Medardo Rosso: Sculpture as Impressionism

by Alexander Adams

Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) is considered Italy’s most important modern sculptor and the most well-known Impressionist sculptor. Three new publications cover the art of Rosso: two exhibition catalogues and one monograph. All were written by Sharon Hecker, with the contributions by others in the catalogues. Of the three titles, A Moment’s Monument is the most extensive discussion of Rosso’s art, with the catalogues having better illustrations and offering some different perspectives from writers other than Hecker. In A Moment’s MonumentHecker proposes Rosso as one of the originators of Modernism in sculpture (alongside Auguste Rodin) and that Rosso exemplifies the typical international artist of the following century. All of the books are attractively designed, well-produced and contain original content. Overall, the best single book if one wants to understand the art of Rosso is A Moment’s Monument. This review will cover Rosso’s art using this monograph as a source. 

The Pulitzer Arts Foundation at St. Louis, Missouri gathered about 100 sculptures, drawings and photographs by the artist in an exhibition held between 11 November 2016 and 13 May 2017. The works spanned Rosso’s whole career in comprehensive fashion. A unique feature of the installation was a room that featured Ecce Puer (1906) subject to changing levels and directions of artificial light, which revealed different aspects of the small sculpture. A series of photographs show the effect lighting has upon the subtly modelled face of a young boy. Rosso was aware of the influence lighting had on the reading of his sculpture. Writers of the time noted the care with which the sculptor prepared the viewing conditions. It is revealing that Rosso chose to cast in plaster or wax and usually not in bronze. He also did not carve stone nor have replicas carved for him. Rosso allied himself to the most impermanent and fragile of media.

An insightful essay by Tamara Schenkenberg explains how Rosso’s sculptural practice relates to Baudelaire’s criticisms and how that relationship has been viewed by recent critics. It is commonly thought that the problems posed by Baudelaire in his article ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ influenced Rosso’s approach to art. In that essay, Baudelaire threw down the gauntlet to sculptors, stating that painters were the natural artists who could depict the haste and transitoriness that typified modern life. Rosso’s glimpses of modern life in the street or the café concert seem to be an attempt to capture modern life in the way Baudelaire suggested art should. Of the three titles, this catalogue contains the best new illustrations of Rosso’s sculpture.

Sight Unseen is a catalogue from an exhibition held at Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, London (22 November 2017-10 February 2018). The small London exhibition at this gallery featured cast heads in various materials, and drawings. The casts were exhibited on plinths, most in vitrines, dramatically lit. The delicacy of the casts gave them a precarious air. The use of wax not far from melting temperature instils an added impression of precariousness. Versions of Rosso’s best-known work travelled from Museo Medardo Rosso, Barzio, Italy and were also loaned from other locations.

Rosso’s drawings of street scenes and figures in domestic settings are close to Seurat drawings. Executed on scraps of paper, the drawings are rough, quickly executed and tonal rather than linear. They have a decidedly minor inconsequential air. The drawings on show were both the original pencil drawings on paper and the photographs that the artist took of his drawings and exhibited. Rosso chose to exhibit photographs of the drawings rather than the drawings themselves. He is thought to be the first prominent artist to have done this. The print run of 1,250 copies is likely make this attractive catalogue a sought after publication.

A Moment’s Monument: Medardo Rosso and the International Origins of Modern Sculpturecombines new biographical research with a comprehensive assessment of Rosso’s sculpture in a well-sourced monograph. The thesis is that Rosso was a key figure in the development of Modernist sculpture. ‘Modernist sculpture’ here means the creation of non-monumental, non-heroic, non-classical works that do not function the way public sculpture had from the Renaissance until the end of the nineteenth century. Modernist sculpture makes explicit its artificiality, incompleteness and lack of locus. This tendency is typified by the sculpture of Rodin, who was a friend and ally of Rosso before their falling out. Hecker argues that Rosso is at least a tandem partner in the application of Modernism to the field of sculpture.

Born in Turin in 1858, Rosso grew up in Corio, near Turin. In 1877 he moved to Milan. Following his military service, in 1882 Rosso enrolled at Accademia di Brera in Milan, where he studied drawing, but not sculpture. In 1883, he became involved in a campaign to reform academy regulations in order to permit students to use life models. Hecker points out that it was not this stance that led to Rosso’s expulsion, but because of his violent conduct arising from a dispute over a petition. While Rosso was in favour of reform, he was not martyred by a conservative establishment.

Rosso’s typical work was produced from 1883 to 1906. It is characterised by broken surfaces allowing the play of irregular highlight and shadow, fragmentation of figures, veiling of forms, absence of naturalistic detail, unworked rear parts of sculptures and the use of delicate wax and plaster as final surfaces instead of robust stone and bronze. Figures appear partially formed: on the brink of manifesting themselves (or being manifested) and disappearing. This heightens our awareness of the materiality of the artefacts and introduces areas of abstraction. Subjects are more often taken from modern life. There is an ambiguity not only of form but of subject, with the later pieces having unclear subjects and lacking obvious moral or narrative qualities. This ambiguity was deepened by the fact that Rosso used different titles for the same works, suggesting that multiple readings were possible. These changes act as post factorevisions of the art which do not alter its physical substance.

