A Letter From
Recent Editorials in the WORLD REVIEW urge us to consider a fresh assessment of painted sculpture in general, and tempt us for a start with an exciting account of what Spain has to offer.
Old arguments for and against the painting of sculpture are bound to crop up again as they have before, and artists and critics may think they know them all by heart. Actually, however, as far as we can tell, the crux of the matter seems hardly to have been adequately dealt with. The July Editorial comes near to it when speaking of ‘the power of creating magic images’ ... ‘releasing the spirit from the tree and the conjuring up of figures from the living wood’, without, however, suggesting how a successful marriage of painting and sculpture begins or develops. If this could be done, we might better understand how the two came to fall apart and may even yet be reconciled.
The material of sculpture (not to be confused with modelling) is commonly wood and stone, but before sculpture even begins, certain wood and stone is reverenced for its own sake. For there were sacred stones and trees, supposedly inhabited by spirits, which were given ‘life’, ‘fed’, or maintained by man, in close proximity to their physical manifestations, with the help of suitable offerings.
Highly important among these was the ceremony of LUSTRATION, which consists of pouring water over the sacred object, water, milk or oil, the intention perhaps being to give ‘light’, or a magically-convincing appearance of life, to the body of the in-dwelling spirit.
But even holy trees die at last. The timber, however, could be preserved. Thus portions of dead trees (still regarded as sacred), as well as holy stones, could be set up and perhaps protected from the weather or profane gaze by a simple shelter or shrine. It is not a very great step for this material to become ‘touched up’ by primitive tools into the beginnings of sculpture.
Modifications in lustration, too, become evident. At some period, ochreous colouring-matter becomes added to the water, milk, etc., before pouring over: red ochre being popular, with its blood-like, life-suggesting vibrations. The lustrating substance now acts as a vehicle for colouring-matter.
But when a material, however sacred in itself, begins to be shaped by man, the question of fallibility arises. What shape, after all, is the ‘right’ one? What is most like, or best suited to, the ‘spirit’? At first, unconscious collective reactions may find their own level in agreed patterns, but as thinking develops, criticism can enter in, with the artist less relied upon to furnish what HE may think is the desirable exterior form of the image. An authoritative body, therefore, grows into power, which will thereafter not be altered. This body will similarly exercise control over the vicissitudes of lustration. In spite of all, however, a growing ‘realism’ will be seen in the sculptural forms, while the lustrating material will be spread with some deliberation over clearly-defined areas, and not simply poured over. With various colouring materials coming into use, applied to the statue with a brush, the process can now properly be described as ‘painting’.
Thus, in time, from the first tentative beginnings, the manifest ‘likenesses’ of the spirit forms become more realistically defined. As sculptural skill increases, so lustration, or painting, becomes more ‘life-like’. Spanish painted sculpture of today might well be illustrative of this process in its final stage, for Catholic communities still preserve something of an essential ‘magic’ with which to surround and impregnate their revered objects. Perhaps the Editorial is right in saying that for such people the painted statue is ‘more approachable and more dear’. It might be argued, however, that, for some other people, spiritual qualities in a statue might seem superficial and far less truly divine in so ar as they are painted into humanised likenesses. It is very easy to see, though, that for the believer so many of his images still become ‘miraculous’.
With science in the ascendent, magic, with its particular dependence on sub-conscious emotive states, is becoming rather suspect. Apart from religion, what magic there is emerges rather weakly out of neo-primitive and personal awareness, supported by very little authority from either the church or the popular mind. But it is here that painting and sculpture are kept most widely apart.
With most of Henry Moore’s work, any application of colour would hinder appreciation of the intrinsic beauty of his materials. Some of it might take a simple, ‘poured’ effect, but somehow the process, being reminiscent of ceremonial, brings in an element which would be bound to worry him. Marino Marini, on the other hand (almost exclusively a modeller, it should be remembered), uses traces of colour to some advantage. He does, however, cheat a little, since the patina and simplification of his surface treatment suggests that of sculpture dug up from a past civilisation. Some of it, in truth, almost seems to groan, as though partially-reanimated creatures are struggling vainly with their flesh encrusted with old lava. Marini’s colouring effects, too, convey the impression of old lustrations in the act of flaking off rather than of recent ones freshly put on. This cheating is, however, most appealing in an age like our own where antiques and antique effects are of growing interest and importance.
Without pursuing our inquiry any further into modelling (or pottery, in which the use of colour is generally accepted), it is well to keep the working differences between painting and sculpture clearly in mind. Sculpture, it is suggested, originates in the heightening of innate qualities sensed in the original material, at which time lustration appears necessary to it. A drawing, however, is a gesture, usually recorded on a flat surface with the aid of a suitable instrument, which becomes a painting on being lustrated with colour.1 Strictly speaking, one cannot ‘draw’ with colour, although, particularly in oils, this is often attempted. colour has, in fact, tended to become exclusively a painter’s medium, heightening and giving magic to a drawing (ilLUMINAtion, ilLUSTRAtion). The embellishment of architecture with colour is another story.
In Roman Catholic countries where very ancient traditions are still largely followed, the sanctification of objects, sculptured or otherwise, is still recognised, and the lavish use of colour encouraged. It is the ‘reformed’ religions that tend to throw doubt on all this and use the term ‘idolatrous’. The emancipated sculptor, too, in following his own inclinations and developing formal values, has tended to discard colour, which he regards, in its final stages, as often a mere ‘skin’ to conceal inferior materials: pieced-up, gesso-coated wood, etc., which cry out for such extra-sculptural aids to save them. The battle, then, appears to be between the display of natural magic emanating from the material itself through simple cutting and polishing, and the tendency to cancel out such qualities whilst enhancing the form with the more immediately appealing, but less enduring, application of paint.
Summing up, here are the suggested stages:
1. Certain natural materials, where believed to be inhabited by spirit forces, are ‘fed’ by pouring over them some bright ceremonial liquid (lustration).
2. The materials become shaped tentatively by man into the supposed likeness of the in-dwelling spirits. Lustration continues.
3. With the supposed likeness now fixed by ‘authority’, and reproduced in any numbers in any material, lustration becomes confined to a deliberate colour-printing of specific areas.
4. Sculptors, working apart from traditional authority, reject colour, and return by degrees to stage one, in that the materials as found and selected are enhanced significantly by carving.
A fifth stage, as proposed by the Editor, would be the possibility of bringing sculpture and painting together again in a new and profitable relationship.
If the above evolution be accepted, it remains to be seen whether the marriage outside of authority and a ‘form of words’, without their work appearing, on the one hand, merely sham-religious, or on the other, waxwork-real.
1 [Original footnote]: Michelangelo’s famous letter defines sculpture as ‘taking away’ and painting as ‘adding on’ to the material. -Ed.
* First published in WORLD REVIEW, November, 1952.