In Focus

Twentieth-century European Sculpture

During the first part of the 20th century, European sculpture was radically transformed. No longer anchored within a singular, classical tradition, sculptors experimented with diverse combinations of volumes, materials, colors, and spaces. Relinquishing the formal and traditional representation of the human body, Auguste Rodin dominated early 20th-century sculpture through his emphasis on expression, volume, light, and shadow. Rodin's iconoclastic sculptures both relied upon 19th-century romantic art, with its tormented passions and tragic sense of history, and anticipated abstract art, through swiftly modelled forms which suggest, rather than define, the human figure. Lumpy, distorted, askew from a central balance, wavering or surging like flames, Rodin's heroic sculptures embody struggle, defiance, and yearning.

Many artists followed in his steps. Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, one of Rodin’s pupils, worked in an even more expressive manner. Influenced by classical Greek sculpture, Aristide Maillol, however, returned to a more balanced representation of the female body, favoring volume over expression. Maillol's serene, stable Flora (1960.70) based on classical prototypes, belongs to a different realm of the imagination. Artists such as Constantin Brancusi abandoned almost any reference to classical representation. Brancusi sought to reach the purest and simplest volumes possible, using traditional materials like bronze and stone but juxtaposing them in a new way. Jacques Lipchitz, influenced by cubism, retained references to the human figure but reassembled them in a combination of planes and volumes. Organic associations are visible in the abstract work of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Hepworth's sculptures translate landscape into monumental abstractions, as Moore did for the human figure. Moore's fusion of landscape and the human form is a counterpoint to more purely abstract works, like Naum Gabo's Constructed Head (1981.35), which uses the new medium of celluloid or Jean Arp's Classical Sculpture (1966.13.FA), which subtly modulates Greek composition into abstract form. During this time, borders between the arts became blurred. A painter, Ben Nicholson, created volumes of pure whiteness animated only by geometric low reliefs and shallow shadows.

Adapted from

  • DMA gallery label, Fall 2010.

  • DMA thematic label copy, Ancient Mediterranean and European Art, n.d., Education files.