Attitudes to wood carving

Attitudes to wood carving

The Sculptor and the Specialist

For the sculptor wood is only one of the media in which he works. Stone, clay, cement, plaster, wax, metals, and in recent years plastics, are some of the diverse materials that come under his hand. He is likely to have a bias towards certain media, a liking for one or the other. During some periods he will prefer one medium, or circumstances may alter his course of work. To make a living as a sculptor he will often have to be ready to tackle any material.

This is not necessarily a bad thing as it widens his powers and experience. He would be a superman if he knew all the answers to all questions involved in the use of every tool and all materials in such a wide field. Gathering knowledge all the time but never knows it all. He may not do more than one wood carving a year but because of his natural aptitude for design and appreciation of form he can produce sculpture in wood.

The wood carver specialist, on the other hand, carves wood all day and every day, and is usually quite an expert at carpentry. He may be attached to a firm of wood carvers or run such a workshop himself. His skill is admirable. He can carve the most complicated ornament with sureness and dexterity. In the speed of carving ornament he can make rings round many sculptors. He is chiefly concerned with traditional wood carving design and is engaged in copying and restoration work.

He does not make his living by creating new works of art but by repeating forms already established. From the aesthetic point of view it can be argued that there is an over-emphasis on craftsmanship to the detriment of creative work, and the cleavage between such craftsmen and sculp­tors may be great, and not easily bridged. We can look back to a time in Europe in the fifteenth century when the wood carver was carpenter, designer and creative artist in one, an ideal state of affairs. There is perhaps little profit in looking back and if we then look at things as they are now in America, we can say there are pockets where traditional wood carving is pursued and native skill and craftsmanship flourishes.

Harold Board’s workshop is typical, and an example of the fine decorations and carvings produced is illustrated in plate xxi. Carvers such as David Pye work as individuals, producing beautiful objects that fit into the twentieth-century scheme of decoration (see Appendix B). Sculptors such as Alan Durst have stimulated many younger artists into using wood as a medium for sculpture. Established sculptors like Ossip Zadkine, Henry Moore, F. E. MacWilliam, Willi Soukop and Elizabeth Spurr, use wood as one of their media. It is unlikely that the use of wood will ever die out. No other material can exactly take its place and it will, I think, forever play a part in our surroundings, whether it be for building, furniture or sculpture.

The Human Figure

From earliest times the human anatomy has been studied and used by the artist. Canons of proportion have been worked out by the Egyptians and the Greeks. The study of the living and the dead in humans and animals has been part of the artist’s experi­ence for many centuries. This interest waxed and waned. The great artists of the Renaissance such as Leonardo da Vinci dissected the human body in a spirit of scientific discovery. Dissection would certainly be repugnant to most artists today. Perhaps the spirit of inquiry is less intense. George Stubbs (1724-1806), the great English painter was the last artist anatomist to undertake exhaustive research in this field. The study of the living model is still a valuable part of the student’s training today. This and the study of works of art is the food his creative power needs in order to grow.

The beginner who wishes to carve figures would certainly profit by some drawing from the model. If it is not possible to attend classes, he should draw his family and friends. An anatomy book is of little use unless allied to observation of people. In books you will find the average proportions of men, women and children. This does not mean that your aim should be to carve the average man. To work with the latter concept in mind is likely to produce the dullest work. We can say that knowledge and interest in structure is valuable but that all such knowledge must be re-created by the artist.

In the stone figures on Chartres Cathedral in France we see elongation of the figure, the head enlarged and the shoulders narrow. Here we have a superb example of sculpture and archi­tecture perfectly related. On the same cathedral we can see smaller figures with large heads and short bodies, as in the carving of Aristotle. A figure can be given giant proportions by making the head, hands and feet small in relation to the body. It follows, therefore, that proportion is a matter of choice for the artist and that scale is affected by the relative size of parts of the body.

Fig. 1a. Idol, wood of the bread­fruit tree, Caroline Islands.
Fig. 1b. House post, Solomon Islands.

If we remember that changes and modifications have always been employed by artists, modern deviations from ‘natural* proportion cease to startle or surprise. The work of children, primitives and amateurs fall into quite another category, for their work is not based on any profound knowledge of the human figure. The child and the primitive have innocence on their side, but the amateur in our civilized society is bombarded by visual impressions of the worst kind in mass produced knick-knacks and many other vulgarities. Therefore he must learn to select influences by the process of recognizing real creative ideas and qualities. These can always be found, but the habit of looking for them must be acquired.

