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Experiencing Figures In Sculptures

The process of experiencing a work can be transcendental as it can alter the emotional state of the viewer and enhance the space in which the work is displayed. Sculptures involving an movement and action can help enhance the visual and psychological experience for the viewers. Movement in sculpture can be created through the style, posture, and materiality of the figures depicted but also externally as many sculptures encourage the viewers to physically move around the work. Movement can also help enhance the quality of a collection and emphasise on the virtuosity and craftsmanship of the artist.

The following essay will address the connection between action and experience in two works that are on display at the Wallace Collection: Statuette of Hercules and Cupid Blindfold on a Dolphin. These two statuettes depict figures in motion who are about to complete a pivotal action in their mythological histories. The Statuette of Hercules (Fig. 1) was created by Francesco da Sant’ Agata in 1520 and is currently on display in the Sixteenth Century Gallery in the Wallace Collection. The work depicts the nude figure of Hercules who is in the midst of swinging his weapon to launch an attack.

The particular scene or action taking place could refer to Hercules’ first task which was to defeat Nemea, a powerful lion. One of the versions of the myth explained that Hercules used his club and power to slay the lion. He has been portrayed in a Hellenistic style through the idealisation of the figure and the posture. He also stands in contrapposto – as the figure prepares to swing, he leans back and shifts his weight to gain balance for the attack. This stance creates movement by enabling the viewers to imagine how the action would then unfold and how he would positioned after the action has been completed.

The sculpture was made using boxwood, which is a type of wood that is very similar to ivory. This material like ivory, allowed the artist carve in more detail which can make the work more realistic and change the experience of viewing the subject. Hercules was carved with a thorough attention to detail in order to define the figure. The artist has accurately rendered the different muscles in the figure’s calves, the strained veins in the arms, the curls of the beard. The artist was able to create an experience with excitement, drama and realism through details in Hercules’ dynamic expression, curls, and lifelike anatomy.

The artist was able to bring Hercules into space and give it life. Francesco’s statuette also has an inscription on the bottom, containing the name of the artist who was referred to as Francesco of Padua, he was a known goldsmith. The experience of seeing a figure in motion is also unique as it requires the viewers to move around the sculpture to completely see the action that is taking place. In this work, the viewers would need to walk around to see the expression of Hercules’ face, the details of the hair and the tension of the musculature of the back and the legs.

They would need to walk around also to see the name and handiwork of the artist. Francesco Fanelli’s statuette titled Cupid Blindfold on a Dolphin (Fig. 2) can also be found in the same room, the Sixteenth Century Gallery, of the Wallace Collection. This work represents the mythological story of Cupid who was believed to be a boy with wings who has the ability to make people fall in love by shooting arrows at them. The artist has chosen to depict the figure with a blindfold, which could reference Cupid’s blindness, who is about the release his arrow while standing on top if a dolphin.

He is also wielding an arrow, which is the weapon most associated with Cupid. The figure is often depicted standing close to or on top of a dolphin because it was believed that a dolphin saved Cupid from an octopus. The dolphin was also portrayed less naturalistic and more like a fountain possibly to create more of a sense of movement and flow. There are many characteristics of this statuette that are associated with movement such as Cupid’s wings, the dolphin, and the action of releasing the arrow.

Cupid, similarly to Statuette of Hercules, is positioned at an angle which would require the viewers to walk around this statuette as well to be able to see the extent of the action, the wings and to completely view the dolphin. The material used to produce this sculpture was Brass, which is a material that is similar to bronze, they both contain a copper alloy and have to be cast. When compared, these works both depict a mythological figure and are smaller in size; they could have been designed for a personal collection or house decor. Their size, however, makes them more portable and accessible.

It can also enhance the experience by increasing the participation of the viewer. Apart from walking around these works, the viewers may want to step closer to see the details that the artist has carefully achieved. In doing this, the viewers are interacting with the statues at a more intimate level and engaging them in their space. For example, when viewing the Statuette of Hercules, at a closer distance, one can see his eyes and expression much more clearly and almost empathise with him and feel his strength as he prepares to slay the monster. Stylistically, they are both nude idealised classical figures that are standing in contrapposto.

