Wood is a perishable material and has not the same continuous history as stone. Ancient stone carvings are still unearthed; Greek bronzes are still being fished out of the sea. But wood will not survive neglect and must be specially cared for if it is to endure. There are many gaps—many civilizations which have no wood carvings to represent them.
The earliest sculptures that still exist are of bone and baked clay, stone and bronze, but there can be no doubt that prehistoric man carved wood—even if only for his axe-handles. He lived in the forests; fallen trees would be more plentiful than suitable pieces of stone.
But wood can only survive in favorable conditions, and so far as is yet known, Egypt is the only country where these have existed. Eleven wooden relief panels were found there in 1860, having been preserved by the drifting sands for over four thousand years, and they are believed to be the oldest in the world. They were discovered in the tomb of Pharaoh Hesy-Ra at Sakkara, and each measures about two feet by one foot six inches. The figure of the Pharaoh (Fig. 1) is portrayed in the typical Egyptian pose, finely drawn and sensitively carved.
The Egyptians went on using child-like conventions long after they could have dispensed with them. Egyptian art being entirely religious, the conviction was that all art-forms, like all the rites and ceremonies, had been laid down by the gods in ancient times, and could never be altered. There is nothing peculiarly Egyptian about this; right down to the present day, many religions have maintained a strict conservatism in form and ceremony.
The earliest three-dimensional wooden figures yet discovered date from 2500 b.c. Three were found at Sakkara, and the most famous of them was nicknamed Sheik-el-Beled by the native workmen who dug it up, because it reminded them of their village-mayor. The carving is about 3 ft. high and is, again, in a conventional Egyptian pose: striding forward with the weight on both feet and carrying a staff. The eyes are inlaid, and the lifelike vitality of the head is almost startling. The carving technique, like that of the relief panel, shows perfect confidence and control.
Realistic portrait-heads for the statues were at all times considered essential. The sculptor was required to carve an ‘imitation man’ to be inhabited by the soul after death.
Wood was scarce in Egypt, and the acacia and sycamore, the only trees growing there suitable for carving, were so precious as to be considered sacred. In countries where there are forests, wood is sometimes used as a cheaper substitute for rare and precious materials. Egypt had a different scale of values, judging by an observation in a letter from a minor king to a Pharaoh in 2000 B.C. ‘In your country, gold is as common as dust . . .’ Wood was used for royal statues as well as for less important figures, such as courtiers, officials, priests, scribes and architects. Relief panels were always in wood or limestone.
The wood carvings were placed in the elaborate tombs, where, it was believed, the Pharaoh would live on, so long as his embalmed body lay there undisturbed. He was surrounded by all the things he would need to take with him into the next life, and his servants were represented by little figures engaged in all kinds of farm and domestic work. Many of these are in wood, and some of the most remarkable are of women with long narrow figures and long skirts, walking upright and carrying baskets of offerings on their heads.
Wood was used for many purposes besides statues: for thrones, coffins and furniture of all kinds, and for the inner cores of metal statues. A figure was carved in wood and then covered with thin sheets of gold, copper or bronze, hammered on to its shape and fastened with nails. Every nation has found its way toward the craft of hollow casting in bronze by first using the wooden-core method.
So much wood was needed, that a regular sea-borne trade was started with Syria and the Lebanon, importing cedar, cypress, juniper, pine and yew, while ebony was brought from the Sudan.
After lasting almost continuously for over two thousand years, Egypt’s power began to decline in about 1000 B.C., and was finally broken by a series of foreign conquests. But, although the long tradition of art also declined, nothing could subdue the strong, characteristic style of the Egyptians, and it was adopted by each conquering nation in turn—even the Greeks and the Romans. Only in a.d. 638 with the Arab conquest did the art of Egypt finally come to an end.
The early history of Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates, is not so well known as that of Egypt: nor has the country been so thoroughly excavated. But its civilization, art and culture were equally great, and may be even more ancient. They were rival powers, but they evidently had little contact except in battle, and did not influence each other.
The sculpture that has come down to us from the three successive civilizations of Mesopotamia—Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian—has nothing in common with the Egyptian. A great many beautiful small pieces have been found but there are very few large-scale figures in the round. A great variety of materials were used, but hardly any wood carvings are even known to have existed. Mesopotamia has few trees, and terracotta was widely used for every purpose—even the building-material being of sun-baked bricks.
Although the brick-built temples were more susceptible to destruction than the Egyptian stone buildings, Mesopotamian culture has never really died out. Not only their achievements in the early forms of science and philosophy, but their decorative arts were inherited by the Persians and were passed on through the Greeks and later through the Moslems to Europe. The Persian genius for lyrical design, seen in their pottery, textiles and carpets originally stemmed from the ancient Sumerians.
In the ancient civilizations of China and India, wood carving is a craft of great antiquity, and in all countries of the Far East— Japan, Burma, Siam, Java, Indonesia—wood has always been used extensively for building, both interior and exterior. Sculptures of the Orient, however, are a study in themselves, and are outside the Western line of tradition which is the subject of this chapter.
No Greek wood carving has survived, but there is evidence in the writings of Pausanias, a Roman who travelled in Greece during the second century a.d., that there were hundreds of wooden statues of gods and athletes still standing there in his time. According to his descriptions, some were very simple, like huge pillars, with heads and hands carved on them; some figures were dressed in real draperies. A number of them were already very ancient, and were held in great veneration by the Greeks. The woods known to have been used were: cedar, cypress, myrtle, oak, laurel, apple, pear, olive and ebony.
There can be little doubt that the wood carvings were like the Archaic figures in marble that have come down to us from the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. These were evidently based on the Egyptian striding figure, but they are nude, with smiling faces, and are expressed with more freedom and individuality. The achievement of the Greeks in breaking through the barriers of dark superstition and fear into the enlightenment of clear thought is symbolized by these Archaic figures of gods, who seem to be walking out into the daylight toward us. The Greek gods were portrayed as men, in contrast to the animal-headed monster gods of earlier religions.
Many small Egyptian carvings must have found their way to Greece in its early days. The Phoenicians were the traders of those times, and their ships called at ports all round the Mediterranean. They also bought and sold works of art, including imitations they made themselves, so that traces of many styles are noticeable in early Greek art. But as it changed and developed, it became something peculiarly their own, reflecting the extraordinary originality of their outlook. They were intellectually adventurous, and were the first people to look for a rational explanation of the universe; their humanism led them to study man in all his aspects.
In comparison with the Egyptians, whose sculpture maintained a level course for more than two thousand years, the Greeks span of development is incredibly short—it rose and fell within a few hundred years. The Archaic sculpture of the sixth century changed to the Classical style of the Parthenon during the fifth century, when Pericles was ruling in Athens, and before the end of the fourth century, the decline had already begun. During this short time, the poets, playwrights, mathematicians and philosophers were producing those works which have stimulated the people of the world ever since, and whose effect is felt to this day. In them, can be found something of significance applicable to every age, and this accounts for the perpetual discovery and rediscovery of their genius in all its aspects.
The spreading of Greek thought, knowledge and art began immediately. The Greeks travelled widely—merchants, craftsmen sailors, and mercenary soldiers. During the third century B.C., when Greece became impoverished, many artists left the mainland and went to work for private patrons in Alexandria, Syracuse, and other Greek possessions. But their sculpture during this Hellenistic age deteriorated, and little remained of its former greatness. After the Roman conquest in 146 B.C., Greek artists were exiled or enslaved in Italy, copying the enormous number of Greek sculptures that had been carried off by the Romans.
The Greeks’ contemporaries in Italy, the Etruscans, were also a republic of aristocratic citizens, but very little is known about them or their origins. The materials they used were terracotta, bronze and some stone.
The Romans: 200 b.c.-a.d. 400
The Romans had a particular talent for acquiring ideas, techniques and materials from other nations and adapting them for their own purposes. Architecture was the art that came most naturally to them and for sculpture they employed the Etruscans as well as the Greeks. Marble and bronze were the materials favored by the Romans, and there are no indications that wood was ever used.