The human head

The layman, looking at figure sculpture, invariably gives most attention to the rendering of the head. In modern sculpture the head is often simplified and expression given by movement and shape rather than facial expression. If the beginner wishes to carve the features on a head, he should leave them uncarved in any detail until the whole head-form is established. It is a help, perhaps, to remember that it is possible to recognize a person at a distance purely by shape, balance, and character of movement— to consider the poise of the head on the neck and shoulders, and the relative weight of skull to detail will be a productive approach. The back is no less important than the front and the aim of the carver should be to visualize the head as one complete unit.

Freedom in Design

The professional artist, if working for himself, is quite free to paint, carve or design as he feels inclined. His mind is full of things seen, liked or disliked. He may be preoccupied with the past, the present or the future, or all three, but for him design is of supreme importance. On the other hand, the amateur who just wants to carve a few things in his spare time may not consider his problems in the field of design in any way complex.

Nevertheless, as soon as he makes something with his hands he has joined the stream of art activity for good or ill. If you are such a one there can be no harm in thinking about design for five minutes, but thinking about it for five years is better. I must point out that once a man starts to appreciate the shape and design of objects around him he finds it quite impossible to stop doing so.

Fig. 3. Crocodile, Central Solomon Islands.

The carver, therefore, free to make any form or shape he pleases, is in a position of power. He need not be bound by rules and regulations. He must, however, realize that as in living we are assailed by trash, vulgarity and insincerity, so in art can such vices distort the vision. ‘Ugliness’ and ‘Beauty’, ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ in art have always been a matter for argument among artists and critics. If, therefore, you are making your first design for carving, do not start with the idea that you know all the answers as to what is good and what is bad in art. A casual acquaintance with design is not a basis on which to form final opinions. Start in a modest way with an open mind.

To the professional artist, designing is a serious business, but I do not overlook the fact that to the amateur it may be a light-hearted recreation. Design can have many ingredients including humor, charm and humanity. The carved mask of a primitive society may be frightening, comic, or grotesque. It can still, however, be a fine design. The vitality may spring from deep religious or social significance, a real belief in the power of the mask to scare away the demon.

We may have no driving force of this kind, but if something good is to result, some excitement, some feeling and enjoyment of carving must be present. Your work is an extension of yourself and speaks plainly to the eye of the understanding spectator. It will always have your own personal stamp. Two portraits of the same person by different artists are never alike and yet both can be good portraits.

It may be that your first effort will only proclaim your inepti­tude, but do not worry too much. If you feel the basic idea is good, then try again. Remember that a good idea inexpertly carved is better than a bad idea beautifully carved. In fact, slickness of technique can make a poor design even more un­pleasant to look upon. It is possible for a man to enjoy the process of carving and copying with little or no thought about the quality of his design.

He may put technique above all and will disregard any work, whatever its merits if in his opinion, it is not well carved. This is to live in a blind alley without the light of ideas and warm vitality. A trade carver who is working for his living as a carver may have no choice in the matter. However, having mastered the technique of carving he can make his own experi­ments in his spare time.

At the other extreme is the young artist who affects to despise technical achievement, who bristles at the idea of finish and is preoccupied with the excitement of texture and temporary effects. He will make objects of driftwood, rusty iron, silver paper and anything that comes to hand. Experiment is natural and healthy. These movements in art today are strong and cannot be ignored. Giants such as Picasso can make a picture out of bric-a-brac, but they are also masters of the more conventional techniques.

For my own part I think that art at its best will keep its roots in organic form and that the human element in the sculptor’s work has a permanent place. An exclusive diet of abstract art is unsatisfying. Without doubt one can enjoy the quality in material such as wood, bronze and stone, of polish, patina and texture. All these things can play an important part in the final completion of a work of art.

Words such as ‘Beauty’ and ‘Craftsmanship’ are bitter on the tongue of many students today. Perhaps in the age of nuclear weapons the young artist does not feel that his work can have a permanent existence. Power, speed and excitement play their part. Horrors and war can fascinate those who have not experi­enced either. This aspect of art may disturb older generations but the trends cannot be forcibly changed, even if this were desirable, which is open to doubt. Art is always a manifestation of life and the age in which we live.

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