Another parallel between the works would be that the figures represented are in the middle of an important action. The way the artists were able to capture the action, sets these works apart from others as it enhances the experience of viewing these figures. The action engages with people and urges them to anticipate the result of an action and to play out the scene. This might help them feel in control of the figure or empathetic toward the figure. The work thus begins to have psychological implications. It also goes to show that smaller sculpture can tell a story and create intensity as well as a painting.

Furthermore, these statues are quite detached from their smaller bases, appearing as though after they had been carved the figures were liberated. There is a sense that these figures were emerging from the block of material in which they were made and coming to life. However, these works are quite different in terms of the materiality which has a large impact on the experience that they create for the viewers. The use of boxwood in Statuette of Hercules is very important as the colour of the wood is quite pleasing to the eye and makes the action more attractive and fascinating.

It also helps to clearly show the tenseness of the muscles of Hercules and make the details more visible. This would makes the viewers appreciate the sculpture more and increase the theatricality of the action. Boxwood is a wood that is found in England and other parts in the south of Europe as well as in some part of Asia. The wood is quite firm and ‘fine’ in texture; its distinct yellow colour also made it valuable. In contrast, brass is much more dense in nature and darker.

According to Dr Adriano Aymonino from the Department of Art History at University of Buckingham, brass is similar to bronze, the difference would be in the chemical make up as bronze is made combining copper and tin while brass is made when combining copper with zinc. The proportions would have to be 85-95% percent copper to 5-15% tin or zinc. Bronze also has a lower melting point and tin is more malleable. However, the distinction between brass and bronze did not take place until the 17th century which is why most of the sculptures made during the Renaissance period are made from brass.

In terms of production, brass and bronze are cast using the same techniques, the most popular one, especially for statuettes, would be the lost wax process. In this process a model is created in wax – this is considered the true and original art work – which is then embedded in an external mould of clay. This would then be baked in a kiln for approximately a day until the wax melts in which case the exterior soul would be placed upside down and the bronze would then be poured in. The artist would then wait for the bronze to solidify and proceed to break the clay mould.

The statue would then be polished and the process of chasing would begin. Casting bronze or brass would definitely require more skill from the artist as it is a relatively difficult task. However, the benefits are numerous and includes an increase in the realism, strength and durability of a work. Due to the strength of the material as well, stances of the figure evoking movement can be facilitated. For example, if a figure were to be portrayed with his legs far apart, a medium like marble would be to brittle to allow this and would therefore need reinforcements to prevent a collapse.

However, with brass or bronze, this posture would not need reinforcements as the material itself is very strong, which would help bring the figure into space. Cupid Blindfold on a Dolphin has a surface that is quite reflective which can also create movement if the viewers were to walk around and notice the bouncing of light and shadow. The play of light and shadow on the figure of Cupid is enhanced by the roughness of the brass, which helped create more jagged and dramatic shadows. The copper used to make the statuette has also oxidised creating a textured surface.

This way to capture realism deeply contrasts with Statuette of Hercules, which relies more on details and has a smoother finish. These sculptures are both on display in the Sixteenth century room, they were placed based on the year in which they were made. These works are an important part of the room as they serve to give insight into the types of works being produced during the sixteenth century, in terms of material, subject matter, and purpose. When looking at the other works on display in the same room, one would notice the wide range of mediums being used some of which include: bronze, boxwood, ivory, glass, etc.

Some of these materials are quite exotic which could refer to transportation and circulation of mediums and artworks. Many other sculptures in the room also looked quite realistic and some were created al antica. Moreover, the sculptures in the room mainly consisted of statuettes which certainly changed the atmosphere and the experience of viewing these statuettes. These statues also help to evoke a sense of beauty and intensity as they reproduce an action. This action helps to bring the sculptures to life which certainly changes the environment of the space.

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