During the first and second centuries, a.d., the Roman Empire was only equalled in power by China which was even greater in area and population. These two Empires dominated the civilized parts of East and West simultaneously, in almost complete ignorance of each other, until about a.d. 200. Then, weakened by a plague and by the continual attacks of barbarians, they both began to decline and finally to disintegrate.
At the same time, Christianity gradually ceased to be an underground movement, and soon after a.d. 300, was adopted as Rome’s official religion. The Emperor Constantine moved the capital away to the safer and more peaceful Byzantium, but the Pope stayed in Rome, and toward the end of the fourth century, the two capitals became rivals for power. The Empire divided into two, and while the Greek half withstood barbarian attacks and all attempts at invasion for another thousand years, the Latin half, together with Spain, France and England, were overrun by robber-armies. These countries were divided into many small separate territories, ruled over by barbarian chiefs.
The Dark Ages and Early Christian Art 400-1000
During the fifth century, the cities of Europe stood empty and impoverished; the Roman roads fell into ruin and the countryside was neglected. The barbarian rulers kept up unceasing warfare with each other and the only places safe and quiet enough to work in were the monasteries.
Early Christian art had begun as Rome declined, the sculpture consisting of reliefs on stone sarcophagi or ivory panels. The sculptors were untrained, and when they attempted figures, they copied the Roman sculptures of pagan gods to represent characters from the Bible and they also used many pagan emblems and symbols. But in Byzantium, the artists, being Greek, were far more skilled, and the renowned Byzantine style, which persisted unchanged right down to the seventeenth century in Greek and Russian icons, had its early beginnings in the fifth century a.d.
In a.d. 700, Byzantium forbade all image-making, whether in mosaic, painting or sculpture. This strict iconoclasm lasted for two hundred years, and many Greek artists left Byzantium to work for other monasteries in Europe.
The monastic workshops employed painters, ivory-carvers, goldsmiths, carpenters, metalworkers, masons and craftsmen of every kind, who provided all that was needed for the monastery chapels. This consisted of altar-furniture and candlesticks, caskets and book-covers, and reliquaries for containing the relics of saints. One of the best known of these reliquaries is at Conques in France: a crowned figure about two feet high seated on a throne and made of gold inlaid with precious stones. Many rich materials, precious metals and jewels were used at that time, but perhaps the most typical material of the age was ivory, of which they made panels, boxes and caskets, delicately carved with reliefs of Biblical and allegorical scenes and characters. They vary in style between Byzantine and Roman—the Byzantine figures being elongated and large-eyed, while the Roman figures look like senators: beardless, with short hair and wearing togas.
Wood carving seems also to have consisted of relief panels, such as those on the doors of Santa Sabina in Rome. Apart from these and the reliefs on stone sarcophagi and on stone capitals in the few Byzantine churches, sculpture was on a small scale.
An outstanding quality of all the relief-carving and craft-work was that it was all very similar in style whether it came from England or France, Ireland or Spain, Italy, Germany or Byzantium. The style was international, just as the Latin language was in those days, and it was circulated and perpetuated by monks, pilgrims and skilled workers, who travelled from monastery to monastery, despite the danger and difficulty. It was a mixed style; a fusion of Classical and Byzantine motifs with patterns and rhythms of Eastern or Barbaric origin.
Arab design and decoration were included in it, but no sculptural influence, as the Moslems were forbidden, like the Jews, to make ‘graven images’. The Moslem Empire, which stretched across the whole of the Southern Mediterranean including Egypt in the seventh century, affected the sculpture of other nations only indirectly. The Renaissance was partly due to the impact on Italian minds of the Arabs’ learning and knowledge, their discoveries in science, mathematics and astronomy, and their rich decorative architecture.
Romanesque Period: 11th and 12th Centuries
The Christian people had long been expecting that the end of the world was to come in the year 1000, and when this did not happen, a cloud lifted, and the sense of relief brought a wave of confidence and enthusiasm. This is one possible reason given for the sudden medieval renaissance of the eleventh century which was to continue for four hundred years.
The spontaneous use of large figure-carving on the many new churches may also be partly due to the lifting of the ban against images in Byzantium.
The term Romanesque comes from the type of architecture— round-arched like the Roman style. The churches are like fortresses, plain and compact with thick walls, and they are often situated high up on hills. The stone sculptural decoration was evidently planned with the building as a whole. That the masons carved the work in situ, is indicated by the fact that some of it was left unfinished.
Romanesque carving is full of feeling and zest. The figures are symbolic rather than drawn from life. They are often thin and elongated and seem to be floating or even dancing, in strange swirling draperies.
There is divided opinion as to how and where this Romanesque carving began. The most important source of their motifs was provided by the illuminated manuscripts in the monasteries, and the ivories, metalwork and textiles of the previous centuries. Nevertheless these flat drawings, and small ivory carvings only a few inches long, had to be enlarged tenfold, translated into stone and expertly rendered in situ. There was no carving tradition for the sculptors to follow, no system of practical training and experience. Yet they produced numbers of impressive figures in high relief, as well as intricate ornament, animals, birds and fabulous beasts.
The most likely examples for the carvers to base their work on would have been the Roman remains unearthed in Italy and the south of France—Roman capitals and columns, or fragments of sculptured relief and ornament.
In England, Romanesque style is known as Norman, and is even more massive and plain than the Continental. There are very few figure-carvings, and these are less accomplished than the French. It is interesting to notice that some of the Norman decoration is based on Norse and Danish wood carving. It is extremely flat and linear, so that in a photograph, it can easily be taken for wood rather than stone. In later centuries, the Scandinavian wood carvers in their turn were influenced by English stone carving.
Some wood carving from the Romanesque period is still left in the early European churches. It is to be found in reliefs on stall-work, doors and bosses and there are a few figures in the round which are almost always of the Crucifixion or the Madonna and Child. A very early head—originally from a Crucifixion—is at South Cerney, England. The Madonna figures are usually seated, with the child on their knees, and sometimes hold an apple in one hand (Fig. 2). They and the Crucifixions still show traces of painting and gilding. These figures are very simple but are carved with great feeling. They have wormholes and splits in them but being nearly a thousand years old, it is remarkable that they have survived at all.
Many works of art have been lost through the destruction of past civilizations, but the building of churches has helped to preserve them, by giving them permanent sites. Nevertheless, while they have been treated with care because of their sacredness, they have also been vulnerable to deliberate destruction. In England, for example, the churches suffered on two occasions: in the sixteenth century through the campaigns against popery, and again in the seventeenth century, during the Civil War.
Besides this deliberate mutilation, sculpture has suffered through neglect at all periods, or has been replaced by later work. Craftsmen and architects were continually perfecting their work technically, and took it for granted that they were improving on what had gone before; aesthetic tastes changed, and until recent years work that we would have appreciated was constantly being destroyed.
The Gothic Period: 1180-1540
It is uncertain how the pointed Gothic arch first came to be used, but it had a revolutionary effect on architecture. It allowed the churches to dispense with thick walls and heavy columns, and to achieve more height, more space and bigger windows. This discovery led to an even greater outburst of building activity. In France alone between 1180 and 1280 five hundred churches and eighty cathedrals were built, and some of the cathedrals might have as many as five thousand figures, many over life size.
Building a cathedral must have been a tremendous undertaking at a time when manpower was the only force available. All the innumerable pieces of stone had to be moved and lifted, cut and fitted together by hand. It was a co-operative effort that included hundreds of masons, some of whom cut and jointed the stone, while others carved it. There were no ‘architects’ or ‘designers’ in the modern sense of the word, but there were master-planners who chose and fixed each theme or subject. The skilled mason—or ‘imager’ as he was called—then interpreted it in his own way, carving it directly into the stone.
