According to myth, the first of our ancestors, be they neanderthals or humans, chiseled a large wheel from a boulder to the awe of his cavemen counterparts. Perhaps the brute tools, arrowheads and weapons from our earliest predecessors seem like a far-flung notion of art compared to the hyperrealistic famous sculptures of the last few centuries, but these were indeed the very first handcrafted, primordial sculptures.
The role of sculpting has evolved significantly over the last five hundred years. Many civilizations used the art as a symbol of worship and reverence to gods. The Mayans developed intricate representations of the elements they encountered in their everyday lives. As such, personifications of wind, earth and water were crafted into god-like, anamorphic symbols. Similarly, blessings of fertility, abundant harvest and good fortune were embodied in sculptures for the whole of society to glorify.
The ancient Greeks and their Roman counterparts favored self-reflection to describe their gods in their famous sculptures. The likes of Zeus, Poseidon and Athena were marvels of human perfection, crafted to perfection and molded into a ten foot frame for everyone to behold.
In reality, sculpting was often a way to glorify human attributes and ideals of society. The Renaissance represented a time period of massive human innovation and artistic accomplishment. Art shifted towards more materialistic representations of the world and much of that is reflected in the masterpieces of the time. This monumental shift in art continued for centuries and came to a head in the 20th century, when sculptors took to being more open with their artwork, depicting scenes of erotic romance, political activism and even mundane life in sculpted form.
David: Michelangelo (1504)
While there are many replicas, the original David is the centerpiece of the Academia Galeria in Florence, Italy, which feels like a temple to humanism. It is arguably one of the most famous sculptures in the world. At its alter, one very impressive human measuring 17 ft (5.2 m). His form is chiseled to perfection, with every muscle flexing in mirrored imitation to the human form. The shepherd boy David sizes up the giant Goliath, thoughtful and self-assured, giving the impression that he can take him. This biblical scene is emblematic of the underdog story that very often echoes throughout history’s greatest literary pieces. The statue was, in fact, a symbol inspiring Florentines to tackle their personal Goliaths.
Throughout the 16th century, artists made their point using realism, merging art and sciences. What was once dominated by the abstract had now come to reflect objective reality. In fact, Michelangelo dissected human corpses to understand the human anatomy that would later inform his art. At this point, people realized the best way to glorify god was to recognize and use their talents rather spend time prostrated in the pews of a cathedral. Artists like Michelangelo even exaggerated realism to make their point. David’s large and overdeveloped right hand, for example, is symbolic of the hand of God; it was God that powered David to slay the giant Goliath.
And Florentine’s like to think God’s favor enabled them to rise above rivaling city states. Michelangelo had similar beliefs, feeling that his statues were divinely created within the rock, leaving him to simply chisel away the excess. The halls leading to David are lined with half-finished works Michelangelo called “prisoners” or “slaves” due to their embankment in stone, some with unfinished limbs or facial features.
The Not-So-Glamorous History of David
The statue was commissioned when committee members, then called “overseers”, of the Florence Cathedral decided to commission a series of works reminiscent of stories from the Old Testament. Many of Michelangelo’s contemporaries, like Donatello and Agostino di Duccio, contributed to the projects. It was not, in fact, Michelangelo who began work on David but Agostino di Duccio, who fashioned the legs and torso. His work had been abruptly halted and Antonio Rossellino, another Florentine, sculptor was hired to finish the job.
Rossellino was unceremoniously fired and the statue remained in the cathedrals workshop for over a quarter century before it drew the ire of the commission. At the time, many prominent Renaissance men had applied to revitalize and complete the work, including Leonardo da Vinci. Alas, after only a month of work, Michelangelo was awarded the contract to beautify the slab of marble, then simply called “the Giant”.
The Thinker: Auguste Rodin (1904)
This statue, from Rodin’s point of view, is every man. He is none of those things which public sculpture is often about when depicting heroes: the president, the czar or cardinal. This is universal mankind stripped of any attribute, entirely naked. Rodin attempted to create a man who is heroically splendid by elevating people or scenes that were not considered worthy at the time, a railroad worker, a steel factory foreman, etc. This was the beginning of a romantic fantasy that every man is the worker.
Upon closer inspection, the hyperrealism lends credence to Rodin’s message. The overdeveloped physique of the Thinker stands in contrast to the ordinary man one might encounter in everyday life. The way the body crouches in complete concentration is the thrust of this sculpture. Rodin says himself “what makes my thinker think, is that he thinks not only with his brain, but with his rigid brow, his distended nostrils and his compressed lips.
With every muscle of his arms, back and legs, with the clinched fist and the gripping toes”. This is a total thinking giant; a human effort to make a visual representation for a thought, something that is abstract and lighter than air, into a physical object. The bronze stone upon which the Thinker sits is not a chair. Neither is it an object of any particular relevance. Instead, the amorphous mass was conceptually created to be as opposite of the abstract concept of thought as possible.
Rodin as an artist was so incredibly near-sighted that he could not stand more than 3 ft from his model or sculpture and still see it. When he sculpted, he placed lights behind his models so the silhouette would inform much of his work. Approaching the model, Rodin ran his hands across the physique before returning to his unfinished sculpture and mimicking the movements.
