May 23, 2006

Smart’s small-scale Revisions challenges our beliefs about modern art

It is convenient to view modern art as an attempt to make a clean break from art’s realist past. Sometime around the turn of the last century, artists rebelled and turned their back on the weighty traditions of the past. Figures gave way to forms, smoothness to texture, logical space to illegible flatness, narrative and allegory to media and materiality. There are obviously some flaws in such a view, but it remains a tempting and tenacious one. The Smart Museum’s Revisions: Modernist Sculpture by Rodin, Lipchitz, and Moore offers its own modest correction to the picture. Though small in scale, the show is nevertheless visually fascinating, perhaps even more so for its manageable size and its insightful arrangement. Revisions compels and convinces not through theory, but through the visual delights of the art itself.

Revisions, at the Smart Museum of Art through November 5, draws on the museum’s own collection of small-scale bronzes and terra-cotta works by French sculptors Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) and Jacques Lipchitz (1891–1973) and the British sculptor Henry Moore (1898–1986). These three are all part of the modernist canon and, to varying degrees, saw themselves as posing a challenge to more traditional art forms. Rodin, despite his success, remained outside of the artistic establishment. He was rejected three times from the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts and received scathing critical attention throughout his career. The Lithuanian-born Lipchitz was a regular in the avant-garde circle of artists such as Picasso, Gris, and Modigliani. Moore, too, can be seen as an heir to the avant-garde vanguard, exhibiting his work with the Cubists and Surrealists throughout his lifetime. Yet alongside these very modernist stances and concerns, Rodin, Lipchitz, and Moore remained indebted to enduring themes from the figurative tradition.

Revisions isolates four such themes: the reclining female form, the heroic male nude, the fragment, and the allegory. Each of the four sections of the exhibition contains a work by each artist on one of these particular motifs, as well as a more traditional example of the theme. The opening section on the reclining female takes a seventeenth-century Italian bronze of St. Cecilia as its jumping-off point. The martyred saint languishes in a smooth and graceful line, blindfolded and with her face turned away from the viewer. Next to this more traditional work, Rodin’s Reclining Figure (1885) takes up the same implicit sensuality and appreciation of the female form as art. The rough texture of the bronze in the figure’s clothing contrasts with the smoothness of her bare legs and back. Her eyes, too, are closed: inviting a voyeuristic gaze, she is at once more obviously sexualized than the St. Cecilia and more powerfully personal, projecting a very individual kind of psychic space.

Revisions, then, not only revises a contemporary notion of modern art; it also examines revisions themselves, specifically their return to and rethinking of artistic tropes in the Western canon. Rodin, Lipchitz, and Moore continually turn to themes that have occupied Western art since the ancients. The female form, texturally molded in Rodin’s work, becomes an undulating kind of Cubism in Lipchitz’s work and a forum for compelling spatial relationships in Moore’s work. All three of the examples, through fairly different visual means, evoke a sense of the female figure, one that seems almost to grow in its archetypal stature as it departs from the realist idiom.

Certain sections of the exhibition are more successful than others. The section on the fragment, for example, seems caught somewhere between the true fragment and the portrait bust tradition, and neither makes a convincing case. But the show still manages to make its point: works speak to each other across the sections’ boundaries, as the fragment of the heroic male’s torso resonates with the portrait-like works in the fragment section. The exhibition does what every good show should: it allows for and encourages careful viewing while it also rests on a rich conceptual premise. The details of the visual material—expressive lines, surface contrasts, and evocative gestures—stand at the forefront of the exhibit.

Finally, the show hints at one last kind of particularly modern revision: the artistic obsession itself, and the refigured form that the artist returns to again and again in his career. Many of the works on display harken back to other pieces by these artists, whether through actual connections to previous works (as in Rodin’s Head of Pierre de Wiessant, a study for the 1884–86 Burghers of Calais), or through related visual concerns (Moore’s Helmet Head No. 1, for example, recalls both the interior/exterior tensions and the smooth eeriness of his monumental Nuclear Energy, outside the Regenstein). For these artists, the piece is never really finished. These ongoing revisions throughout the artists’ careers are variations on the same theme, manifestations of an enduring visual idea. The Smart’s Revisions exposes the figurative tradition as an inspiration for these very modernist returns. The figure becomes a generative and thought-provoking medium for recurring visual exploration.