Modern Sculpture


Table Summary

Summary of Modern Sculpture
Early Modern
ca. 1850-1900
Late Modern
ca. 1900-60
ca. 1960-present
Rodin heavy distortion/abstraction: Brancusi > Moore
new types: assemblage (Picasso/Braque), mobile (Calder)
Oldenburg (pop sculpture)

General Features

The course of modern sculpture parallels that of modern painting. The early modern period (ca. 1850-1900) witnessed a departure from smooth, precise realism in favour of light distortion. During the period ca. 1900-WWI, distortion was pushed to radical extremes, ultimately reaching the point of utter abstraction. (For a more detailed account of modern art movements, see Modern Painting.)

It should be noted that traditional styles (pre-modern styles) of sculpture have never gone out of production. This is explained by the timeless appeal of traditional sculpture, especially for public monuments. Many of the great civic monuments of the United States (e.g. Mount Rushmore, the Lincoln Memorial statue), for instance, are rendered in traditional styles, despite being twentieth-century works.

Main Article

Early Modern

ca. 1850-1900

The towering figure of early modern sculpture is Auguste Rodin, who mainly produced bronzes. Although some are smoothly polished, Rodin's most characteristic works feature rough, unfinished forms and textures, giving them a dramatically raw appearance.5 Rodin's style constitutes the sculptural equivalent of the sketchy, unfinished appearance of impressionist paintings; in both cases, one's imagination fills in the details.F111,F420,G464

Sometimes, parts of Rodin's sculptures are left so unfinished that they seem to be emerging from the block of material. This can be observed in his most famous work, The Thinker. Rodin's other primary works include The Kiss and The Burghers of Calais.

The Thinker
The Kiss
The Burghers of Calais

Late Modern

ca. 1900-60

In the early modern period, moderate distortion was introduced to Western art. In the period ca. 1900-WWI (the rise of extreme distortion period), this trend advanced to heavy distortion and ultimately abstraction (see Realism vs. Stylization). The "rise of extreme distortion" was led by painters; abstraction was first achieved in painting, followed by sculpture shortly thereafter.

The two foremost names in the field of highly-distorted and abstract sculpture are Brancusi and Moore.

Romanian-French artist Constantin Brancusi was the leading pioneer of highly-distorted/abstract sculpture; indeed, he is often credited with the world's first abstract sculptures. Brancusi strove to reduce the physical world to three basic forms: egg, pebble, and grass blade. His most famous works are a number of ovoid busts and the virtually abstract Bird in Space sculptures.F129-33,1

Sculptures by Brancusi: bust, bust, Bird in Space, Bird in Space, kissing couple

Brancusi was succeeded by the other leading twentieth-century figure of highly-distorted/abstract sculpture, England's Henry Moore. Moore specialized in simplified, curvilinear human figures, often in a reclining position and pierced with large voids. The overall shapes of Moore's work often resemble pieces of enormous bones (especially vertebrae).

Sculptures by Henry Moore: examples

"Heavy distortion/abstraction" was a new style of sculpture. In addition to this new style, the late modern age also gave rise to new types of sculpture. The two most revolutionary new types were assemblage and mobile.

In assemblage, a sculpture is built (from distinct parts) rather than carved or moulded (from a substance). Picasso and Braque, the founders of cubism, are credited with the invention of assemblage.

Assemblage Sculptures by Picasso: Guitar, Head, Bull

A mobile is a sculpture with moving parts, typically powered by wind or touch. The inventor and foremost sculptor of mobiles was American Alexander Calder.

Sculptures by Calder: examples


ca. 1960-present

Throughout the early and late modern periods, traditional aesthetic limitations (regarding both form and content) were torn down. These periods featured a number of clear, dominant artistic trends (e.g. expressionism, cubism). The postmodern age, which began ca. 1960, has been much less prone to dominant trends, given that there is relatively little new aesthetic territory to explore.

The most famous postmodern sculptor may be Swede Claes Oldenburg, whose work is classified as pop art. The pop art movement, which emerged in 1960s America and Britain, features depictions of everyday objects and popular culture. Oldenburg specializes in massively scaled-up ordinary objects, including a giant clothespin, applecore, and spoon with cherry.

Sculptures by Oldenburg: examples

For further discussion of postmodern art generally, see Modern Painting.

External Resources

Alexander Calder at Artsy

1 - "Western sculpture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
2 - "Sculpture", Encarta 2004.
3 - "Constructivism", Encarta 2004.
4 - "Sculpture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed September 2010.
5 - "Auguste Rodin", Encarta 2004. Accessed September 2010.
6 - "Surrealism", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
7 - "Daniel Chester French", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
8 - "David Smith", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
9 - "Henry Moore", National Gallery of Art. Accessed September 2010.