When a great building was being constructed expert craftsmen came to it from all over the country, and when it was finished, moved on to another one. The ‘lodges’ where they stayed—the origins of the Masonic Lodges of today—were also used as tool houses and workshops. Later they became training centers and were usually established near the quarries. During the fourteenth century they became larger and more fully organized—being permanently staffed and able to supply sculpture in any form or size, to any part of the country. This meant that building and sculpture were no longer designed together, to the detriment of both.
It is obvious that from about 1200 onward the Gothic carvers had begun to study life. Designs were no longer adaptations of old manuscript drawings and ivory carvings, but were inventions based on the study of natural forms coupled with an intuitive understanding of what could most suitably be carved in stone. Like the Greeks of the fifth century B.C., the early Gothic artists observed nature with close understanding, and it was the rediscovery of Aristotle that inspired it.
During the fourteenth century, the church began to lose the confidence of the people, and the unanimity of thought and religion that had united the whole Christian world was falling apart. There was now less simplicity and austerity in the figure-sculpture and it became more realistic, more consciously graceful and charming. After the Black Death in 1350, the sculptors improved their technique still further and were extremely skilful in the realistic treatment of heads and hands, hair and drapery, but at the expense of coherent architectural design. Niches were left for the figures, which were supplied ready made. These late Gothic figures are full of invention and character study, but they have not the exquisite sculptural qualities of the thirteenth century when the advance toward a better technique went forward side by side with experiments in form and movement, treatment and design—each enhancing and stimulating the other.
Gothic stone figure carving was at its peak in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, stone ornament in the fourteenth century and wood carving in the fifteenth.
Gothic wood carving
Anyone entering a cathedral or church is so accustomed to the great amount of wood used in furnishing—pews, benches, choir-stalls, pulpits, organ-lofts, galleries and screens—that they might not think of examining it closely. But in an old church the woodwork is very unlikely to be all of the same period. At first glance, the old is often indistinguishable from the new, and the best work may be passed over unnoticed.
In the course of refurnishing the old churches in past centuries —’clearing out the old clutter’, as one bishop expressed it—much of the woodwork used to be taken out and destroyed. In the nineteenth century, the old furnishings were often restored and ‘improved’, with new parts added and the joins camouflaged. But these Victorian Gothic Revival copies can be recognized by the fact that they are more mechanical in execution and lack the variation and slight irregularity of genuinely creative carving.
At the beginning of the Gothic period, church interior-work was in stone, and when wood was introduced, the carvers imitated the stone carving. The decorative tracery and pierced ornament were faithful and ingenious translations of stone originals and the few heads and figures still surviving from the early period have a solidity and shallowness of detail typical of stone but unnecessary in wood.
Then, in about 1370, the wood carvers seemed suddenly to become conscious of their material and all its potentialities—to realize what freedom it would allow them and how much taller, lighter and more graceful their constructions could be. They became expert craftsmen and the fifteenth-century choir-stalls and screens, pulpits and font-covers show their technical brilliance and invention in the forests of tall pinnacles used as decoration. These continued to become more elaborate, both here and on the Continent, right up to the time of the Reformation. The stone carvers were meanwhile imitating the wood techniques.
English craftsmen were exceptionally skilled at wood construction of all kinds. The renowned hammer-beam roofs of the fifteenth century may be likened to the framework of an upturned boat and are built on the same principles. On these roofs, the beams and brackets are often terminated by figures of angels, kings or apostles—a double row of them all down the length of the nave—projecting at right angles to the wall and looking straight down into the church. As they are to be seen a long way off, these figures are very large and for the same reason are only roughly finished.
Judging from fragments that are left, most churches must have had a rood-screen: that is, a beam spanning the chancel with the crucifixion scene mounted on it—the cross in the middle and the figures of Mary and John on either side. These figures would certainly have been over life-size, and there must have been a great many other large wooden images, in niches and on altars, which have been destroyed. Wood is not so easily defaced as stone; the heads and hands of a wood carving cannot be struck oflf with a blow. But it is comparatively light and easy to remove and to carry away, and being dry and well-seasoned, must unfortunately have made good fuel for iconoclasts’ bonfires.
Some wood carving, however, has been left undisturbed, and many small figures and animals can be found among the richly carved ornament on choir-stalls, bench-ends, poppy-heads and newel-posts (Figs. 3-5). Some of them must have been carved by the expert ‘imagers’ whose large works have been lost, but others have a naive simplicity which suggests that they are the work of the ornament-carvers.
It is as if figure-carving was regarded as a chance to put in something more personal—a change from the more disciplined repetitions of decorative work. The choice of subject and interpretation indicates great enjoyment and amusement, particularly in the misericords, which are the most personally expressive of all the records left by the anonymous medieval craftsmen.
The misericords are to be found under the seats of the choir-stalls, which tip up on hinges. Each has a bracket or kind of shelf, which will give unseen support to anyone having to stand during a long service. The brackets are carved, always with a centerpiece and two ‘ears’, and the subjects are very often humorous, grotesque or satirical. There are scenes from pagan legends and allegories as well as from the Bible, and there are also scenes of farcical episodes taken from their everyday lives. Some of these might be thought unsuitable for the decoration of a church, but Gothic art is full of surprising departures from the expected, and in any case, these misericords were normally out of sight in a humble position, so that the carvers were allowed to let their imaginations range wherever they pleased.
There are scolding wives and hen-pecked husbands; people with headache or toothache; people working: the miller, the sower, the reaper, the goldsmith, the boat-builder and the wood carver himself with a pet dog lying under his bench. There are men playing football, wrestling, hunting, hawking and taking part in tournaments, and there are numbers of fabulous beasts and birds and other fantastic creatures.
In the Biblical illustrations the characters are wearing medieval dress or armor; Noah’s Ark looks like a three-turreted castle. Samson carries the gates of the city under his arm, like any medieval joiner delivering an order; Salome dances so vigorously that she even turns a back-somersault and in a boat-load of voyagers one is obviously feeling seasick.
The humor and candor of these very human and straightforward comments on the way the carvers lived, add a great deal to the pleasure of looking at the carvings.
This kind of carving was polished, as paint would have rubbed off, but most statues were painted. In recent years, some of this painting has been renewed, and is sometimes disturbingly vivid.
But it has to be remembered that in the Middle Ages, apart from life at Court, ordinary citizens saw very little color. They wore drab clothes of brown, black, dark blue and grey, and would enjoy the gilding and the brilliant colors in the churches. Stone figures used also to be painted, and the practice continued until the seventeenth century, when a fashion for pure white marble came in, and painting gradually died out.
England is rich in effigies because they were spared when religious figures were destroyed, and there are a number of wooden ones still surviving. Only those that were covered with a plating of precious metal, like that of Henry V in Westminster Abbey, have suffered. The metal having been stolen, only the rough wooden core remains.
Wooden effigies were mostly made in the eastern counties, where stone was scarce, but they are to be found all over the country—often in small out-of-the-way churches. They portray knights, ladies and bishops, and in later years, from about 1360, rich merchants and their wives. Oak was the wood most commonly used and they were hollowed out from behind. This prevented them from splitting and the hole in the back does not show when they are in position on the tomb.
The early ones of about 1290 imitate the stone or Purbeck marble ones being made at the time and are flat, like reliefs of standing figures laid on their backs. Later the sculptors discovered how to make them look as if they were really lying down, and later still, for a time, the poses are given some movement. The knights lean on one elbow, have one knee raised or grasp their sword-hilts, showing how the sculptors had learned to take full advantage of their material.
They are much plainer than the stone effigies, which have every detail of the armor incised and engraved on them. The wood effigies were gessoed to fill up the grain and make them smooth, and the detail was painted on. The paint and gilt having worn away, the carvings now appear very simple and bold in form, with qualities very similar to some sculpture of the present day (plate XXII).
The Continent is very rich in wood sculptures of the late Gothic period. They are carved with great skill, but in general, the technique is in advance of the conception and interpretation. Pulpits and canopies, screens and altars are fantastically elaborate and enriched with realistic sculpture, particularly in Flanders. Relief carving is so deep as to be like a stage-set. Scenes from the Bible are treated in a dramatic way, evidently derived from the medieval miracle plays. The backgrounds are like stage-scenery and the foreground figures are in such high relief as to be almost entirely in the round.
