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Issue 146

From This to That

Alessio delli Castelli considers Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso’s photographic legacy

BY Alessio delli Castelli in Features | 21 MAR 12

Medardo Rosso was born in Turin in 1858 and died in Milan 1928. However, he spent most of his life away from Italy, in Paris especially, from where he travelled to all the major European capitals. It was in Paris that, towards the close of the 19th century, he emerged alongside Auguste Rodin as a serious contender for the title of father of modern sculpture. Yet it was Rodin who achieved universal recognition. In spite of Rosso’s influence on sculptors such as Constantin Brancusi – whose Sleeping Muse (1909–10), with its radically abstracted features of a female head, is strongly reminiscent of Rosso’s Madame X (1896) – he was long held hostage by a provincial criticism which saw his practice confined, chronologically, thematically and formally, to the 19th century. Although it is true that Rosso only created two original sculptural works in the 20th century, to claim that he was no longer a practicing artist would be to overlook the variations he made of his sculptures, and the copies from antiquity. More importantly, it would be to dismiss his photographic work of that period merely as images of sculptures that already existed. This would mean ignoring the fact that his photography showed all the signs of rigorous artistic investigation – and was not, as critics in the 20th century often declared, indicative of either an accident that injured his leg and made him weak or a more general creative block.

It is only in recent years that Rosso’s photographs have acquired the status of art objects in and of themselves. This is due to the joint efforts of the art historian Paola Mola and the Museo Medardo Rosso in Barzio, Italy, where the artist’s archive is kept. Their research has enabled them to formalize a distinction between Rosso’s original sculptures and the vast number of reproductions that were erroneously considered to be by him, and which had subsequently clouded interpretation of his work. Augmented by a reconsideration of his photographic practice, and with unauthenticated works now eradicated, a ‘new’ nucleus of Rosso’s oeuvre has been established, proving consequential both in terms of its historical position and its affinity to contemporary sensibility.

Enfant (Child), 1910, typographic reproduction, 11 x 9 cm. All images courtesy © Archivio Rosso, Barzio

There are no two identical versions of a Rosso sculpture. There are, however, variations of the same sculptures which acquire a completely new status in the passage from one material to another. The photographs emerge as the last variation in this series of transformations – after the plasters, the bronzes and the waxes. Femme à la voilette (Woman with a Veil, sculpture 1895; photographic series 1908–09) – the inclined head of a shrouded woman whose features are partially obscured by the folds of her veil, which in turn becomes an abstract, magmatic volume – for instance, exists in seven variations in plaster, wax on plaster, and as photographs. What happens between each sculpture, between the sculptures and the photographs, and from one photograph to the next, is an indefatigable play on forms, a study of difference within sameness.

Rosso’s photographs can be roughly divided into two categories. There are those that carry forward the central concern of the sculptures: the suspension of form between appearance and disappearance, within the very nature of the material that embodies this suspension. The two photographs of two sculpted heads of young children, Enfant (Child, 1893; photograph 1920–23) and Bambino malato (Sick Child, 1893–95; photograph 1909), for instance, rarefy the features of the subjects even more than in the original sculptures. They both appear as if they were literally emerging from the developing fluid – a mouth, an ear or a nose scarcely discernible in a pale yellow or pink-tinged white light. Rosso photographed his sculpture Madame X (sculpture 1896; photographs 1900 and 1911) – the Cycladic abstraction of which is vastly ahead of its time – when some of the wax he added to repair the piece was still drying, and then in 1911 painted directly onto the photograph, producing subtle interchanges between the layers of wax and colour, and between the head and the background.