The Terracotta Army: [Commissioned by] Qin Shi Huang (246 BC)
A vast pottery army that was unearthed from the tomb where it laid for more than 2,000 years in 1974. The warriors unique unto themselves: they have different facial features and hairstyles. Their individualized armor and head gear reflects their ranks. They were buried along with Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China , who believed that the army would serve to protect him in the afterlife. Qin was so obsessed with the concept of the afterlife, that he spent his last remaining years desperately employing alchemists and deploying expeditions in search of elixirs of life that would help him achieve immortality. The chambers surrounding the emperor’s tomb contained monuments, artifacts and an army to accompany him into the next world and continue his rule.
Ancient Chinese society believed in the afterlife, so much so that when elite members, like kings or noble people, died they were normally buried with their servants as a form of human sacrifice. When the practice came into question, ceramic replicas of royal subjects would instead interred with them. At the time, the commonly accepted notion of an afterlife was an oasis for the recently deceased. As such, arrangements were made for all manner of recreation to also be buried along with the department, including musical instruments, animals and weapons.
The Army Itself
The army is still standing in precise battle formation and is split across several chambers: one contains a main force of 6,000 soldiers, each weighing 700 lbs. A second has more than 130 war chariots and over 600 horses. And a third houses the high command. An empty fourth pit suggests that the grand project could not be finished before the emperors death. In addition, nearby chambers contained figures of musicians, acrobats, workers, government officials and various exotic animals. The statues themselves are made from terracota, or “baked earth”, a type of reddish brown clay. To construct them, over 720,000 artisans were conscripted by the emperor.
The warriors were found accidentally when rural farmers dug a well to find instead random pieces of pottery along with a head of one of the warriors. Some of the warriors were so well preserved, that red, green and blue dyes were still discernible from their garbs despite thousands of years of erosion with groundwater. Some dyes were as a result of chemical reactions thought to have only been discovered well after the time of the Qin dynasty, revealing the technological advancements of the time period.
Freedom: Zenos Frudakis (2001)
Just beside the busy expressway that bisects Philadelphia stands a celebrated sculpture, so remarkable that it has been routinely been identified as one of the finest pieces of public art in the world. It’s creator, Zenos Frudakis, peppered the work with personal details, including semblances of his parents and cat, to a very eclectic final result.
“I wanted to create a sculpture almost anyone, regardless of their background, could look at and instantly recognize that it is about the idea of struggling to break free. This sculpture is about the struggle for achievement of freedom through the creative process”, said the artist.
The sculpture features several molds of human beings encased in a bronze mesh, each in a different state of imprisonment. To the far left, a 6 ft tall figure is completely expressionless and interred in his surroundings. Immediately to its right a figure wrestles with his bronze prison, his arms still bound to the wall, his torso outstretched towards the outside. Further to the right, a figure has managed to free its hand and desperately reaches for the fourth and final figure, who, in cathartic celebration, reaches towards the sky, relieved with its newfound freedom.
Non-Violence (the Knotted Gun): Carl Fredrik Reutersward (1985)
While many sculptors throughout history have sought to create esoteric pieces of art as monuments to abstraction and symbolism, Carl Fredrik Reutersward had other ideas. Five years after John Lennon’s assassination, Reutersward crafted a bronze statue of an erect .357 Magnum with a barrel twisted into a full knot.
The monument was dedicated to the deceased artists and peace activists, who was gunned down outside of his Manhattan apartment building in December of 1980. Reutersward view towards gun violence is quite clear, but not nearly as clear as the detail on the sculpture itself – from the panels on the pistol to the trademark and product number and insignia on the frame.
The original sculpture, aptly named “Non-violence”, stands in Malmo, Sweden—Reutersward home — but many replicas of various sizes and detail are found around the world, most notably in front of the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City. It is also used as a symbol for the international non-profit The Nonviolence Project, which seeks to promote social change through non-violence intervention programs.
Christ of the Abyss: Guido Galletti (1954)
Statues around the world are meant to be accessible to the broad public, particularly those that venerate prominent figures in human history. Guido Galletti’s towering statue of Christ himself, arms raised towards the sky in invocation, was made for another purpose. The haunting 8 ft (2.5 m) figure was submerged 50 ft (15 m) below the Mediterranean surface off the coast of the Abbey of San Fruttuoso, a small monastery on the Italian Riviera.
The statue gained prominence more than 8 years after its sculptor’s death, when it was lowered into the Mediterranean sea on request of world-famous diver Duilo Marcante. Marcante wanted the statue placed in honor of his colleague and friend Dario Gonzatti, who drowned in the area a few years prior. Christ of the Abyss has since become covered in all matter of coral and marine life, which, along with the murky waters, makes for a stirring site.
After the initial placement, similar submarine statues cropped up across the globe, most notably a 25ft (7.6 m) mock-up off the coast of Key Largo, FL. The statues have since become a popular tourist destination for those willing to venture into deep waters.