Sculpture’s Narrative Altered by Photography

A survey into the representation of sculpture and how photography has played a vital role in capturing the image.

The year 1839 marked a progressive shift in the very definition of what an image was or could be conceived to be. Almost simultaneously two very different men, one working in France and the other active in England, invented two photographic processes that have forever altered our idea of how an object, a scene, or a person can be visually represented. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot, through their experiments with chemicals and light, respectively created the daguerreotype and the negative/positive process. Neither could have imagined the influence that their inventions would have on future generations of artists, let alone on the world as a whole. As a subject sculpture was an ideal starting point for early photographers – its very inertness allowing for prolonged exposure times and denigrating the very transient nature of the human subject.

The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today, opening this August at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, examines the way that the photograph has been used to document sculpture in all its forms, from Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss to one of Barbara Kruger’s layered photographs, such as Untitled (Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face). The exhibition, which brings together over 100 works, illustrates the way our ideas of what a sculpture is, have been altered by the photograph. Sculpture has gone through an art historical revival via the photographic process and, simultaneously, the paradigms of what constitutes a sculpture have shifted, allowing for the performing body, the architectural structures of cities, and even the detritus left on the floor, to be included within these rapidly disappearing boundaries.

The Original Copy is thematically arranged around ten central concepts, of which the inanimate, immobile sculpture as photographed is but one aspect. Roxana Marcoci, curator of the exhibition, has brought together a diverse range of artists – some who we would identify solely as photographers or sculptors, and others who bridge the gap between the two artistic mediums, evading the boundaries of categorisation. Cyprien Gaillard, Horst P. Horst, and Bruce Nauman, are just a few of the artists selected to illustrate this. Starting from a historical viewpoint, with photographers who chose as their subject actual classical sculptures, and progressively moving onto nature, society, the body, and the gaze, and how they intersect with the camera, The Original Copy showcases the quest for a new idea of the authentic copy.

The exhibition begins with the preservation of the subject through its photographic copy. This is an enviable element of photography and one that appealed to early photographers, such as Charles Negré (1820-1880) and Henri le Secq (1818-1882). Negré and le Secq photographed France as it existed and was identified through its many cathedrals, monuments, sculptures, and society. Perhaps most famously, they documented the sculptural elements of Chartres Cathedral – the door jambs, the tympanum, the buttresses – examining the cathedral not just as an architectural edifice, but as a work of art. Though working almost 100 years later, the viewer can see that same quality in the work of contemporary Swiss duo, Fischli/Weiss, whose sculptural works are photographed with a solemnity reminiscent of Negre and le Secq. Utilising light, angles, and the crop, these artists force the viewer to look at objects, whether it be a sculpture of a saint, or of two chairs precariously balanced upon one another, from an entirely different approach.

For the sculptor, Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), the photograph was not just a method of preserving his work, but a necessity of survival. Brancusi moved to Paris from Bucharest in 1904 and, as a relatively unknown artist without an art dealer, photographs became the easiest way of getting his work known. From an early period he refused to allow anyone else to photograph his work and, on his death, left behind over 560 negatives and 1,000 photographs. His interest lay not just in the photographic image, but in its ability to capture the different juxtapositions achieved through the careful, but often sporadic, sculptural arrangements he achieved in his studio. Staged studio works such as View of the Studio: Maiastra, Princess X, an Endless Column, and Sleeping Muse II (before 1917), demonstrate his talent as an object-based sculptor as well as a performative artist. His sculptures invade the studio space, creating an entirely new body of work.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), working almost concurrently with Brancusi, abandoned the art historical view of what constituted “art” and, like Brancusi, began to produce a new body of work – that of “Readymades”. Duchamp took ordinary, mundane objects – chosen for their form and availability rather than their rarity ­– and through their recontextualisation within the gallery negated that quality of mass production. A white ceramic urinal fixed to a wall signed “R. Mutt” became a sculpture of a fountain, the context of placement and exhibition, determining its value as an art object. Duchamp stated, with reference to his pseudonym “R. Mutt”: “He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.” This is one of the main underlying themes of the exhibition; all the artists selected have, through various processes and engagements, created a new thought for an object. The traditional idea of what constitutes a “sculpture” is void, with artists such as Duchamp and Robert Smithson literally moving the outside world into the art historical rhetoric of language.