The other kind of photographs Rosso produced are photographic collages, in which one or more images are combined to create abstract, unreal spaces that confuse the viewer into believing the work’s composite elements belong to the same image, though their spatial parameters are disorientatingly diverse. Salon d’Automne (Autumn Salon, 1904) is a reworked installation view in which a sculpture of a child’s head (Enfant à la bouchèe de pain, Child in the Soup Kitchen, sculpture c.1897; photograph 1904), which clearly belongs to another work, is collaged above that of a woman’s head (Grande Rieuse, Woman Laughing, 1891–2 and 1900; photograph 1904) installed in a glass case which belongs to the original exhibition view. The edge of the door next to which Enfant à la bouchèe de pain is photographed is positioned so that it coincides with the vertical lines of the glass case beneath it in which Grande Rieuse is installed. This creates a baffling problem of perception, as the eye desires that the corresponding lines should follow coherent spatial coordinates and this natural physiological inclination is utterly denied. Within this framework, a rectangle is created at the top left-hand corner. Here, Rosso inserts a re-photographed and framed photograph of one of his sculptures and places it just above the upper side of the glass case: it’s a perfect fit. The result is that at least five different spatial perspectives may be detected within the frame of a single photograph. They seem to belong to each other, and yet that is clearly an impossibility. These varying perspectives are the same as those found in the art of the Hellenistic period and of the Middle Ages, centuries prior to Rosso and, later, Marcel Duchamp. It is not the Cubist vision of following years, but the ‘angular perspective’ of the ancients, as defined by Erwin Panofsky in his Perspective as Symbolic Form (1927). These works continue to pursue Rosso’s investigations into the formal optical aspects of perspective, which preoccupied him throughout his sculptural practice. The intimation which one feels observing these works can be described as the mental triangle that is formed between what we see, what we think we see and the object that is seen, leaving much room for metaphysical disquisition.

Enfant (Child), 1920/24, aristotype with toning and coloured-pencil, 10 x 6 cm

It is natural that we should find these photographs as enticing as Rosso’s contemporaries found them objectionable. It should be absolutely clear that when a distinction between Rosso’s photographs and sculptures is made, it is purely a formal one. While it was natural in Rosso’s time not to consider photography and sculpture on the same level, today we have abandoned these hierarchies. In the same way as the various materials employed in his practice are distinguished according to their formal specifics, while the objects rendered from them are still referred to as ‘sculpture’, so must photography be included as yet another of Rosso’s materials. Not only because the sculptures are, on the most basic level, the subject matter of the photographs, or because some of these sculptures now only exist as a photographic series, as if that were their intended destiny – such as the two sculptural groups Impression d’Omnibus (Impression of an Omnibus, 1884–85; photographs 1909 and 1915) and Paris la nuit (Paris at Night, 1896–97) which were destroyed and so lost as three-dimensional pieces – but also because the exercise of serial variations which Rosso enacts on his sculptures is continued, and sometimes finished, in the photographs.

However, the photographs are not only the last chronological stage in Rosso’s practice; they are also the first, in that they recall the mental image of the work’s beginnings. The photographs are like plinth-less sculptures, often as small as the palm of the hand they were designed to be held in. Yet they reveal another way in which the artist reacted to the loss of the specific topos that belonged to sculpture before the modern age, namely the loss of sculpture’s function within the religious or socio-political order.

Rosso interrupted and interfered with the photographic development process, blowing up details of the images beyond the size the negative would allow, so as to avoid that crispness he despised so much. Similarly, he boiled his bronze sculptures in water, inducing cracks and holes to form naturally, so that the finished pieces would not look perfectly polished like ‘sucked candy’, as Rosso described the work of academic sculptors, and he kept the points of fusion and the irregularities of the cast visible, in an attempt to reach the limit of what holds matter together, stopping just before the work’s solidity would be compromised irreparably. Rosso retouched his photographs to bestow them with a lack of definition, then he re-photographed them and re-printed them so that the newly captured material rested in that inexistent space between the surface of the paper and the image. The process of making images of images relates to the notion of imprints, of residues and of changing matter into light, which is the source of both its existence and of the possibility of its perception.

