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Modelling and Sculpture
A Guide to Traditional Methods
By Albert Toft
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
A SHORT DESCRIPTION OF THE PROGRESS MADE IN ENGLAND DURING THE LAST THIRTY YEARS
IT is a notable and inspiring fact that the past quarter of a century has witnessed the renaissance of the sculptor's art in Great Britain. Previous to this, with a few exceptions, sculptors lacked distinction, inspiration, and artistic taste.
Nothing so mediocre as certain phases of art during the early and mid Victorian period could possibly find acceptance to-day; and the marked advance, alike in treatment and every other quality, is cause for rejoicing among all art lovers—more especially among those who are earnestly striving to raise British sculpture to a dignity which shall entitle its productions to rank with the noble achievements of classic and Renaissance times.
Giants among the pigmies, a Flaxman and a Stevens arose, almost isolated cases of genius, and it is a marvel that these artists were able to give us such splendid work, considering the extremely low level of their contemporaries in the British School of Sculpture.
The apotheosis of the Deadly Commonplace, the environment of Unloveliness and the admiration of the Ugly Utilitarian made any genuine artistic effort during this period all the more remarkable.
But since then men of high intelligence, originality, and rare technical skill have arisen, whose sculptural work will compare with many of the lofty achievements of Greece and Italy; men whose individuality and creative genius render their work "a thing of beauty and a joy for ever." And yet it was but an accident of Fate that poor Stevens, perhaps the greatest sculptor since Michael Angelo, ever became known in his supreme greatness. How much poorer would the world of art have been by the exclusion of such a transcendent genius?
Happily, to-day, things have considerably changed for the better.
It is not only genius that arrests attention; numbers count also, and the number of men producing good sculpture in Great Britain at the present day is surprising. This is all the more significant when we remember that they are, one and all, remarkable for their individuality, whereas in some foreign schools, especially in the French, the system of education tends to produce a sameness in technique, a general likeness in selection of subject and arrangement, that suggest too great an influence of one or other professor or master, until individuality is lost, and the student becomes a copyist, even of the most marked faults of his master.
Fortunately, this is not the weakness of the British sculptor, whose dominating ideal is Truth, originally expressed through the mind as well as through the eye.
The French sculptor is distinctly more facile in execution, but the Briton stands preeminent in conception and those qualities which go to make his labour of lasting value.
There can be no question, however, that France has produced, during the last half-century, sculptors whose work shows exceptional originality and genius; whose statues are not only of national but of world-wide fame; and although we may differ—and that seriously—as to the form, treatment, and selection of subjects, we are compelled to the greatest admiration of the inspiration and exquisite technical skill which have produced work beyond and above all carping criticism.
All mannerism in art is objectionable. The British student of sculpture is usually endowed with an individuality of his own, a something that develops after he leaves the modelling class, and soon becomes a recognisable quality of all the work he produces, a peculiarity to himself. He is no mere copyist. And it is this very quality about the British school of sculptors that makes it so strong and virile. For proofs of its excellence and of the progress made during the last thirty years in the art, one needs only refer back to the magnificent collection of exhibits at the Franco-British Exhibition in 1908, or to look round any one of our big provincial cities to-day, and compare the many fine recent memorials there erected with those of an earlier date, often in juxtaposition, as if to make the comparison more striking with those Early Victorian "horrors"!
London, at once the greatest city and the wealthiest in the world, magnificent in many of its architectural structures, with schools of art second to none in Europe, has failed signally to beautify her squares and public places with the sculptor's art. She has a notable few—very few—good statues, and a host of villainously bad ones, which create ridicule rather than respect in the mind of the passer-by; but the time will surely come, and this perhaps at no distant date, when our great city will awaken to the fact that great sculptural monuments are not only wanted to beautify her streets, but have distinct educational value. They elevate the intelligence of the people, by keeping green the memory of our noblest heroes who have built up for us the history of this mighty empire.
There is no doubt that French art and the method of French training have influenced British sculptors, inasmuch as they demonstrated to us emphatically that there is only one course open if we desire to attain the Ideal, and that is—to study, with infinite care, closely and conscientiously, the Real, the Natural; to study Nature in her every possible mood or phase, to learn her ways, and having so absorbed her teaching, to make use, so far as in us lies, of whatever study comes nearest to our hearts, and to select the best from the good.
The more we study Nature, the more intense grows our love and reverence for her, and we become in the real sense students—able to penetrate and reproduce her mysteries.
Selection is one of the most important factors in an artist's career, for how is it possible to distinguish the best from the merely good unless we have studied both?
"Try to be Shakespeare, leave the rest to Fate!
The aim, if reached or not, makes great the life,"
may be applied, beyond the poet's intention, to all art students.
Michael Angelos will never, at any period of the world's history, become common; but we can all, at least, strive for our supreme ideal.
To become an idealist you must necessarily first be a realist. So taught the Greeks, the Italians, and our friends on the other side of the Channel. And their axiom is true. Realism broadens, deepens, and expands our vision. It makes us more capable of appreciating the great Greek works, and of understanding how, by the closest study of Nature, they were wrought. This is a fact which no student of the classic sculpture of ancient Greece could deny. They went direct to Nature—the only Eternal—and in mere human models saw, as with an inspired insight, the God-like forms we recognise to-day as the master-work of men themselves divine, whose statues have, through the passing of the ages, remained examples for subsequent artists, even to our own century.
