5 Greatest Sculptors of All Time
Playing in two dimensions is easy enough, but what truly separates the men from the boys? Maybe it’s when you give up your easel for a tool belt and get to work with a hammer and chisel. These amazing sculptors took their talents 3-D.
Unquestionably the greatest sculptor of the early Renaissance, Donatello was born in Florence, though he traveled widely and was famous throughout Italy. Donatello had complete mastery of bronze, stone, wood and terracotta, and nothing escaped his extraordinary capabilities: relief sculpture, nudes, equestrian statues, groups of figures, and single figures seated or standing. In fact, he reinvented the art of sculpture just as other contemporaries were reinventing the art of painting, and his innovations and discoveries were profoundly influential. Above all, Donatello seemed to be able to bring sculpture to life by his ability to tell a story, combine realism and powerful emotion, and create the impression that his figures were more than mere objects of beauty for passive contemplation, but creations filled with energy and thought, ready to spring into action.
Clearly an outstanding genius, Michelangleo’s influence dominated European art until Picasso changed the rules. A sculptor first, painter and architect second, Michelangelo was a workaholic, a melancholic, temperamental, and lonely figure. He had a profound belief in the human form (especially the male nude) as the ultimate expression of human spirituality, sensibility and beauty. In fact, Michelangelo’s early work shows the human being as the measure of all things: idealized, muscular, confident and quasi-divine. Gradually that image becomes more expressive, more human, less perfect, fallible and flawed. He loved turning and twisting poses full of latent energy, and faces that expressed the full range of human emotion. Endlessly inventive, he never repeated a pose, although being a true Renaissance man, he was proud to borrow from Greek and Roman precedents.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)
Bernini set sculpture free from its previous occupation with earthly gravity and intellectual emotion, allowing it to discover a new freedom that permitted it to move, soar and have a visionary and theatrical quality. A child prodigy, Bernini had a sparkling personality and brilliant wit (he wrote comedies) qualities that shine through his sculptures. He was also a true virtuoso technically, able to carve marble so as to make it seem to move or have the delicacy of the finest lace. At his best he blends sculpture, architecture and painting into an extravagant theatrical ensemble, especially in his fountains, where the play of water and light over his larger-than-life human figures and animals creates a vision that is literally out of this world.
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)
Rodin is the glorious, triumphant finale to the sculptural tradition that starts with Donatello. He is rightly spoken of in the same breath as Michelangelo, although they’re very different: Michelangelo carved into marble whereas Rodin molded with clay. A shy workaholic, untidy and physically enormous, Rodin emerged from impoverished beginnings. He became an international celebrity and was deeply attractive to smart women. Rodin was also well known for loving the fluidity of clay and plaster, and was able to retain this quality even when his work was cast in bronze, thereby magically releasing in his figures an extraordinary range of human feelings and a sense of unknown forces of nature.
Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957)
Brancusi is one of the seminal figures of 20th-century art with a profound influence on sculpture and design. Born into a Romanian peasant family, he settled in Paris in 1904, becoming a student of Rodin. Amazingly, Brancusi remained indifferent to honor and fame. At the heart of his work is a tireless refinement and search for purity. Never abstract, his work always references something recognizable in nature. Brancusi believed in the maxim “Truth to materials, and he always brought out the inherent quality of each material that he used. The purity and simplicity of his forms touch something very basic in the human psyche, just as does, for example, the sound of the waves of the sea.
Adapted from Condensed Knowledge (HarperCollins) which is available at leading bookstores. For a daily dose of quirky fun visit www.mentalfloss.com and check out mental_floss magazine at your local newsstand.