In Germany at the end of the fifteenth century, two sculptors were outstanding: Veit Stoss and Tilman Riemanschneider. Their wood figures vary in size from 5 or 6 inches to over life-size. Both have a recognizable style which stands out among the somewhat stereotyped works of their contemporaries. Heads and hands are taken from life but formalized, though not idealized. Indeed, many of their figures are character-studies of plain, homely people.
In common with all the wood carvers of the time, they were greatly interested in drapery. It is very complicated, often drawn forward into a bunch of great angular folds, carved very thin. Again, it is studied from life but formalized, using to the maximum the resilient quality of the wood. Sometimes the German sculptors carved nude figures, which is rare in Gothic art, and is a sign that they were living at a time when ideas where changing. The beginning of the sixteenth century saw the end of the Middle Ages. The medieval way of living and thinking were dying out, together with their means of expression—Gothic art itself.
When England became Protestant, church-building stopped and many cathedrals and churches were left unfinished through lack of interest and money. It was a century before it began again, the first church being Inigo Jones’s St. Paul’s in Covent Garden. It has the first classical portico—with columns and pediment—ever built in Northern Europe. It is not only a gulf of a hundred years that separates this style from that of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge which is Gothic. This is a revolution in taste, showing the effect of the Renaissance on England, although it had ended in Italy half a century before, and had already been superseded by the Baroque style.
Beginning in about 1260 with Nicola Pisano’s sculpture, gradually rising to its zenith in the fifteenth century, and ending with Michelangelo’s death in 1564, the Renaissance may be said to have lasted for three hundred years. It overlapped the Gothic period in other countries, but the Gothic style, being northern in origin, never really took root in Italy. It was Raphael who first used the name ‘Gothic’, to denote something outlandish and even barbaric.
The Italians were aware that they were living among the ruins of their own former greatness, and the classical style which had never quite died out, was a symbol of it. Everyone, rich and poor alike, was in sympathy with its revival. The architects used Roman forms as a basis and created an entirely new style, light and elegant. The sculptors went searching among the Roman ruins for fragments of sculpture, and their admiration for it is obvious in the way it influenced their own work. Unlike the sculptors of earlier periods who had also studied Roman remains, the Renaissance sculptors were technically capable of equalling it and then surpassing it. At the same time, long-neglected Greek and Roman manuscripts were sought out and read avidly, and were later printed in book form. Philosophy and science could now be taken up again from where the Greeks had left them.
The re-discovery of antique literature and of Greek writing in particular, caused a kind of ferment of quickened creative thought, in which intellectual advances and art kept pace with one another. By the fifteenth century, Italy resembled Greece of the fifth century B.C., in the extraordinary number of men of genius living and working there, and it is as difficult to account for the sudden upsurge of vitality and brilliance in one as in the other.
In the medieval world any urge to pursue a free and individual line of thought, or to search for rational explanations of human existence and natural phenomena were forbidden as heretical. The church supplied its own solutions to all problems and an answer to every question. But now, in Italy, these dogmas could no longer be blindly accepted. Even though the Pope himself lived in Italy, there was more free thinking and reasoning there than in any other country under his domination. This was partly because the universities were secular, not like those of the rest of Europe which had grown out of cathedral schools, and partly because Italy was receptive to new ideas and had always been in close contact with outside civilizations—the Greeks of Byzantium and the Moslems, from whom they gained knowledge of mathematics, chemistry and astronomy.
The church was still the chief patron of the arts but there were now many private patrons, wealthy citizens who were also scholars. They commissioned works of art and kept artists in their employ, giving them much more freedom to try out new ideas than church patronage would allow. The artists were stimulated by the new-found knowledge of anatomy, perspective, foreshortening and chiaroscuro, which gave them a wider comprehension of three-dimensional space, and so transformed their work that it lost all medieval naivety.
Renaissance wood carving
Like the Greeks and the Romans, the Italians used marble and bronze, but there are still some wood carvings to be found among the hundreds of Renaissance works scattered all over the world, as well as those remaining in Italy (plate xrv). One of the most famous is the Mary Magdalene by Donatello in Florence. Less well known is his crucifixion, an early work which was originally painted in bright color, traces of which can still be seen under the brown varnish that now covers it. Its arms were fixed on in such a way that they can be turned round and altered from their horizontal position to hang down, in order that the figure can be placed in the tomb during Easter services.
Another of Donatello’s wood carvings is a colossal wooden horse at Padua. It is very simple in form with a barrel-like body and its stance is similar to that of his bronze equestrian also in Padua, the Gattemelata.
Italian churches and cathedrals use more marble than wood for interior furnishing, but there are many stalls and benches enriched with carving to be found in them.
Influences of the Renaissance
The Italian Renaissance made a tremendous impression on the rest of Europe but was slow to make itself felt. Travelling and communication were still difficult between one country and another, so that few indications of what was happening had filtered through. When the French army marched through Italy in 1594, they were astonished and disconcerted by the strangeness of what they saw: the bold and spacious buildings, the round arches, garlands and cupids, so different from the Gothic architecture of their own country.
It was through books that Renaissance ideas first spread abroad. This impulse coming from Italy was a breath of life to the educated people of Europe and they responded to it by travelling to Italy and studying at the universities. They came back loaded with classical, scientific and medical knowledge.
The effect on England is seen in the spirit of discovery and experiment of the Elizabethan age, and above all, in the wealth of literature produced at that time.
Art in Europe generally was greatly affected; the expansion and enrichment of life and thought were increased by further inventions. Printed maps, ocean-going ships and the mariner’s compass, all made it possible to explore overseas, and to bring back treasures and works of art, and all kinds of new materials. Chinese and Indian craftsmanship in particular caused great amazement and admiration.
Influences of the Reformation
Art was equally affected by the Reformation. The prestige of the church had fallen very low, and many of the rulers of northern Europe took the opportunity to break away from Rome. Europe became divided into two camps: Catholic in the south and Protestant in the north, with extremists on both sides.
In the Catholic half—Italy, Spain, Austria and South Germany —a movement known as the Counter-Reformation was started, which increased the wealth of the church once more, and hundreds of new churches and cathedrals were built. To impress the people, they were as ostentatious as possible, and contained as much decoration, ornament and sculpture as could be crowded into them.
There was a similar extravagant use of art and craft in France, but for a different reason. In this case it was for the glorification of the Monarchy. In England, and the northern Protestant countries, however, the arts had been brought almost to a standstill. Art and above all sculpture, were associated in people’s minds with the luxury of court life, as well as with Catholicism and fears of idolatry.
The Baroque Period: 1600-1780
Although the force and the energy of the Renaissance had died away in Italy, it was there, after an interval of fifty years, that the new style known as Baroque originated, making Italy again a source of great influence.
After the death of Michelangelo in 1564, the artists who followed him had technical facility and assurance, but in imitating him they merely exaggerated his manner into mannerism. Lacking his power and intensity, their works were empty. It was the architects who led the way and evolved the Baroque Style.
In this age of growing technical virtuosity building-construction could be more complex and extravagant, daring and fantastic than ever before. Baroque architecture is plastic, like sculpture. Whole walls curve in and out as if giant hands had moulded them; there are broken pediments and flourishes and columns twisted like barley-sugar. But it is the interiors of the churches in Spain and Italy that are really overwhelming, with their gold and silver, sumptuous ornament, and multi-colored marbles. Not an inch of wall, floor or ceiling is left plain. Concealed lighting, false perspectives and optical illusions—all were used, as if by a theater-designer, to amaze the congregation.
The Baroque style was of great benefit to the Catholic Revivalists, as it drew the people back into the churches and overawed them with mystery and illusion. The sculptured figures emphasized movement—restless activity and dramatic energy. There were miracles and martyrdoms; saints in agony or ecstasy, with upturned eyes and agitated gestures. Sometimes real hair was used, real eyelashes and teeth, and pearls for tears.
