Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Momentary vs. Monumentary: Medardo Rosso and Public Sculpture

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Momentary vs. Monumentary: Medardo Rosso and Public Sculpture

Article excerpt

When Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) moved to Paris in 1889, the city was in the midst of an 'epidemic of statuary',1 which reached its peak between 1900 and 1910. Receiving a commission for a monument marked the public consecration of sculptors and the successful establishment of their careers, granting them the title of statuaire. The 1866 Larousse dictionary entry specified that 'one cannot be a statuaire without being an artist; while it is sufficient to be a skilled worker to be a sculpteur'.2 Rosso openly despised public statuary, calling it tour de force. Thankfully, he remarked, only the birds could admire sculpture placed several metres up in the air.3 He defined the Nike of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo as 'paper-weights',4 and labelled the monument in Piazza Venezia, Rome, a 'cake'.5 The very word 'statue' irritated Rosso, since it conveyed a sense of stasis or death, a 'negation of life'.6 Instead, he preferred the word opere to designate his sculpture.7

Despite these assertions, Rosso had, before moving to Paris, participated in competitions for two civic monuments in Milan: one in memory of the hero of Italian independence, Garibaldi (c.1880), the other dedicated to the brothers Cairoli (c.1882).8 While his unconventional submissions were unsuccessful, he had more luck with funerary monuments. The first, done for the Cimitero Gentilino using the coarse modelling technique typical of the Milanese Romantic movement of scapigliatura, was entitled The Last Kiss or Gratitude (1883, fig. 1).9 It represented 'a young barefoot girl prone on the ground leaning over a wire grating that she is trying to touch with her lips'.10 He also completed four funerary monuments for the Cimitero Monumentale, Milan (to Carlo Carabelli, 1886; Elisa Rognoni Faini, 1888-89; Vincenzo Brusco Onnis, 1889; and Filippo Filippi, 1889). These works showed a more conventional approach, being busts of the deceased mounted on a plinth and, in two cases, adorned with flowers or allegorical motifs.

Rosso was clearly uninterested in dealing with the issue, deemed fundamental, of establishing a connection between public sculpture and its architectural setting.11 In 1919 the critic Mario Tinti dedicated an article to the nineteenthcentury phenomenon of monumentomania. After setting the apex of the Italian monumental trend between 1870 and 1890, Tinti proceeded to analyse the phenomenon and introduced the idea that one of the aesthetic problems of contemporary monuments was their inadequate relationship to their surroundings. He wrote:

one reason why many monuments today appear uglier than they really are is that they are not set properly in their surroundings. Sculpture was conceived by classical antiquity as a completion of and in harmony with architecture; instead it is today, in general, an exiled art, deracinated, without a real decorative function. Medardo Rosso went so far as to put his work under glass, as if it was a rare phenomenon of an exquisite aesthetic sensitivity. And, from a certain point of view, this placement is perhaps the most logical since sculpture, destitute of every architectural rationale and of every decorative rhythm, becomes with him and with others a rare and subtle flower of pure sensitive expression that should be observed with every care and as if after being aesthetically initiated . . . The thing is that the lack of harmonious proportions and composition, of architectural solidity of much modern sculpture, its episodic impressionism, the enemy of every static sense, contributes to its being out of place anywhere.12

In this passage, Tinti historicized Rosso as the artist who brought sculpture from being architecture's decorative complement to being autonomous, de-contextualized and self-referential. Indeed, this aspect of Rosso's aesthetic choices had raised the ire of numerous Italian critics:

Sculpture must be, as it always was in the good old days, whatever Medardo Rosso may think of it, obedient to the architectural principle; moreover, it must feel in itself this principle of rhythm and unity. …

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