Between Painting and Sculpture: the relevance of relief art in the twentieth century
BA Hons., Dissertation Spring 1988
This dissertation is a formalist study of the development of relief sculpture in the period 1880‐1940. As well as for sculpture in the round, painting, and the other arts, this period wrought a fundamental change in the way in which the relief was perceived and utilised as an art form. However, no history exists of the relief as such even though the importance of many individual reliefs has been well documented. My argument is therefore twofold. Firstly I have tried to show that the abstract relief shares a tendency in common with painting and sculpture away from the representational norms of the pre‐Modernist period. Secondly I have argued that by endorsing Modernist criteria, artists employing the relief have brought a new freedom to the ways in which the values of sculpture might be employed. I see the consequence of this being an increased interest in relief art forms being shown by artists from the forties to the present day.
It is the aim of this dissertation to discuss the principle ways in which the course of relief art changed at the turn of the century, and to look at some of the consequences of this in the work of the succeeding generation. The latter part of this century has witnessed a fundamental debate on the nature of sculpture and the validity of the art object and many works are no longer simply classifiable as being purely sculptural or purely painterly, or indeed as purely ‘art’. Wholly new considerations have come into play during the course of the twentieth century, and this debate is reflected with a particular acuteness by the role of the relief.
The concept of a single‐sided piece of sculpture was, in the pre‐Modernist period, related to the more decorative concerns of the minor arts. However, since 1948 the proliferation and diversification of relief art forms, in media, concept and style, indicates an unprecedented transference of values between painting and sculpture in Western art.
In trying to sort out what has happened to make this possible, I have found it more useful to concentrate on abstract works, in themselves a modern phenomenon as figurative works have tended to remain within more easily definable sculptural conventions. I have also chosen to bypass issues of monochrome/polychrome as I am more concerned to examine the structural aspects of sculptural relief; after all, the relief has its roots in the sculpted surface, and some of the more fundamental innovations have been concerned with space rather than colour. The modern response to polychrome sculpture would be worthy of a separate investigation. The third parameter I have had to impose has been to concentrate on the turning points of Modernist invention. The major advances were all made within the first forty years of this century, works after the Second World War being generally extensions and expansions of precedents already laid down.
Behind the rationale of this dissertation lie two assumptions. The modern relief belongs partly to the traditional marriage of painting and sculpture which has not been in common use in the west since the Gothic period. Secondly, relief has become an independent form. On the one hand it has broken away from its traditional dependence on architecture, and on the other, it has broken away from the conventions of sculpture by rejecting traditional premises on materials and colour with the advent of abstraction and constructivism. It will be clear that by ‘relevance’ I am referring to the new status relief work has gained in its relationship with painting and sculpture.
One problem in assessing the relative importance of relief art lies in the critical tradition of assuming painting and sculpture to be mutually divergent art forms, any mixing of media being at best a hybrid, and at worst a dilution of a purist ethic. While the post‐Renaissance tradition has encouraged such separation to the advantage of both arts, like all thoroughbreds, painting, and particularly sculpture, have also both suffered from this rarefication. The emergence of ‘Academy’ art has frequently led artists into the sterility of stylistic formalism and a consequent loss of that magic which some historians and critics believe to be the main source of worthwhile art.(1) But the phenomenon which is currently flowering in the hands of such diverse artists such as John Latham, Mark Boyle and Stephen Cox is still perhaps too new to have made its point in the minds of established critics.(2) Very few contemporary critical writers seem prepared to accept the relief as a significant medium in its own right, and I am particularly indebted to Albert Elsen and Rosalind Kraus for their stimulating material on the subject.
The dissertation has proven quite popular but it is not intended to be resold by so-called academic agencies. I am therefore only leaving the Abstract and Introduction online for perusal. If anyone should wish to purchase the full version as a pdf, (20 pages including references) they can email me.
Contact: sandehalynch at yahoo dot com
1 Ernst Fischer in The Necessity of Art (Penguin, 1963) offers a highly plausible account of the earliest arts of mankind and the need for magic symbols.
2 These artists were exhibited at the Royal Academy, “British Art in the 20th Century”, and at the Tate Gallery, “Forty Years of Modern Art”.