Rosso re-created a phásma – an apparition associated with the same Dionysian religion that Friedrich Nietzsche also pursued. It’s a connection that may be seen in terms of vision: as in the photographs of Enfant and Bambino malato, in which the emerging of the oval of the heads is halted before it is fully formed, still lacking the solidity of the material world; or the glass cases that enclose Rosso’s sculptures, to confuse perspective and create multiple viewpoints; or the subterranean world that reverberates in the darkness of his waxes and bronzes as well as in the dimmed lighting of certain installations. The work has further subterranean associations in relation to the mineral world, the world of metals, which in terms of the materialization of the world is the exact opposite of a phásma, a piece of metal being the most solid thing, a ghost or an apparition being the most immaterial we can conceive of: Rosso was, in fact, renowned as a skillful caster of metals, in possession of knowledge that the modern world was rapidly forgetting.

Femme à la voilette (Woman with a Veil), 1908-09, enlargement, aristotype on glossy paper, 8 x 8 cm

The coexistence of these two extremes – the solid and the immaterial – is fitting within the duality of the Dionysian religion, which set out to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable: the finite life of the individual and the eternal nature of life itself. It is therefore impossible to speak of matter and form separately, because neither is discernible without the other. The eruption of magmatic material in Femme à la voilette suddenly shows a face. Where the face is showing there is only a qualitative difference: in other words, it is more informed than the rest of the work, which dwells in indefiniteness. This eruption, this way of appearing and disappearing from and into matter, recurs many a time throughout the work of the artist, and it does not seem to be merely coincidental that the subjects are almost exclusively heads and a few figures, reducing the very idea of a subject for a sculpture to a minimum.

Rosso’s sculptures form an analogical taxonomy, each work connected to the next in a chain-like fashion. It is a worldview common to the pre-scientific age, which understood each entity as connected to the ones preceding and following it by means of a slight alteration in the composition of its elements. It is on this understanding of the universe that the occult sciences, natural magic and alchemy are founded. The idea of a work that is finished when trapped in one form is foreign to Rosso. It is therefore inaccurate to refer to his photographs as ‘photographs’, since the artist himself saw no fundamental distinction between those paintings he perceived as sculptural and sculpture, or between sculpture and photography.

Contrary to common interpretation, painting does not relate to Rosso’s work through Impressionism but rather through Greek statuary – its porous stones and their capacity for absorbing and refracting light, and for endowing images with indefinite contours – which, in turn, influenced the history of painting of non-Florentine descent, such as that of Leonardo da Vinci, as well as Venetian and Dutch painting. There is more than a passing resemblance between Rosso’s forms, which appear from the unformed and concede a likeness to something human only in certain areas, and Rembrandt’s illumined ovals emerging from a monotonal, almost monochromatic, background (Self Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, for example). Rosso could not bring himself to consider Rembrandt as simply a painter.

The disparity between Rosso and the majority of the Impressionists is even stronger in their differing approaches to the natural world. Rosso’s work is based on memory; he never sculpted from a living model, not even for his portraits. The portrait of Henri Rouart (sculpture 1890; photographs 1904) – a painter, collector and patron of Rosso’s – is closer in appearance to the El Grecos in Rouart’s collection than to the man himself. Contact with the living world was as unnecessary to Rosso’s studio work as it was to Marcel Proust in his sickbed. Both Rosso and Proust elude the object by creating a temporal and spatial distance and, crucially, by connecting their models to the formal history of their craft. Neither was ever fully preoccupied with rendering the objects of their description, but rather with a subtext that could only emerge through indirect analysis.

Madame X, c.1900, modern contact print from original glass negative, 18 x 13 cm

Rosso could not accept photography as either a given or as a miraculous technical innovation. Instead, he treated it like any other base material of sculpture, having witnessed its potential through his manipulation of the medium. As with sculpture, so with photography – which is composed of light and liquids, and rendered visible on paper. All of these aspects Rosso experienced, dissected and carried to their furthest consequences. By adopting a simultaneously nonchalant and rigorous approach, he was able to preserve the various stages of the work’s creation within a single image. He printed the yellow-hued Enfant using a broken glass negative. Crossing the whole image both vertically and diagonally, drawing a line on the side of the child’s head, the impression of the crack in the glass could just as easily be a fold in the photograph, thus confounding the matte nature of the paper by offering the possibility of its being transparent.