Many of them were carved in wood, to make them light in weight and easier to carry in procession through the streets. Some of these figures are still used today, and may be seen in Easter processions, particularly in Spain. Even the newer ones will probably have been copied from the Baroque originals.
Each church has its own statue—Christ, Virgin, Pieta or Saint—and takes it to the cathedral to be blessed. It is mounted amid a forest of candles, on a wide platform carried by twenty perspiring men. They also have to carry a little boy or two, who scramble about on the platform, keeping the candles alight. The statue is borne along, up and down the hills, swaying and nodding, and the people in the streets clap their hands as they see it pass by. It has been repainted and in some cases dressed in real clothes, and is decked with precious stones, brought out for the occasion from safekeeping. Each one tries to be more glittering and more splendid than the others. Now and again, the procession stops, and is serenaded by Flamenco singers.
The attitude of the people toward their statues is now very much what it must have been when they were first carved. Baroque sculpture still lives in Spain at Easter.
The Italian sculptor Bernini (1598-1680) master of the Baroque in sculpture, dazzled his contemporaries. No technical difficulty stops him from posing his figures as freely as if they were real people caught in a moment of violent action. After the simple static movement of Renaissance figures, his are theatrical and sensational, and the crumpled drapery swirls out at the sides in undulating spirals or flattens itself on to the form, as if caught by the wind.
No one was able to carve marble as freely as he did, but some of his effects could be achieved in wood, with arms, legs, wings and drapery jointed on, and the joins all hidden by gesso and paint.
After Bernini, all sculpture had a greater freedom of movement, whether religious or secular, and stucco and wood painted and grained to imitate marble, were often used.
In France, the Baroque was more subdued because of a natural preference for the severely classical. The French kept to a more Renaissance style—they were the first Europeans to introduce it, and to welcome Italian artists. French landowners were buying art-collections of impoverished Italian noblemen— rather as America has been buying European art in the twentieth century—and building large country houses in imitation of Italian palaces. When Louis XIV built Versailles in 1660, it showed Baroque influence only in the extravagance of its enormous size. He kept thousands of courtiers there. Its interiors called for such quantities of ornament of every kind, and so many figures were needed for the facades, fountains and gardens, that a vast industry was organized and hundreds of craftsmen were trained to supply them.
During the following century, other monarchs and princes of Protestant countries tried to imitate Louis. They built their own versions of Versailles, and encouraged the arts and crafts of their country.
16th and 11th Century England
England also began to build many large country houses as well as churches but was even less sympathetic than France toward the extreme forms of Baroque.
The Renaissance style introduced by Inigo Jones had hardly been tried out in England when it was followed by Baroque. Both styles were explored simultaneously and Christopher Wren introduced certain Baroque elements into the exteriors of his fifty-three London City churches and of St. Paul’s, while his interiors are more Renaissance in type, and are simple and restrained. They are light and open, with rich dark polished woodwork: reredos, pulpit, sounding-board, chancel-arch and screen, all of extreme elegance, and carved with high reliefs of wreaths, swags, flowers and fruit. Apart from small winged cherubs, there is no large-scale figure carving, no saints, Virgins or crucifixions. Puritanism remained strong and no ‘images’ were required. Even the cross as a symbol was not used again in England until about 1870.
Grinling Gibbons (1648-1720) is the most famous name in English ornament carving. In his own much narrower field, he was as daring and inventive as Bernini, and people marvelled at his work. His swags and drops of flowers, leaves and fruit are carved to an extreme thinness, and he even carved a lace cravat for his own amusement. Like many of the master-craftsmen working in England at that time, he was of foreign origin. There were refugees from Catholic Flanders and Italians who had been brought over to introduce the Renaissance style of decoration. After the end of Gothic art, a new English tradition had to be started and new craftsmen trained.
English church interiors became more ornate, with colored marbles and a variety of materials; tombs and monuments were no longer in the form of recumbent effigies but were gradually becoming more elaborate. St. Mary Woolnoth, Nicholas Hawks-moor’s City of London church (1716-1727), is typically English Baroque, with carved wood barley-sugar columns. Pure white marble was now the favored material, and figures were no longer painted.
A great deal of rich and splendid wood carving can be seen in the English country houses of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
There are carved chests, screens and coats of arms, lions and griffons, and magnificent staircases and chimney-pieces. There is a lively mixture of styles; as in the elegant linear Renaissance design carved on stout four-sided English balusters.
The eighteenth century is known as the Age of Reason, or the Age of Enlightenment. It was the age of the first encyclopaedias, museums, dictionaries, scientific treatises and historical researches. There was speculation about every aspect of life, and it can be recognized as the beginning of the modern age, not only in material advancement and scientific invention, but also in the more humane and liberal attitude to life.
At the same time, life at court and among the aristocracy became more extravagant and luxurious, particularly in France. Its artificiality was satirized by such writers as Voltaire and Rousseau, and among his many other advanced theories, Rousseau advocated a more natural life in natural surroundings. The sophisticated among his readers liked this novel idea of rural simplicity, and grand ladies dressed up as shepherdesses and milkmaids, though they were doubtless terrified of cows. This fashion is reflected in the sculpture.
The style of interior furnishings, ornament and sculpture became lighter and more frivolous, and the decoration more graceful and delicate. The heavier Baroque scrolls, swags and festoons were replaced by elegant linear designs in shallow relief, with shells, vase-shapes, ribbons and fans. The marble columns and pediments introduced into the interiors by Baroque architects, were now imitated in painted wood, stucco and plaster. The craftsmen of the Rococo period found out the possibilities of plaster as a material in itself—its lightness and fineness. Another advantage was its cheapness; monarchs and dukes were chronically short of money, though as fond of display as ever.
The Rococo style began in France, but was taken up with particular enthusiasm in Germany, and German wood carvings of this time are the very essence of Rococo, both allegorical figures and religious ones. All have a somewhat worldly look, whether the subject is a saint, an ‘Autumn’, or an Apollo.
While Baroque angels and saints are in arrested movement halfway out of their niches, Rococo figures have stepped out altogether. These strange figures are generally of lime wood, hollowed out, painted and gilded, and are masterly in execution. No other material could serve so well as wood for outstretched arms and hands with outspread fingers, for hair in corkscrew ringlets, fluttering draperies and wings with thin, individually-carved feathers. Many of the figures are perched on the edges of altars and cornices; some are fixed to wall or balcony and seem to be floating free. All the special properties of wood are made use of, where stucco would be too heavy and plaster too fragile. In marble monuments of that period, small projecting parts are sometimes found to be made of wood painted to look like marble and added on afterward.
The chief characteristics of the Rococo style are restless movement and avoidance of all symmetry. An ornamental frame will be designed and carved so that its center-line has been shifted and curved to one side at the top (Fig. 6). It is carved very thin, or into a spikiness which is a feature of the style.
In England, decorative motifs are Rococo in feeling, but the dislike of oversumptuous extravagance and exaggeration still prevails. Exteriors retain a classical simplicity, and interiors show that English craftsmen had an unerring taste and sense of proportion in everything they designed and made. The eighteenth century—the Georgian Period—is the apex of English architecture and furniture-making.
Interiors of churches and houses are remarkable for their exquisite plasterwork, which enhances the elegance and spaciousness of the architecture. Some wood carving is to be found, but plaster was quicker as well as cheaper, because moulds could be used for repetition work.
Wood was evidently considered unsuitable for statuary, which was of marble or bronze—to be in keeping with the Roman fragments and Renaissance works that were being imported in great numbers.
Anyone who goes to look at the wood carvings in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, a wonderful collection—will not find many English examples. These are still in their original settings in cathedrals, churches and houses, and among them can be found many small reliefs, heads and monuments from all periods, anonymously carved by the local woodworker. In the Museum, the carvings are mostly German, Flemish or Spanish.
