next to the Parthenon; all of these are lost but are known from many representations. He is also credited as the creator of some life-size bronze statues known only from later copies whose identification is controversial, including the Ludovisi Hermes.
The High Classical style continued to develop realism and sophistication in the human figure, and improved the depiction of drapery (clothes), using it to add to the impact of active poses. Facial expressions were usually very restrained, even in combat scenes. The composition of groups of figures in reliefs and on pediments combined complexity and harmony in a way that had a permanent influence on Western art. Relief could be very high indeed, as in the Parthenon illustration below, where most of the leg of the warrior is completely detached from the background, as were the missing parts; relief this high made sculptures more subject to damage. The Late Classical style developed the free-standing female nude statue, supposedly an innovation of Praxiteles, and developed increasingly complex and subtle poses that were interesting when viewed from a number of angles, as well as more expressive faces; both trends were to be taken much further in the Hellenistic period
The Hellenistic period is conventionally dated from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, and ending either with the final conquest of the Greek heartlands by Rome in 146 BC or with the final defeat of the last remaining successor-state to Alexander’s empire after the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, which also marks the end of Republican Rome. It is thus much longer than the previous periods, and includes at least two major phases: a “Pergamene” style of experimentation, exuberance and some sentimentality and vulgarity, and in the 2nd century BC a classicising return to a more austere simplicity and elegance; beyond such generalizations dating is typically very uncertain, especially when only later copies are known, as is usually the case. The initial Pergamene style was not especially associated with Pergamon, from which it takes its name, but the very wealthy kings of that state were among the first to collect and also copy Classical sculpture, and also commissioned much new work, including the famous Pergamon Altar whose sculpture is now mostly in Berlin and which exemplifies the new style, as do the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (another of the Seven Wonders), the famous Laocoön and his Sons in the Vatican Museums, a late example, and the bronze original of The Dying Gaul (illustrated at top), which we know was part of a group actually commissioned for Pergamon in about 228 BC, from which the Ludovisi Gaul was also a copy. The group called the Farnese Bull, possibly a 2nd-century marble original, is still larger and more complex,
Hellenistic sculpture greatly expanded the range of subjects represented, partly as a result of greater general prosperity, and the emergence of a very wealthy class who had large houses decorated with sculpture, although we know that some examples of subjects that seem best suited to the home, such as children with animals, were in fact placed in temples or other public places. For a much more popular home decoration market there were Tanagra figurines, and those from other centres where small pottery figures were produced on an industrial scale, some religious but others showing animals and elegantly dressed ladies. Sculptors became more technically skilled in representing facial expressions conveying a wide variety of emotions and the portraiture of individuals, as well representing different ages and races. The reliefs from the Mausoleum are rather atypical in that respect; most work was free-standing, and group compositions with several figures to be seen in the round, like the Laocoon and the Pergamon group celebrating victory over the Gauls became popular, having been rare before. The Barberini Faun, showing a satyr sprawled asleep, presumably after drink, is an example of the moral relaxation of the period, and the readiness to create large and expensive sculptures of subjects that fall short of the heroic.
After the conquests of Alexander Hellenistic culture was dominant in the courts of most of the Near East, and some of Central Asia, and increasingly being adopted by European elites, especially in Italy, where Greek colonies initially controlled most of the South. Hellenistic art, and artists, spread very widely, and was especially influential in the expanding Roman Republic and when it encountered Buddhism in the easternmost extensions of the Hellenistic area. The massive so-called Alexander Sarcophagus found in Sidon in modern Lebanon, was probably made there at the start of the period by expatriate Greek artists for a Hellenized Persian governor. The wealth of the period led to a greatly increased production of luxury forms of small sculpture, including engraved gems and cameos, jewellery, and gold and silverware.