This shift, from the classical sculpture to non-conventional forms, truly came into being during the early 20th century with artists such as Bas Jan Ader, Man Ray, and Henri-Cartier Bresson. The interplay between the performing subject and the camera is inherent to the work of artists like Ader (who died a premature, tragic death, lost at sea). He utilised his body as the primary subject of much of his work, either performing actions unto himself or onto objects. On the Road to a New Plasticism, Westkapelle, Holland (1971), a series of 4 c-type prints, shows Ader lying on a country lane in four different, but carefully arranged, compositions – his body is arranged in the same position in each image, but they vary by the addition of a blue blanket, then a yellow jerry can, and finally by an emergency red triangle in a red cover. Alluding to the neo-plasticism movement, specifically the works of Piet Mondrian, the photographs capture transitory moments made static. Ader creates a dialogue between himself and the viewer, in much the same way that David Goldblatt and Lee Friedlander do with their photographs of historically important monuments. Goldblatt, Friedlander, and Ader require the viewer to actively engage in a conversation utilising the lingua franca of art history. Ader chooses Mondrian as his inspiration and point of departure for the work, thus requiring his audience to have the basic vocabulary necessary to decode the image. Mondrian, who stated in a 1921 essay that: “Sculpture and architecture, until the present, destroy space as space by dividing it. The new sculpture and architecture must destroy the work of art as an object or thing,” proves an interesting artist for Ader to choose as he supported the blurring of, if not the outright destruction of, the delimitating boundaries of art. Is Ader perhaps alluding to this by disproving the preconceived historical notion that the live body cannot be a sculpture, and that a photograph cannot be a valid representation of that sculpture?

Unlike Friedlander and Goldblatt, Ader, along with Wurm, is reliant on the photograph as evidentiary proof that the act, the performance, occurred. Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures (1997-1998) capture passing movements, gestures often so fleeting that the viewer calls into question the temporal actuality of the movement. These are specific acts done solely for the camera – they are not the product of a calculated decision to photograph a particular subject, as were the works of Eugene Atget, Negré, and le Secq. The art critic Craig Owens succinctly states that: “Photography would represent our desire to fix the transitory, the ephemeral, in a stable and stabilizing image,” and goes on to argue that Atget, along with Walker Evans, makes that desire the subject of their images. It is this desire to both document and preserve that makes photography such a vital art form with regards sculpture, especially during the late 19th and early 20th century when so many cities were rapidly growing and changing during the post-war building boom. Concurrent with change is the fact that something of a city, especially in terms of its architecture, is inevitably lost or destroyed. Robert Frank’s St. Francis, Gas Station, and City Hall, Los Angeles (1956) exemplifies this concern, juxtaposing an antique sculpture set amidst the reality of industrialisation and expansion.

The reconstruction and development of cities meant that the recognisable geographical attributes of the metropolis ceased to exist. Sibylle Bergemann’s 1986 image, The Monument, East Berlin, visually articulates the rapid change that could and was occurring within the late 20th century as a result of shifting politics and ideologies. Monuments were literally being moved away from the public arena or, in some cases, left to deteriorate. Lee Friedlander was especially prolific, photographing monuments and memorials throughout the United States and demonstrating the often fleeting, yet majestic importance we place upon political and cultural icons. Friedlander preserved in her nation’s memory those icons for perpetuity.

The importance of Atget as a leader in this preservation of a disappearing reality is solidified by Marcoci lending an entire room to his work, specifically concentrating on his series at Saint-Cloud, Paris and at Versailles. Though at the time he was competing against major, established French photographic firms such as Neurdien, he established himself as a prolific, talented photographer, choosing as his subjects the slightly more mundane and often overlooked aspects of Parisian and French society. Atget’s photographs demonstrate the interest of artists in light and its variable effect on the subject being photographed. There is an almost Turner-esque aspect to his work in his ability to capture the atmospheric, mysterious quality of light, whether represented via an image of a door knocker (Door knocker, 120 rue de Faubourg Saint Honoré, 1921) or of a classical statue at Saint-Cloud. At the same time that he is creating works of art, he is also making permanent the objects and edifices of everyday life by capturing them: these images have, in some cases, become the original rather than the copy, as the original no longer exists in the form it may have done during his lifetime. Martha Buskirk writing in The Contingent Object in Contemporary Art said: “The ability of the photograph to facilitate comparisons among scattered works has also played a crucial role in assessing the authenticity of the unique originals that remain bound in time and place. Early art historians were avid collectors of photographs, which could convey information about texture and materiality that far surpassed the descriptive value of the reproductive prints they supplanted.” The photograph could, and does, surpass the print in capturing the reality of the subject it depicts, but more than that, as Buskirk would argue, it enables illustrated art history to be a cohesive whole rather than existing fragmented units.

Walter Benjamin famously theorised in 1935: “For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an even greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.” The Original Copy takes this statement and expands upon it, illustrating how photography negates the idea that a sculpture can only be a sculpture as it is an object taking up space. The reproduction of sculpture, in all its forms, through the photographic image, enables us, as an audience, to view a new work of art – one that could not exist without the other.

The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today opened 1 August – 1 November 2010.

Niamh Coghlan