Sculpture in Europe generally had lost its foremost position among the Arts. After the Renaissance, when reading and research became more widespread, and the thoughts and ideas of the people more complex and many-sided, the other arts— painting, music, the theater and the novel—were found to be a more suitable and flexible means of expression than sculpture. Painting had developed side by side with sculpture in Italy; literature, drama and music had been encouraged and advanced at Versailles and all the smaller courts; and there were now as many secular patrons as religious ones. Artists’ themes were non-religious as often as religious. Handel used some of the tunes originally intended for his operas, which had libretti based on pagan legends, in his religious oratorios.
Neo-Classical and Romantic Periods 1780-1880
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, there were fresh changes. The French Revolution undermined ideas which had always been taken for granted; everyone’s attitude to life was shaken and the old system of values was questioned. The Industrial Revolution though less violent was equally disturbing. With the invention of the blast furnace and the steam-powered engine, man is said to have taken a step forward in controlling the forces and materials at his command, greater than any since the Stone Age. The immediate consequences, factory building and the mushroom growth of towns, which were beginning to disfigure the English countryside, were indications of the future that was in store.
The resulting response was the Romantic movement which swept like a wave over the whole of Europe, lasting nearly a hundred years. It had much wider implications than the Neoclassical movement, which was purely an art-style. This style arose through a renewed enthusiasm for Classical art which made the sculptors turn against the Rococo style as frivolous. They now aimed to create a more noble and dignified kind of sculpture based on the Antique and exact measurements of ideal form.
The Roman sculptor, Canova (1757-1822), was the leader of this movement and in his day he was considered to be ‘greater than Michelangelo’. The aesthetic taste of his age may be indicated by the fact that the newly discovered fragments of genuine fifth-century Greek sculpture, including the Elgin Marbles, were not yet appreciated; they were thought to be clumsy and lacking in ‘ideal beauty’. Roman copies and late Hellenistic work were preferred. The Neo-Classical style continued into the Romantic movement and became part of it; in the end it was largely a question of using correct Grecian costume and hair-styles.
A school of English-born sculptors at last appeared in England influenced by Canova and working in the Neo-Classical Romantic style. It was they who created the huge marble monuments in Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s.
The style of the Romantic movement is essentially literary in origin and English literature was the first expression of it. According to the dictionary a Romance is ‘a tale of Medieval Chivalry, or a novel with that kind of subject’. Romantic is defined as ‘strange, picturesque, imaginative, sentimental’. It implies a mood of antipathy toward the present and a desire to escape into the past—into some past age, that seems more to resemble the ideal world of the imagination, and the kind of life lived by the Greek hero, the Medieval Knight or the rustic shepherd.
Looking back nostalgically to medieval times was a prevalent mood in the early Romantic period, and for the first time in nearly three hundred years, Gothic art and architecture were admired once more. At first, this admiration showed itself simply as an attempt to evoke the Gothic atmosphere. Country houses were built in the form of sham castles and sham abbeys in the ‘Gothick’ style (although they often had severe classical interiors), and there were mossy dells, grottoes and ‘wildernesses’ in the gardens.
Individual choice of architectural style became the vogue, in direct contrast to the practice of the previous century, the Georgian period, when all building was in harmony. It was a reaction against that period’s great regard for order and reason. However, in casting off these disciplines they also rejected the good proportions of Georgian architecture and thus contributed to the muddled architectural ideas of the nineteenth century and the general deterioration of taste.
During the early phase of the Romantic movement there were two main styles in architecture: the Gothic and the Neo-Classical. The Houses of Parliament are a compromise; a classical shape with Gothic decoration superimposed. The man who designed the decoration, Pugin, was one of the pro-Goths who finally won this Battle of the Styles as it was called. After 1840 hardly a Classical building was put up for a generation.
To Pugin, Classical buildings were ‘pagan gin-palaces’, and he proved—so he said—that Gothic was the true Christian architecture. Pugin went to work for a very powerful society called the Ecclesiologists, formed to promote Gothic art, and the Gothic Revival began in earnest.
The picturesque Gothic of the earlier Romantics was considered flippant and their light-hearted sham ruins deplored. During this later phase of the Romantic movement, a sober Gothic style was used, not only for churches, but for town-halls, schools and railway stations. But correct Gothic ornament had not been used in England since the sixteenth century and no craftsmen able to carve it successfully could be found. Pugin published engravings of Gothic detail and set up workshops for teaching it.
Other workshops for craftsmen were afterward started by such men as William Morris, a vigorous pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement which still exists in England and has been imitated by many other countries. The movement represents a protest against the harm done by the factory system, which divides the work into a series of small processes and destroys a man’s interest. Although it is impossible to put the clock back, such spontaneous protests draw attention to what is happening, if only by pulling in the opposite direction.
The workshops and training-centers meant a revival of wood carving although it was only for ornament. In the places where wood carving had never died out, it was more of a peasant art, with traditions and methods handed down from father to son. Carved wooden crucifixes and saints for wayside shrines and village churches in Catholic countries, and all kinds of figures, animals and toys are still to be found in many of the thickly forested areas of Europe.
Another form of traditional carving—the big, hand-carved wooden figure-heads for sailing ships—can be seen in the splendid collection on board the Cutty Sark at Greenwich, England. They are boldly carved and full of character.
The academically trained sculptors of the nineteenth century still only used marble and bronze, and the marble carvings were executed less by the sculptor’s own hand than ever before. The increasing facility in the use of the pointing-machine meant that the sculptor, after making a clay model, would send it away to be turned into marble by expert anonymous ‘ghost’ workers. The pointing-machine is a means of reproducing a plaster model in stone by drilling hundreds of holes to a correctly measured depth into the stone, and then carving away the surplus. It is a method unsuitable for wood.
Typical of the late Romantic period are the large, grandiose statues of statesmen, generals, admirals and bishops, that stand about our towns and cathedrals, or the sentimental, idealized female nudes which filled the Royal Academy year by year.
The Beginning of the Modern Movement
The first sculptor to react against them and their banality was Rodin. Like his contemporaries, the Impressionists, he accepted nature as he saw it, never deliberately idealizing or beautifying it, or glossing over the fact that it is very seldom ‘perfect’. His work was thought to be ugly and therefore shocking. It remained controversial for years, like that of Maillol, another French sculptor born twenty years after him, and was not appreciated until the early years of this century. Maillol’s simplification of form, based on early Greek sculpture, made his work impersonal, and it illustrated no subject—unlike the contemporary academic figures which were expected to illustrate a theme, personify a legend, or embody some edifying sentiment.
Maillol had been an assistant in Rodin’s studio and three other sculptors who worked for Rodin in their youth also became famous afterwards: Despiau, Mestrovic and Bourdelle. All of them used a variety of materials, including wood; Rosandic, a fellow Yugoslavian of Mestrovic, worked almost entirely in wood.
The gulf between the official, academic art and the work of the individual artists of advanced ideas, was now widening, and from about 1870, when the first Impressionist exhibitions were received with sarcasm and ridicule, the two forms of art have to be differentiated.
The use of a great variety of materials was one of the most important aspects of the change that was taking place in sculpture. It was realized that marble was maltreated through the use of the pointing machine, being forced to imitate clay models without taking into account its own characteristic qualities. In the early decades of this century the younger generation of sculptors began direct hand carving in their studios, and wood finally came back as a sculptor’s medium.
This is perhaps a suitable place to speak of primitive art, as it is the time when it first began to make a strong and lasting impression in Europe.
The nineteenth century saw the first archaeological expeditions to many countries, beginning with Egypt. Napoleon, inspired perhaps by the uncovering of Pompeii in 1760, took scholars and artists with him when his army invaded Egypt in 1800, and the people of Europe were amazed at the drawings, records and works of art that were brought back. Egypt had remained silent and unknown for nearly a thousand years; a few descriptions in neglected Greek and Roman books; a few seemingly far-fetched travellers’ tales were all that had been known of her former magnificence.
