Bradford Graves

Twentieth Century Stone Sculpture

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Twentieth Century Stone Sculpture

"A few blocks of stone really carved are very nearly sufficient base for a new

civilization. The garbage of three empires collapsed over Gaudier's marble." 29

The above quote was made by Ezra Pound about his friend, the sculptor Henri

Gaudier-Brzeska.

Henri Gaudier had a short life, having died in the first world war at the age of

twenty three. A short life, but within those few years Henri Gaudier was to build

the concept of modern sculpture with his stones.

How was he able to do this? By freeing the stone from man's self imagery and

returning to the self imagery of the stone. In fact, he was groping his way back to

Stonehenge.

Henri Gaudier in his formulation of sculpture called "Vortex" wrote “The fair

Greek saw himself only. He petrified his own semblance. His sculpture was

derivative, his feeling for form secondary. The absence of direct energy lasted for a thousand years."

and he ends by stating "We have crystallized the sphere into the cube, we have made a combination of

all possible shaped masses concentrating in them our abstract thoughts." 30

It is the beginning again of the philosopher's stone - that by re-arranging matter we will speed up the

workings of nature and arrive at a new mineral.

There is magic in the reworking. No matter how conscious I am in my own work with stone, and by this

I mean the way I arrange the forms, somewhere within me there is still a feeling of magic. It is a

mystery - suddenly before me is a whole new object; it doesn't look like sculpture, it just is.

And I have chosen stone for the same reasons Henri Gaudier did. It has the paradox of being both old

and new at the same time. I'm doing the same work that has been done for thousands of years but was

lost for the past 500 years. When Pound writes that new form is "an arrangement of masses in

relation. It is not an empty copy of empty Roman allegories that are themselves copies of copies. It is

not a mimicry of external life. It is the energy cut into stones, making the stone expressive in its fit and

particular manner. It has regard to the stone." 31

"Stone is hard and concentrated and should not be falsified to look like flesh - it

should not be forced beyond its constructive build to a point of weakness. It

should keep its hard tense stoniness. " 32

This is the concept of 'truth to materials' first stated by the sculptor Henry

Moore. Around 1928 Moore began to make a habit of examining and collecting

pebbles. In 1932 he used a pebble, one with a hole through it, as a beginning for

a sculpture. In 1934 he made small biomorphic sculptures, taken from forms

found in nature, by working on found pebbles. He did not more than modify the

pebble's shape so that it is impossible to judge from the finished sculpture how

far the form was found, how far imposed. He carved a hole through the pebble in one case, but the hole

might equally week have been present in the pebble as he found it.

"Pebbles and rocks show nature's way of working stone. Smooth, sea worn pebbles show that wearing

away, rubbed, treatment of stone and principles of asymmetry." 33

After 1934, Moore's stone carvings generally reflect the study of "smooth, sea-worn pebbles" but still

tend to differ from the pieces which actually began as pebbles by having a sharp edge somewhere to

contrast with the smoothly modulated curves that might have been shaped by the sea. From 1936, the

sharp edges multiplied so that the carving became more angular than curvilinear.

"Rocks show the hacked, hewn treatment of stone and have a jagged, nervous block rhythm." 34 At

the time Moore made only one small piece with this "jagged nervous block rhythm." It wasn't until

1959 onwards, in his series of two-piece reclining figures that he made much of the idea of imitating

rocks.

From this short study of Moore's development in his relationship to natural objects, we can see his

starting point the same as stated previously by Henri Gaudier, of going back to

early man's concept of the sacred in stones. For sculpture has a choice either to

be a sacred object or a mere knick-knack. Something approaching animism, the

primitive belief that material objects are inhabited by spirits, is implicit in his

doctrine of truth to materials. "One of the first principles of art so clearly seen in

primitive work is truth to material, the artist shows an instinctive understanding of his material, its right use and

possibilities." 35

It is interesting to note that recently Moore has questioned the system "truth to materials" as being too rigid. "I still think it is

important but it should not be a criticism of the value of a work - otherwise a snowman made by a child would have to be

praised at the expense of a Rodin or a Bernini." 36

When Moore did choose to make his "rock-like" sculpture, he chose not stone but a more tractable material, plaster. Plaster, a soft molding

material he wanted to render as hard!