Rosso’s funerary sculpture of a grieving woman (1883) was so sensational and indecorous that the cemetery authority had to remove it. Showing the dishevelled mourner prostrate on the ground, gazing down into the tomb, it transgressed boundaries of restraint and pious feeling and proved too raw for viewers. Abandoning the reassuring narrative of acceptance of divine salvation in the afterlife, the sculpture failed to meet the expectations of funerary statuary. Sadly, the bronze figure has since disappeared.

In 1889 Rosso moved to Paris. The cool reception for his public sculptures and the conservative introversion of Italian art in the Risorgimento led Rosso to judge his art would not have the response in his homeland that he hoped for. The artistic and commercial opportunities of Paris as a centre of advanced art attracted him. It is possible that the failure of his marriage the previous year may also have given the artist reason to put Italy behind him.

In Paris, Rosso turned away from making larger pieces and public monuments, partly through circumstance but partly – one suspects – through choice. He produced many character heads, portraits and heads of children. Most of the subjects were private and anonymous, made on a small scale. His one large sculpture made in Paris was in plaster. It was allowed to deteriorate and was lost without trace save some indistinct photographs. In relation to the heads of infants, it is worth bringing up memorial and commemorative images of the dead. During the Victorian period the high levels of childhood mortality and the familiarity with death led to the practice of memorial photography of the dead, sometimes with family members posed beside the deceased. Memorial art commissioned by families of the deceased was a widespread genre of the period. Some of Rosso’s heads of sickly children are similar in appearance to memorial art.

Rosso’s art combines the dreamy quality of Symbolism, the naturalistic observation of the Realist movement and Degas and the loose handling and powerful materiality of Impressionism. Aligning Rosso to Impressionism is fair, as he admitted. Hecker compares Rosso to the atypical Impressionists Degas and Caillebotte and reasonably writes ‘I believe that, whether by coincidence, sheer intuition, or direct knowledge, he too was reconfiguring the language of Realism for his own needs.’

Rosso experimented with making figures unbalanced and tilting the bases of figures. This tilting of sculptures seems to have had two purposes. Firstly, it was to give a sensation of movement and imbalance, suggesting the transience of position and gesture. Secondly, with sculptures such as The Bookmaker (1893-5), the tilting of a figure and a ground indicate that the viewer is seeing a figure on a street as viewed through a high window. Through an altering of viewpoint, the tableau is imbued with new distance and context.

Rosso made no original work after Ecce puer, considered his masterpiece, in 1906, choosing instead to produce new casts of old works. He hand-finished casts in order to accentuate certain qualities. That practice, added to the retention of imperfections from casting, made each cast distinct enough to be unique.

In A Moment’s Monument, Hecker has ably overcome contradictory information and a dearth of sources to discover new data on the artist. The decision has been made to prefer Rosso’s original photographs over modern images. This captures the spirit and intentions of the artist, but it means readers have to interpret many images low in clarity and detail. The issue of legibility of the work under discussion is a serious one. Some of Rosso’s photographs are severely cropped, preventing our understanding of the extent of the object. If readers do not have access to clearer images, they often have unclear views of exactly what the art is. The two exhibition catalogues therefore are particularly useful, because they include new photography.

It has been mentioned that Rosso’s status fluctuates. Every revival has been followed by a period of neglect. It is easy to establish why this is so. Rosso’s position as an early Modernist sculptor of the figure is supplanted by the more popular, well-loved and prolific Rodin. Rosso offers something other than Rodin, but the Italian’s art is harder to remember, more difficult to describe and trickier to capture by photography. Therefore the case for Rosso as one of the key founders of the Modernist sculptural line is a difficult proposition to establish.

Rosso is a very good artist; some of best work can even be described as great. Yet he is indisputably much more limited as an artist than Rodin. The latter was more productive, tackled more themes, worked on more different scales and in more varied material and was successful in all those areas. Rodin created iconic works such as The ThinkerErosThe Burghers of Calais and Balzac which had great impact and are known to a wide audience. Rodin was a creator of public art in a way that Rosso never was. Rosso produced only about 50 sculptures, mostly heads, and his largest work was lost. Rosso’s sculptures are more private, reflective and subtle, but this means his achievement, while significant and in tandem with Rodin’s, is always going to be overshadowed by his more protean French colleague and rival.

Book references:

Sharon Hecker, A Moment’s Monument: Medardo Rosso and the International Origins ofModern Sculpture, University of California Press, 2017, hardback, 328pp, fully illus., $65/£55, ISBN 978 0520 2944 86

Sharon Hecker, Tony Cragg, Julia Peyton-Jones, Medardo Rosso: Sight Unseen and his Encounters with London, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, 2018, hardback, 111pp, fully illus., £28, ISBN 978 0 99574564 3

Sharon Hecker, Tamara H. Schenkenberg, et al, Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light andForm, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2018, cloth hardback, 152pp, fully illus., $45, ISBN 978 0 9976901 5 6

Aurora Corio