Excavations were next started in 1840, in Mesopotamia and then in Mexico; Mycenae in 1870 and Crete in 1890. Besides the works of art brought back from these ancient centers of civilization, other kinds of treasure were accumulating, taken from countries at earlier stages of civilization than our own. From the sixteenth century onward, primitive works of art and craft had been brought home by travellers, explorers and colonizers.
The craftwork—the pottery, weaving, fretwork carving and basketwork were popular and found their way into contemporary drawing-rooms, but the wood figure-carvings and masks were considered to be curiosities—heathen idols, unsuitable for a Christian home, and many of those not put in museums must have been thrown away.
Some of these wood carvings certainly have a frightening appearance. Even behind glass in a museum case, prosaically lit by electric light, they give out their own atmosphere of weirdness and mystery. The fetish figures in particular, still with a forest of nails or knives sticking in them, suggest associations that are grisly in the extreme. How they must have looked in their original settings may be imagined—in the dark huts or temples, in the gloom of tropical forests. That is the kind of lighting they were designed for, each carving having been specially made for its intended position. The rough finish on some, and their sharp, contrasting planes, would be all the better for making a strong effect in such a light.
Seeing these figures in their dimly-lit settings, must have been an overwhelming experience for the first white conquerors; they and the missionaries who followed them are known to have destroyed a great many, in their zeal for converting the natives. Carving died out altogether in some places; in others, it increased again after a pause, to supply the modern tourist with souvenirs. In many cases, this is a question of copying the same pieces over and over again—expertly but mechanically—and the resulting works are not to be compared with the originals.
The impact of the primitive world on the white pioneers was strong, but was more than equalled by the effect of their arrival on the native populations. At first, they thought the white man was a character out of their own legendary past—some mysterious supernatural being, come back from the dead.
But after they had recovered from their fear, they began recording their impressions of him in painting and sculpture, the earliest being the bronze figures of Portuguese soldiers found at Benin, wearing sixteenth-century uniforms and carrying guns. The gun is observed with great accuracy whenever it appears in primitive portraits of the white man, being the source of his most potent magic, and other emblems are treated with great attention—articles which have aroused the natives’ curiosity. He may be shown wearing a top hat, smoking a pipe, carrying an umbrella; sometimes holding a bottle and glass. His buttons are made much of, and so are his boots and his beard. African tribal chiefs still wear a top hat and carry an umbrella as signs of power and privilege. There are even some African wood carvings of European women—schoolteachers, nuns and missionaries—with long skirts, flat figures and rather plain, earnest faces.
Other primitive carvings, done after the arrival of the white man, such as the immensely tall totem-poles of British Columbia, were carved with the aid of European tools.
It is in lands where the people live in forests and jungles, that one would expect to find wood carvings, and this is generally true, but there are exceptions. Many wood figurines have been and are still carved on Easter Island, famous for its colossal figures in volcanic rock. At first sight, the island is treeless, and in fact, the only wood available is the Toromiro tree, which grows down beside the lake in one of the volcano craters. The shape of this wood has dictated the curved form of the statuettes made from it (Fig. 7). Even in the Arctic circle, where there are no trees at all, the people carve driftwood.
The places in which primitive wood carving has been most prolific includes ancient Peru, Polynesia, Melanesia, Indonesia, Alaska, Canada, and—the richest source of all—West Africa. Besides decorated objects of use and ornament, they produce figures in the round, animals, reliefs and masks. The training of the wood carvers seems to vary from place to place, but they evidently learned the technique at the same time as they were initiated into the proper magic rituals connected with image-making. The ‘art schools’ would be more like secret societies where the myths and legends of the tribe were handed on, together with the orthodox ceremonial rites. They were the equivalent of such Western institutions as University, Church, Library, Academies of Music and Dancing, and Art School, all combined into one.
Each center had its own characteristics but the West African may be taken as typical. The so-called idols have their counterpart in the religious sculpture of Western civilizations; they do not portray deities to be worshipped. For the most part they represent devotees or—like Catholic saints—they are believed to have the power to intercede with the gods. An image of a woman holding a baby means a prayer for maternity. Many of the masks are for ritual dances, each with its special dance-rhythm and chant, and some are so big and heavy as to be tests of strength and endurance for the wearer.
An ancestor cult is common to many tribes. After someone dies, a figure is carved in which his spirit is supposed to dwell. These are the nearest things to portraits that are ever made. An actual portrait of a living person is considered dangerous, as he will suffer immediately any harm is done to the image.
Instead of a life-like representation of the human form, the carver’s intention is to give a generalized version. He never uses a model directly, but always works from memory. The figures vary in size from a few inches to a few feet and are occasionally life-size or over. They may be standing, sitting, squatting or kneeling and the poses are static with no turn or twist of the body or head.
The figures are carved from one block of wood—either a piece of the whole trunk or a segment—and everything has to be fitted into its width. Even if the subject is a rider on horseback, the horse must be compressed and reduced until it is ridiculously small and insignificant. This does not trouble the African carver as he is accustomed to minimizing or even leaving out altogether anything unimportant, irrelevant or taboo, while increasing the size of everything worthy of emphasis.
There is a system of symbolical conventions laid down, as there was in Egypt, and no deviation is allowed. But Egyptian statues, being of stone, stood for centuries serving as models for succeeding generations. The African wood carvings had to be continually replaced and this made the traditional style much more flexible and susceptible to change. No one could call Egyptian sculpture naive, and in the same way, African carving is far less naive than it might seem. The carver uses symbols which are easily understood by the people, through which he can express innumerable shades of meaning.
These figures may look simple and straightforward but to copy one exactly would be far from easy. Many of the shapes come through the type of tool used, and from habitual muscular movements in handling it.
Each tribe has its own style, totally different even from its closest neighbor’s. Some favor a rough-hewn type of carving while others put great emphasis on finish and rub palm-oil into the wood to polish it.
The skilled Negro carver knows all the many types of trees in his neighborhood and their special properties, so that he can select the most suitable for his purpose. Sometimes the choice is dictated by ritual but in general, the softer woods are used for masks and the hard woods for figures. His main concern is to find wood that will not split easily and that will be resistant to termites.
These observations are taken from present-day Africa where there are still a few full-time sculptors left, but it may be assumed that they also apply to the past. Some primitive communities are nowadays changing and disintegrating and the educated native begins to reject the tribal customs and beliefs of his ancestors, recognizing that they are rooted in superstition. But they are the source of his art.
It will be interesting to see what the African sculptor, with his great natural talent for carving, will produce in the future, after the inevitable introduction of modern techniques and tools, knowledge of anatomy and perspective, and Western standards of aesthetics.
African Carving and Modern Art
Modern Art—the subject of so much controversy—has grown and evolved from many different roots but its final development was certainly accelerated by the discovery of primitive art at the beginning of this century.
It is true that the more advanced of the artists were already receptive to these totally new and unexpected ways of seeing the human form. Its proportions had been altered and adapted to answer the needs of personal expression and design, in the works of the three outstanding Post-Impressionist painters of the older generation—Cezanne, Gaugin and Van Gogh. C6zanne’s famous observation that nature could be represented by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone, seemed now to be given concrete proof by the African figures. Their geometrical forms, cylindrical legs and pear-shaped heads, reducing the figure to its simplest terms, were all that was finally needed to bring into being the new movement—Cubism.
It appears that two painters discovered a Negro carving in a Paris cafe-bar—brought there by a sailor. They persuaded the proprietor to part with it and showed it to Picasso. It so impressed him, that his next painting was partly based on it and contains the first signs of Cubist painting.
For people who take it for granted that ‘likeness to nature’ is the only criterion for a work of art, and that ‘deal proportions’ should always be given to the human figure, Cubism is at first incomprehensible. But in fact, neither naturalism nor idealization have ever been universally accepted. The Romanesque and Byzantine artists were unaware of such standards and the Baroque artists ignored them. The Baroque painter, El Greco, was unappreciated in the nineteenth century together with Byzantine mosaics, Romanesque carvings, Greek archaic figures and Italian Primitive paintings.