Moore's work often fluctuated between abstractionism and representation. He often stated that abstraction was a flight from reality and perhaps

he wanted to reassure himself that his work wasn't an escape, and thus his preoccupation with natural objects.

Moore wanted his sculpture to look organic and hard. He wanted his sculpture to evoke images other than themselves, so that the shapes his

sculptures were derived from would maintain their mysterious ambiguity. Perhaps Moore's faith in the value of natural objects was enhanced by a

need to tell himself that his abstract forms were obeying some authority beyond that of his own instinct, were therefore not arbitrary, not products

of personal taste or fantasy, but were sanctioned by nature, did not merely represent his preferences, his decisions, his way of working stone.

"These abstract carvings have not really satisfied me because I have not had the same hold over them that I have as soon as a thing takes on a

kind of organic idea. I think of it as having a heady, body, limbs as the piece of stone I carved evolves from the first rounding-out stages it begins

to take on a definite human personality and character." 37

With this quote from Henry Moore I turn from his question on why he chooses certain materials to my own questioning of why I work in stone.

Why? I think a lot has to do with ability and ease. The technique of stone carving came easily to me from the first stroke of

the hammer to a chisel to the sound of the ping the stone made upon being struck. I felt as if I had always done such

things, as if I had been born with hammer and point, I knew the technique and I was free to follow any path my mind took,

often dictated by the feel of the stone.

I have worked on all stones and responded to the differences each stone asked for in the way of treatment. I love the

activity of cutting. I now no longer work in all stones, but have chosen limestone to express myself in. Its natural grey

color does not interfere with the forms. Often a pretty stone, such as marble, covers up bad forms because nobody really

looks at the forms and responds mainly to the veining ofthe crystals in the stone.

Limestone, a rough, ragged stone, bears traces of the sea; sea animals are locked and petrified within the crystal

structure.

It's American; the hills I was born in are made of limestone, and it gives me pleasure to work in Texas limestone. It's friendly and reminds me of

what my roots are sunk into.

Limestone has good tensile strength, allowing thin slab forms to be cut, and has the strength to withstand the noxious air of an urban city.

The dead weight of stone allows the sculptor to do incredible balancing acts. If the center of a balanced piece of stone is found, you are able to

suspend stone in the air. The straight drop of dead weight allows this. You can put a stone out of balance, but it will not slip and fall sideways, since

the weight can't fall in a sideways direction.

My ideas on stone have moved towards concerns with structure. Stone gives me the greatest freedom. I begin the construction in full three

dimensional forms allowing multiple curves on individual forms, and these in turn are grouped in a more complex arrangement.

Sidney Geist, in his book on Brancusi, sums it up in a beautiful way. Geist's book is one of the finest ever written on sculpture. Geist, himself a

sculptor, knows and understands in a way no art critic or historian is able to as he writes from the inside, and from his own experience.

"Sculpture should declare its difference from other objects, and offset the possibility of mistake as to its identity. It should recall the possibility of

being used in some fashion or of being grasped like an object of use. It should demand and deserve special attention. And it should be made as to

maintain itself in the world and its pristine state. In respect to this last condition, it is helpful for sculpture not to have large horizontal surfaces or

such concavities as will invite or accept other objects or hold snow, rain, or dust. To the extent that sculpture is deformed or invaded by nature, it

belongs to nature. Brancusian form is freed from nature. It is form seen by the light of human intelligence." 38

I am searching constantly for my own direction and trying to take in all considerations. I can understand Geist's approach to Brancusi, but I can

also understand Moore's and Smithson's re-sinking their work into nature, each in such a different way.

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29. Pound, Ezra. Gaudier-Btzeska, A Memoir. New York: New Directions, 1970. p. 140

32. James, Philip. Henry Moore on Sculpture. New York: Viking Press, 1966. p. 69

36. Ibid. p. 7437. Ibid. p. 78

 
 

A Legacy Carved in Stone

 
 
 
 

Introduction

Taking the Side of Things

Omphalos and Lapis Manalis

Creation

England

The Stones of Camus

Twentieth Century Stone Sculpture

Richardson 's Original Monster Rock

Band

Robert Smithson

The Moon Gets its Rocks off on Earth

In Praise of Limestone

Essay by Laura Welikson

 

Life

Exhibitions

Collections

Awards

Press

Publications

Brad's Writings 

Selected Essays

 

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska

1891–1915