Rosso did not find anything enlightening in the work of professional photographers, whom he called, in a letter of 1927 to the collector Giuseppe Ricci Oddi, ‘legalized murderers’. He certainly saw no progress in the possibility of reproducing reality – especially when the reality was his own work. There is undoubtedly an impatience on his part towards the idea of the ‘objective’ documentation of works, which he had to struggle against when printing his own photographic series in books and magazines. In fact, in the margin of the same letter he added: ‘Photography is a ground-breaking invention, but it is the most harmful thing for perception.’

Rosso’s sculptures and photographs vanish, break and crack before the spectators’ eyes – sometimes literally, as in his wax pieces, and sometimes only seemingly, as may be discovered by simply walking round and observing them from a different viewpoint. Their anticipated duration is more human than would generally be expected of an art work, for they relinquish any prospect of lasting for centuries, and offer instead a notion of decay, as if they were ancient finds recently retrieved from an archaeological site. In Rosso’s practice, once again at a variance with Impressionism, the instant is not recorded and handed down to posterity but emerges from a formal transience.

Rodin’s answer to the crisis that faced sculpture in his age lies in a purposefully failed monumentality. His La Porte de l’Enfer (Gates of Hell, 1880–1917), was based on one of the most traditional forms of sculpture: the doorway. Yet it was not leading to a place of worship, such as the early Renaissance doors of the Florence Baptistery, and was devoid of such a clear sense of topos. Rosso’s answer to the crisis of sculpture, in contrast, lies in the ephemeral, in those provisory decorations that had also caught Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s eye in his Italian Journey (1816–17) when he saw the golden wheat sheaves hung yearly from the pillars in Sicilian churches. Their origin is linked to non-representational art, when the Greek god Hermes was a stack of stones placed at the side of the road, Zeus the wind whistling in an oak tree, Apollo a cone or a cube, and metaphysical thought was expressed through symbols that are older than any recorded history. It is only since the early 20th century that ephemera – which by their very nature are confined to a time that is limited, specified and recurrent – have been processed into forms apt for museums, in a constant endeavour to eternalize life through the elimination of the ageing process.

Objet and Bambino malato (Object and Sick Child), c.1924, silver chloride in gelatin print reduced and over-exposed detail and ink on writing paper, 9 x 6 cm

Rosso expressed himself in two contrasting ways: by means of the remarks on the art and artists he admired, which remain accessible only through the memory and letters of his closest acquaintances, and via the militant theory with which he explained his work to the public. He constructed an Impressionist theory of sculpture – absence of drawing, an embracing of air, tonality and a single-point perspective – similar to that of Impressionist painting, which resulted from the superficial similarity of some of his works to reliefs, and from the preservation of the casting plane (suggesting that his sculptures should be seen from one advantageous viewpoint) which coincided with a likeness to the model. To a discerning eye, however, it is clear that all other points of view are formally as successful as the induced one.

In a 1977 television interview, Arthur Rubinstein said that Chopin is not the Romantic composer he is thought to be, but one who used the forms familiar to his age as a front to disguisedly continue in the steps of Bach and Mozart, from whom he had learnt his trade. Likewise, Rosso is not the sculptor of Realism or Impressionism that history – and even the artist himself – wished him to be perceived as.

We express our views on the world we live in as much by creating new objects as by studying those that have long occupied it, since each age will respond differently to the same data according to its own peculiar sensitivity. So it is with the recent studies conducted by Mola and the Barzio Museum on Rosso’s work, which lead us to the conclusion that art never exclusively belongs to the past, or to the present.