These works were passed over as crude and childish in the nineteenth century—unworthy to be called art. It is significant that they were all re-discovered at the same time as the Negro and other primitive carvings. They were completely outside the academic standards of the day, but perfectly in tune with the views of the artists already in revolt against those standards.
It is true that every great artist has revolted against accepted standards of form and has broken through them like a pioneer opening the way to future discoveries, but this had never been done so deliberately or so violently before.
Once the primitive works had aroused interest, there was no need to travel farther than a museum to look at them. They still had to be sought out, however, as they were being exhibited as curios, half-hidden among the paraphernalia of craftwork, utensils, weapons and other objects that had been brought back by indiscriminating travellers.
Museum curators have now arranged their ethnographical galleries so that the collections of primitive sculpture can be properly seen. Exhibitions are held in art galleries and are popular with the general public. Roger Fry wrote in 1920: ‘One would like to know what Dr. Johnson would have said to anyone who had offered him a Negro idol for several hundred pounds. It would have seemed then sheer lunacy . . .’ But Roger Fry himself might have been surprised that the unquestioned acceptance of African sculpture in our own time should be so complete.
Primitive works are unselfconscious and, being made by hand without attempting to disguise the fact, are an antidote to mass-produced machine objects. Having been made for a serious and definite purpose they are remote from any suggestion of exhibitionism to catch the eye of a possible buyer. These may be some of the reasons for their strong appeal. The African carvings are especially interesting to an artist because they are full of invention, with endless variations on the same theme, and they break all the anatomical rules with such conviction as to make it appear a matter of course.
Perhaps their most remarkable quality is that they are essentially in the round. Each form is seen as a three-dimensional mass and there is no sign of the ‘four-side approach’ apparent in early Archaic Greek sculpture and often in the work of beginners. In these cases, each of the four sides is treated as a relief, whereas in a mature work, the contours can be seen to change, merge, free themselves and dissolve, as the spectator walks round it, like a landscape watched from a moving train.
Early in the twentieth century artists were trying to find a common denominator for all art—the indefinable factor which can bridge any gap of time, distance or national frontier. In attempting to isolate this quality, the artists left out of their works anything that seemed irrelevant, superficial or unimportant (unlike the academic artists of the time, who put in everything), thus bringing them down to the bare essentials: form, design, balance and rhythm. It was then a short step from non-realistic art to non-representational art—in other words, Abstract Art. If form and design are all that matter, then logically nothing else should be necessary, and all human associations may be eliminated.
The development of non-realistic and non-representational (also known as non-figurative) art has been the most important innovation in the modern movement, and both have given rise to a number of other movements and a great variety of different styles. Of these, Expressionism is the most notable. It may be defined as the expression of the artist’s personal inner vision rather than of the world about him. It is therefore the opposite of Abstract Art, which, as we have seen, is an interpretation of the outside world. These two differing points of view, Expressionist on the one hand and Abstract on the other, are the modern equivalent of the divergence between Romantic and Classical art; that is whether the emphasis shall be on subject and emotion or on form and design. All are represented in every work of art but in varying degrees according to the temperament of the artist.
Henry Moore’s approach is the Classical one; his abstract and semi-abstract compositions are based on life; not only the human figure, but on the infinite number of forms in nature which have particular significance for him (plate xvii). A study of living plants and trees, the formation of the landscape itself, and the small natural objects to be found in it—fossils, bones, flints, shells and pebbles—have given him an insight into the special qualities of wood and stone. His wood carvings, both large and small, have an elegance of treatment which proves his sensitive appreciation of every type of wood he uses. He always finishes his wood surfaces with a delicate polish which emphasizes the grain.
Epstein was a great sculptor of portraits modelled in clay for bronze, but he never carved wood. It suited his character better to pit himself against a more intractable material—the hardest stone he could find. His carvings were vigorously hewn out of large blocks, leaving the toolmarks still visible, and for them he took timeless, universal themes which he interpreted through the expression of his extremely powerful and personal inner vision. In treatment and style, these carvings may be regarded as Expressionist.
The freedom of the artist to give full rein to individual self-expression and individual choice of style and treatment, has never been greater. This has destroyed any coherence in development and has prevented that slow growth of a tradition which was normal in the past. The confusion of art-styles reflects the growing complexity of this century including its many new ideas, philosophies and changes in human thinking. Freud’s discoveries in psychology and his emphasis on the sub-conscious part of the mind with its dreams and fantasies, have had a strong influence on art.
One of its signs was the Surrealist movement of the thirties, which used the irrational incongruities of dreams as subject matter. This aspect of life had previously been expressed in art, but this was the first time it was used solely as the theme. The interest in child-art in this century is another indication of the preoccupation with psychological ideas, and a more recent sign is the belief that art can even take a step beyond the sub-conscious into the non-conscious regions of the mind.
The exhibiting of monkeys’ so-called painting was an extreme attempt to prove this. In Action painting, the advanced style typical of the fifties, the painter aims to shut off his conscious mind and in putting on the paint to make the action of his hand as undeliberate and fortuitous as possible, so that self-expression may come unawares. Action painting has its equivalent in sculpture. Abstract shapes are constructed in welded metal or in any material that may be at hand: wire, wire-netting, small wood-blocks, steel rods or old scrap-iron, crushed and welded together, with the bits of machinery and machine-parts still recognizable. Many of these sculptures are robot-like and give a sinister impression.
Their surface is mechanical, and the hand of the sculptor nowhere in evidence; the sculpture converges toward engineering and is equally impersonal. Paradoxically, the effort to reach the extreme point of personal inner consciousness has produced works which give a sense of complete anonymity, as they lack the individual ‘handwriting’ which normally distinguishes the work of one artist from another.
This art-form is known as Abstract-Expressionism, which might seem a contradiction in terms. But both types of artist work within it, each borrowing from the other. The Expressionists use abstract forms in their own way, just as the Romantic artists took over the themes, poses and costumes of Classical art. They give their works evocative titles, expecting the spectator to draw on his own imagination and read into them his own meaning and interpretation. But in its true sense, Abstract Art should, like music, be free of associations, and should not raise such questions as: what is its meaning, or what is its purpose, which are obstructions to an open mind. The intention is to be accepted, as architecture and ceramics are accepted, where the function is obvious and the abstract quality inherent.
Abstract Expressionism has been widely adopted in America, and it seems to stress an intense reaction toward intricate modern machinery and steel construction work, which may be one of attraction or repulsion. It is essentially a city-dweller’s form of art.
Sculpture and painting are not the only arts experimenting in this way. Electronic music is composed by means of a series of purely mechanical sounds recorded on tape; plays are being performed with disjointed dialogue and no plot, for which the audience must find their own meaning and interpretation.
Forms of art change as they have always had to change. If they were used for too long, they became worn out and only resulted in pale and feeble imitations of the great men who originated them. They needed to be revitalized and invigorated, and by drawing on some untapped source of the past, some of the necessary stimulus had been supplied.
Today, these potential sources are continually multiplying; the choice is so great that new styles follow one another with ever increasing rapidity. Galleries and museums exhibit art from every place and period; books of reproductions are published and widely circulated in all parts of the world. This gives the artist the unprecedented experience of being able to apprehend the whole range of art without even leaving his own country. Every nation may now share the entire world-tradition and this has contributed to the fact that an international style is now appearing again, as it did in the Dark Ages.
A new work can be photographed and publicized within a few weeks, through the distribution of periodicals from one end of the world to the other. The tendency for ever increasing speed is apparent in every side of life. Many sculptors prefer to use materials that can be quickly handled and will give quick results. Wood carving is comparatively slow. But the amount of lasting satisfaction a work of art can give, is governed to a great extent by the amount of thought, consideration and feeling that has been put into it, and in this sense, the slowness of wood carving may be a great advantage. The gradual development of a carving may give the modern wood carver a sense of connection with the past, a bond with the early carvers, whether in Europe of the Middle Ages, or Egypt of four thousand years ago.