The Fragment as Art Form
Painting was clearly the main medium in which impressionism scored its most important and most characteristic achievements, and on which it left its major mark. But the influence of the various art movements linked with impressionism was not limited to painting alone. We shall conclude this part with the discussion of a phenomenon principally realized in sculpture rather than painting. It represents the emergence of a new art form. Though this form did not achieve the prominent position held by, say, impressionist color scale or brush work, it shows clearly in which direction the basic developments of the new art movement were heading. What I have in mind are pieces of sculpture representing a small part of the whole figure—a head, a hand, or a torso. These pieces, fragmentary though they may seem, were conceived as complete, self-enclosed works of art, and were meant to be shown in this seemingly fragmentary state. They may appropriately be described as “autonomous fragments.”
It has been said that the autonomous fragment is the most important legacy of nineteenth-century sculpture to modern art.1 To appreciate how revolutionary a departure it was from artistic traditions that had endured for millennia, let us briefly recall the history of attitudes to the fragment in art, and mainly of sculpture. To be sure, the partial figure was not a nineteenth-century invention. If we take the term literally, we shall find that works of art representing only one part of a figure go back to the earliest stages of history. The so-called “reserve heads” found in some ancient Egyptian tombs could, in purely visual terms, qualify as independent fragments of the body. However, these heads were not meant to be seen as autonomous self-enclosed pieces. Rather they were conceived as “spare parts,” so to speak, to be placed on the statue in case the original head, the most important part of the body and the seat of life, should be damaged. Not only, then, can these heads not claim independent aesthetic completeness, but they were explicitly conceived as parts of the whole figure.