Sculpture is perhaps the oldest art form in the whole of art history, produced from antiquity right up to the most contemporary of contemporary art. Sculptural artworks are richly varied, ranging from the figurative – such as statues – to the site-specific, the expressive, and kinetic.
And there is a reason for both the longevity and variety of sculpture. The same reason in fact accounts for both qualities of the form. And that is that sculpture is a three-dimensional art.
Firstly, sculpture, existing in three dimensions, is necessarily more durable. If it is to be made of terracotta, ceramics, or white marble, of course it is going to last longer than paintings on canvas or paper. It simply lasts longer. And so, whilst it may be false to say that it is the oldest art form we have, sculptures are definitely the ones that have been preserved the best.
In terms of the form’s variety, the reason for this is again in its three-dimensionality. Anything that is made in three dimensions can legitimately be called a sculpture. And, as expected, many people simply got bored of using different marbles, ivory, or bronze. That’s why now you have lots of different sculptural styles – everything from outdoor sculpture to kinetic sculpture, sculpture gardens and architectural sculpture, public art and figurines.
The lines between the different types of visual arts have blurred in the last century and a half – and so we have a proliferation of lots of different forms which are little more difficult to place.
Here, we are going to run through the history of the art of sculpture – from prehistoric times to the art world of today. We’re going to have to limit it to ‘western art’ (as we are limited in space!) – and we want to be as comprehensive as we can.
So, buckle up.
Just to give you a sense of how old sculpture is, the earliest sculptures that we have found date back thirty-five to forty thousand years to the Upper Paleolithic. Two of the oldest ‘works’ we know – although it is controversial to call this sort of sculpture art – come from the south of Germany.
The oldest is what we call the Löwenmensch, a figurative sculpture of a person with the head of a lion (its name means, in English, ‘lion-man’). Another, which is the oldest undisputed figure of a human, is known as the Venus of Hohle Fels.
As will become clear throughout this trip through sculptural history, the art form was used less as a decorative form than as a ritualistic or religious device.
Much of the interpretation of these pieces focus on the elements of sexuality and fertility. But the amazing thing is that these ‘Aurignacian’ communities made these sculptures at all – living as they did in a continuous struggle for survival.
Not very much is agreed on about these pieces. But what we can know for sure is that, no matter how old these pieces are, people were definitely producing sculptures long before them too.
And whilst we don’t know much about the primitive civilizations that produced the earliest of sculptures, we know plenty about the boom in art production in the period between 4500BC and the end of the Roman Empire.
It’s a little lazy to lump all of this geographical, stylistic, and thematic diversity under one title. Yet, these protoliterate and classical periods are the moment in which sculpture actually begins to resemble the figures it is seeking to represent.
The Greeks didn’t invent sculpture, but they made it into something amazing.
And here, we see a movement away from simply spiritual or ritualistic themes to something much more secular. Starting, roughly, from the famous Great Sphinx of Giza, sculpture came to be entwined with symbols of status and power. These monumental figures were intended to be so colossal so to inspire awe.
Similarly, other sculptural works were envisioned as memorials for great battles – such as the Mesopotamian Stele of the Vultures – or to memorialise and preserve the dead. The famous canopic jars of the Egyptians serve the latter purpose.
With the growth of science – including knowledge of the anatomy, physiology, and motion – sculpture under the ancient Greeks developed dramatically, achieving a naturalistic and representational style. Whilst never relinquishing the religious element of sculpture – as many of the sculptures were placed in temples – Greek sculpture is known for attending closest to the human figure.
The period between 450 and 400 BC is known as the zenith of Greek sculptural culture. This was in large part due to Phidias, one of the most influential and important of Greek sculptors – known for his Statue of Zeus at Olympia.
Roman sculpture learnt essentially all it knew from the Greeks, and from the Etruscans, who had learnt in their own way from the Greeks. Their sculptures were largely completed in bronze – and the Roman period is known primarily for its portraits, such as that of Lucius Junius Brutus.
The Romans essentially copied Greek sculpture.
With the birth of Christianity in the later years of the Roman Empire, sculptural traditions in Europe began to decline. This was in part due to the religious notion that – in the Ten Commandments – that forbade carvings of images. A general social instability across Europe contributed to the fact that, now, there are very few surviving medieval sculptures.
In northern Europe – in Scotland and Britain, and in Scandinavia – a tradition continued of erecting massive stone carvings. These were often in the shape of crosses, or else, in Scandinavia, were carved with runes.
Generally speaking, early and later medieval sculpture was defined by its relation to Christianity. It adorned churches, tombs, and other religious items.
The two styles that are most recognisable today from this period are Romanesque – which drew heavily on Greek and Roman sculpture – and Gothic art, which emerged in France from this style. Both were important in laying the ground for the sculptors of the Renaissance.
Learn about famous sculptures from history!
Representative sculpture from the Medieval period, in France
We have learned to consider the Renaissance as history’s peak of artistic and literary culture. This is sort of true, but, as with all artistic movements, the work of the Renaissance was heavily influenced by what came before.
Just as the Greeks and Romans had moved sculpture away from simple religious imagery towards the human figure, the sculptors of the Renaissance did the same. Figures like Donatello and Michelangelo – who both made versions of David – were very knowledgeable about human anatomy and could make incredibly life-like statues.
Whilst these two names – along with Leonardo da Vinci – are generally associated with the ‘High Renaissance’, styles like Mannerism were just as important in this period.
This period created some of the most famous sculptors in history.
Whereas the sculpture of the Renaissance focused on still human figures, the thing that characterised the artistic movements that followed was an interest in dynamism.
This is how Baroque sculpture began. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sculptors like Gian Lorenzo Bernini made artworks that reached out into space and that were visible ‘in the round’ – meaning from all different angles. This was quite different to the reliefs that were generally made before.
Whilst Baroque was more interested in large sculpture, rococo focused on small sculpture. But what it lacked in size, it made up for in theatricality and decorativeness.
As tends to happen, this decorative excess drew a backlash, and, in the late eighteenth century, we find a boom in ‘neo-classical’ work. This returned to the classicist principles of the Renaissance, with much more simple figures. Antonio Canova is a hugely important figure in this movement.
At the turn of the twentieth century, a thing called modernism dominated the art world. Every sculptor and writer, all painters, architects, and musicians, were galvanised by this desire to ‘make it new!’.
Modernism and modern art came from a desire to create new artistic and cultural forms. And the person who did this best – and most influentially – in sculpture was Auguste Rodin.
Throughout the final years of the nineteenth century – and into the twentieth – Rodin sought to make sculpture less posed and more impressionistic. His work was more realist (but not necessarily more realistic) than the previous sculptural trends which focused more on religious or mythical figures.
His impact was to be huge – and he has one of the great sculpture museums named after him.
Indeed, much of twentieth-century sculpture followed the path that Rodin had trodden. Yet, it also saw the massive proliferation of different ideas about what art and sculpture could and should be.
Throughout the century, sculpture variously became more abstract, more simple, more symbolic, more concerned with movement and shape, with light and dark, and more interested in different materials.
Some sculptors which should know from the twentieth century are Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Marcel Duchamp, Constantin Brancusi, and Henry Moore.
These days, the possibilities open to contemporary artists are endless. And, as we said at the beginning, the lines between different artforms are continually being blurred. Modern and contemporary sculpture does not always resemble the sculpture that immediately comes to mind.
Yet, this diversity is contemporary sculptures beauty. From Tracey Emin’s ‘Unmade Bed’ to Robert Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’, from Marc Quinn’s ‘Self’ to Richard Long’s ‘White Water Falls’.
Learn more about the basics of sculpture!