Sculpture and the Captivity of the Soul

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Today in our weekly Sacred Sundays feature, I'd like to offer a contemplation on the evolution of a theme in the history of sculpture. There's been two sculptures that have lit people up on Facebook recently (with many linking to them and commenting on them), and they reminded me of the classic series of 'captive' sculptures by Michelangelo, which is where I'll start this inquiry. But just a caveat before I begin. This is the Sacred Sundays feature, so I want to invite the reader into a contemplative viewing space when engaging these images. I'll provide some information and context around these sculptures, but I want to make sure that we don't necessarily get lost in engaging only from that perspective (and I'll also try to keep the context/commentary to a minimum too, not easy for me to do!). That probably doesn't need to be said, but I thought I'd mention it anyway. There's a way in which art can work directly on us, pre-cognitively we might say, and I wanted to be sure that practice was honored too.

The first images are from the now famous 'captive'/'prisoner' sculptures by Michelangelo. They were apparently intended for a massive tomb to be built for Pope Julius II, but the project got derailed. Scholars debate whether Michelangelo's captives were unfinished or intentionally left that way. Regardless, they've proved to be powerful images for many over the years, and there was a time in my life where the first image below spoke to me intensely. I felt like the captive in the image.




In his book Civilisation, art historian Kenneth Clark writes, "Their bodies emerge from the marble with the kind of premonitory rumbling that one gets in [Beethoven's] Ninth Symphony, and then sink back into it...One feels that they express Michelangelo's deepest preoccupation: the struggle of the soul to free itself from matter". This sculpture comes at the birth of the Renaissance and modernity. In it, it seems, the soul is struggling mightily to be free.

In the next image we turn to postmodern sculpture, the piece The Birth of Venus by Luciano Fabro (1992). In the History of Art, H.W. Janson writes, "Unlike Michelangelo's Captive, Fabro's Venus remains imprisoned in the marble forever, with no more than the barest outlines to hint at her possible shape". What does this say about the state of the postmodern soul? Despite it's "ironic takeoff" on art from the past, Janson concludes that "The real surprise is that the piece is so effective, for in its muteness it contains a spellbinding mystery". (p.895).




And now we can turn to a pair of recent sculptures, both of which seem to be genuinely moving people, as attested to by the response to them my Facebook feed. Are these signs of a post-postmodern movement in the soul? Are the captives beginning to break free? Here's the first, a stunner by the artist Paige Bradley entitled Expansion:


Here's a great article that talks about Bradley, her art, and her process of making this particular sculpture. It's well worth the read. The last sculpture also came via Facebook, but I saved the image when I saw it and now can't for the life of me find any information about who the creator was. (Please let me know if you have have any knowledge of this). Once again we see the motif of the captive breaking free from the stone, this time dancing away in bliss.


In Jeremy Johnson's recent article There Be Dragons! Or Mythopoeisis, Chaos, Catastrophe and Evolution, he writes:

"Often it is the artists who foretell a change in the weather, so to speak, and intuit that a shift in both world and worldview is occurring. We can look to the unintended meaning that the artist picks up like a receiver, assimilating the subtle signs that surround us but escape our conscious mind from recognition. For the individual, these intuitions come to us in dreams, but on a collective level, movies, myths and books are our culture's dreams. Therefore, it's important to listen to them. Sometimes fiction can say things that are surprisingly reflective of what is really going on".

Do these two last sculptures tell us something about our times? Is something within us beginning to break free? I don't know the answer to this question, but I do know these last two images speak to me personally. Do any of the images bring forth anything for you?

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  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Monday, 10 October 2011 17:10 posted by Philip Corkill

    Yes they do.

    The first one especially had me sinking into the stone and being stone much more than being captive and trying to get out.

    The Bradley piece speaks to the way my sculptures - should any more materialise - will go. Though I want the cracking open to be a process that one can witness over time. A sculpture that develops.

    Some of her other works are beautiful too.

    Thanks for inspiration.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Monday, 10 October 2011 19:33 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    thanks for this Phil, I love hearing your different experience with the Michelangelo figures.

    It's good to be reminded that you're an artist, and at times do sculpture. That rings a bell from a thread way back. Do have any images of something you've created? Would be cool to check that out.

    My understanding is that sculpture went on the outs in the postmodern period, the last couple decades or so. Postmodern art gravitated to things like the installation and conceptual art and the like, but sculpture lost it's appeal to many as an art form. Do you have any insight into why that is? Or why you have delved into that form regardless of its apparent lowered status? If these two sculptures above are any indication, maybe it's a form having a rebirth in certain places.

  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Monday, 10 October 2011 22:06 posted by Philip Corkill

    Here my avatar thingy is a sculpture of mine. Portrait of meditation. Apart from that I have a few photos but nothing I'd want to display publicly at the moment. I'll see if I can get them to you privately though.

    No, I don't have any idea why sculpture lost it's appeal. In fact, I didn't even know that that was the case. I'm often not a very knowledgeable fellow.

    So, I wasn't aware of the lowered status and I'd like to think I don't care. My artistic concern is to create beauty within and without. If, for a period, that's not considered an artistic concern and sculpture doesn't appeal as an art form then I'm OK with not being called an artist too. I just love doing it.

    I enjoy the process, the challenge of creating something, hands on, wrestling with it. And what it requires of me is a very particular type of attention and focus. That's precious.

    What I love about sculpture is that it works on and in space. I love space because it resembles consciousness. I love what appears in space because it's all quite miraculous. Then of course you can never find the demarcation between the two. Even more awe.

    As a human being can appear to bend, expand and radiate qualities of space, so too can a sculpture, to a lesser extent. I think that's what moves me.

    Hurray for a rebirth!:-)

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