Black and white, side by side: the show began with a view of non-identical twin sculptures by Medardo Rosso depicting the industrialist and collector Henri Rouart (both 1890, one in black wax over plaster, one in plaster). On the wall hung a small photograph of a room at the Paris Salon d’Automne of 1904: Rosso had re-touched the image, spraying a purplish-red colour around the outline of one the Henri Rouart sculptures to obscure the paintings that were displayed behind it, thus creating an abstract square as background. From the start, the critical perspective of this exhibition, curated by Peter van der Coelen and Francesco Stocchi, seemed as clear as its layout (three large white cubes in a row, paying homage to Constantin Brancusi’s glaringly white Parisian atelier in Impasse Ronsin). Bringing together three Paris-based masters of the avant-garde (and an impressive checklist of iconic works lent by MoMA, Centre Pompidou and Tate, among others) ‘Brancusi, Rosso, Man Ray – Framing Sculpture’ looked at these three artists’ individual approaches to reproducibility. It was a timely focus given recent explorations of new interfaces between sculpture and technical reproduction. Think, for instance, of Oliver Laric’s Lincoln 3D Scans (2013), which aim to treat ‘the objects as starting points for new works’ (as stated on the project’s website); or of Clemens von Wedemeyer’s Afterimage (2013), with its ghostly 3D animations moving across layers of sculptures, replicas and props in an old storage facility of Rome’s Cinecittà. But the Rotterdam show reminded us that issues such as copy vs. original, post-production, or the construction of form across so-called new media are not entirely new.
An obvious forerunner was Auguste Rodin: from the 1870s the sculptor had all his works photographed and used to draw on the prints. He hired Edward Steichen to photograph his Monument to Balzac (the public exhibition of which, in 1898, marked the end of Rodin’s friendship with Rosso, whose influence on the piece the former refused to acknowledge, though it was noted by critics). Rosso, Brancusi and Man Ray all used the camera themselves in experimental ways often considered objectionable by their contemporaries, but also in order to ‘correct’ what they deemed the improper documentation, interpretation and display of their oeuvre. Rosso’s photographic works and collages included here (of which there were over 50) are surprisingly bold. He used them to find viewpoints on what art historian Paola Mola has described as his ‘transient form’. (Mola’s groundbreaking studies on Rosso and Brancusi paved the way for several aspects of this exhibition.)
From 1906 onwards, Rosso stopped creating new subjects and motifs and instead kept reworking the same figures by means of different casts and photographs. He cut, cropped and enlarged his negatives (sometimes reproducing them up to 20 times the size, thus dissolving the image); he expanded the grainy texture of images printed on magazines; he retouched the prints with graphite, pen, tempera and lead white. On display were five of the almost 50 blow-ups Rosso produced between 1906 and 1925 of Impressione d’omnibus (Impression of an Omnibus, 1884–89), a large group sculpture lost before the artist moved from Milan to Paris, the only remaining trace of which was the negative of a photograph taken of a print of an earlier photograph of the work. It was after spending more than a decade of manically photographing another work, the wax-on-plaster Enfant au sein (Child at the Breast, 1889), that Rosso decided to radically alter the bronze version of the sculpture (1910–14) by eliminating the mother’s head in order to emphasize the magmatic torso.
With Brancusi’s Tête d’enfant endormi (Head of a Sleeping Child, 1906–07), the twin display of the Henry Rouart sculptures was repeated: a version in dark plaster was exhibited alongside one in bronze and adjacent to a photograph from 1923 of the artist’s studio, where the head rests on a pedestal next to a plaster cast of one of its abstract successors, Le Nouveau-Né (The Newborn, c.1923). Using a taille directe, or direct carving method, didn’t prevent Brancusi from multiplying his objects in open series. Photography played a key role in this process, especially after the artist participated in the 1913 Armory Show (displaying photographs of sold works to compensate for their absence) and learned from Ray how to improve his use of the camera. His photographs emphasized the play of light on the smooth surfaces of his sculptures – for which they were regularly criticized, even by Ray himself, as either under- or overexposed. It was fascinating to see more than 20 images of the studio (plus fragments of the 16 mm and 35 mm films Brancusi started shooting after 1923) reunited in the exhibition, recording the infinite arrangements and combinations of the same objects – as if in a painting by Giorgio Morandi.
Man Ray’s assemblages, described by the artist as ‘a substitute for sculpture’, and his Rayographs (or photograms), closed the cycle. Alongside the usual suspects, such as The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse (1920), Dust Breeding (1920–21) or Ingres’s Violin (1924) – all reproduced at later dates in multiple editions – the exhibition introduced some small gems, like the artist’s earliest sculpture in wood (By Itself I, 1918, reproduced as a photograph in 1928 and as a bronze cast in 1966, all on show), displayed next to an image of a nondescript unfinished concrete cast (America’s Most Beautiful Statue, 1920). A personal highlight was the book, La photographie n’est pas l’art (Photography Isn’t Art, 1937), with a foreword by André Breton. What a perfect title.