Medardo Rosso

Medardo Rosso

Medardo Rosso

Medardo Rosso

Excerpt

"Medardo Rosso . . . is now, beyond a doubt, the greatest living sculptor. . . ."

GUILLAUME APOLLINAIRE, 1918

Apollinaire's unqualified superlative will charm the ears of Rosso's admirers, but it may shock those who know that during the decade before the first World War, Apollinaire, champion of Cubism, had been the sword and shield of the avant-garde.

It is true that when Apollinaire wrote his encomium of Rosso (page 64) he was referring to the recent death of Rodin, but had he forgotten Bourdelle and Maillol, sculptors of Rosso's generation? And what of Apollinaire's own contemporaries, the Cubists Archipenko, Duchamp-Villon, Lipchitz, Laurens, Picasso? What of Brancusi, Modigliani, Lehmbruck, Nadelman, and Matisse? How could Apollinaire subordinate all these sculptors, young and old, to Medardo Rosso? Yet his assertion can scarcely be ignored. He was, after all, the foremost critic of his time.

When, in 1929, Rosso's memorial exhibition was held in the Salon d'Automne, none of the reviewers, favorable or unfavorable, remarked that during the last quarter of his life Rosso had completed only one sculpture, the Eccepuer (frontispiece; page 57). Perhaps Apollinaire was not entirely aware that the man he proclaimed the "greatest living sculptor" in 1918 was scarcely at all a twentieth-century artist. In the second half of his career Rosso, intent on acquiring wider renown, traveled restlessly, grew eccentric in conduct and speech, and was subject to a variety of malaises. His burdens were greatly lightened by the enduring devotion of his Dutch friend, Etha Fles, and later by the generosity of his son Francesco. Yet his production was limited to variants or replicas of work done many years earlier.

Rosso's influence on other sculptors has rarely been explicit, but it has been recurrent and sometimes important. In the case of Rodin it was highly controversial. Whether Rodin owed much or little or nothing to Rosso in the final plaster version of the Balzac, it is evident, I think, that during the preceding half dozen years, Rosso had produced a number of sculptures more radical in their bold abstraction and freedom of form than had Rodin or, for that matter, any other European sculptor of the late nineteenth century, with the possible exception of Gauguin.

The Italian Futurists were the first twentieth- century artists to proclaim Rosso's "revolutionary importance." Boccioni, in his brilliant Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture (1912), asserts that Medardo Rosso is "the only modern sculptor who has attempted to widen the scope of sculpture by rendering plastically the effect of environment upon the subject as well as the ties that bind it to the surrounding atmosphere." Boccioni clearly recognizes Rosso's Impressionist limitations but speaks of Rosso's "liberation of space" and concludes that the "aesthetic revolution" of Futurist sculpture originated in Rosso's experiments. Less certain is the effect of Rosso on other twentieth-century sculptors. He may well have influenced the subtle elisions and asymmetries in the modeling of certain heads by Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi, perhaps Lehmbruck, and, more recently, Manzù and other Italian sculptors of the mid-century.

Rosso's fame faded after his death, though less in Italy than in the rest of Europe; but since the second World War it has gradually risen both in his own country and internationally. For instance, five years ago no works by Rosso were known to be in American collections; now there are some twenty, of which three are in the Museum of Modern Art.

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