True art it is impossible to produce without that actual technical knowledge which is only to be acquired by patient and painstaking study. What musician could compose any work worth listening to, unless he had mastered the intricacies of harmonies and counterpoint? What writer could hope to take rank in literature without the most perfect command of grammatical expression and of the proper formation of sentences; and what sculptor can possibly hope for success to crown his labours, unless he has thoroughly mastered the technique of that most difficult of arts?
A Spanish writer has said that "Sculpture is crystallised Poetry; the Music of the Spheres made visible, the Ideal manifest unchanging and unchangeable through the Ages!" and, allowing for the rhapsodical temperament of a southern author, it is not altogether an untrue description of all that sculpture should be.
The great masters only wrought their masterpieces after such a study of Nature as we have indicated, although that alone could never make a great sculptor or painter. It is merely a proper training for all following or practising art, alike for the genius and the others.
The fact is, that with such a training we are able earlier in our career to realise the grandeur of the classic and antique sculptures in our museums; and these have increased in such numbers during recent years, either in their originals or plaster replicas, that the present generation of sculptors have had a great advantage over their earlier brethren. But these great Greek works have not alone inspired us to enthusiasm.
No, we have also to be thankful to the directors of the various museums for having placed within our reach, for our constant study, so many wonderful examples of the finest Italian sculpture of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. There can be no doubt that these glorious works have exercised an immense influence on the workers in England at the present day. Indeed, I am inclined to think that we really owe the greatest debt of gratitude for the high excellence of our sculpture at this hour to the influence and inspiration of the best examples of the Italian Renaissance, which appeals more readily to us, alike in its treatment, temperament, and subjects, than the Greek.
This especially applies to Renaissance portraiture, which not only arouses our enthusiasm and ambition, but has moved us to emulation, with the most gratifying result to art.
Yet it is a strange and significant fact, that Italy to-day produces little or nothing notable in sculpture. Her day of mighty works in this art seems for ever past, and while her greatest musical composers have achieved a world-wide renown, no really great sculptor lives to carry on the traditions of her gloriously artistic past.
Facilities, almost unknown half a century ago, are given to students to study at first hand the noble examples of Italy's former supremacy in the sculptor's art. Of such facilities the British school has not been slow to avail itself. It is with the most hopeful feeling that we look around at the many workers in art to-day; and seeing so much that is excellent in their work, we have no fear that any decadence will set in, but rather rejoice in the prospect that it will continue to hold the high position it now occupies in the world's achievement.CHAPTER 2
THE IMPORTANCE OF GOOD TRAINING, AND THE FACILITIES AFFORDED THE STUDENT IN VARIOUS ART SCHOOLS
THE importance of good training from the very first attempts at modelling cannot be regarded too seriously, for it is in the earliest days that the student requires the greatest attention and direction in the right way. Whether it be his intention to take up the art as an amateur, or for the purpose of making it his profession, or for teaching it to others, it is equally important that in each case he should be trained with the utmost care and correctness for some years.
I have known pupils come to me asking how long it would take them to learn to model, and on the first occasion I was somewhat at a loss to answer this question.
My would-be pupil, seeing that I was puzzled, endeavoured to assist me out of the difficulty by remarking that she only wished to learn enough to be able to teach!
Imagine my feelings at the moment! for, I may say, I have found, after many years of practice in the art of modelling and sculpture, and moreover in giving instruction, that the difficulty of teaching is no light matter. Indeed, it is a great task, when done thoroughly and conscientiously, and of the most fatiguing nature, requiring tact, patience, and no little skill. In fact, good teaching is an art in itself.
It is not unusual to find men who, though splendid teachers, are almost utterly incapable of producing anything fine themselves.
For this reason it is better for the student to place himself in the care of a man who has the reputation of being a good instructor, rather than in the care of one whose work may have arrested his attention at an exhibition, or on the gallery wall, unless such an one be known to be capable both as a teacher and producer.
Good training is most essential, no matter how much or little natural ability the pupil may possess.
It is not surprising that many of our art schools, the London County Council and others, attract so many students to their institutions, when we know that the staff of professors and masters are carefully chosen for their reputation as teachers, and not alone for the works they have produced.
Besides the excellent teaching, the facilities afforded to students in these schools leave nothing to be desired. Indeed, I often think that there is too much consideration lavished upon them, and I am not so sure that more difficulties to contend with would not in some instances prove beneficial and produce better men; although it must be granted that the lack of such facilities might handicap the bulk of students, and especially those who make the best use of the opportunities afforded.
But I question whether most of the students fully appreciate, or appreciate to any extent, what is thus done to render it easier for them to make progress in their calling. These schools are equipped with every requirement, and are open to all, with an entrance fee which is practically nil.
Such splendid opportunities must bear fruit in time to come, and it will be the fault of the student if he has not availed himself to the fullest extent of such chances as are offered him, and if he fails to give proof of this in after life.
How different things were thirty years ago! A boy had then to knead his own clay, and perhaps wheel his own model to the mould-maker's workshop, unless he could mould it himself; and, even then, there was no convenience for moulding and casting being done in the art schools of that day; and certainly no instruction was given in the process of converting a clay model into plaster. As for the material used for this purpose, well, that was in no instance provided, as it is to-day, but had to be paid for out of the student's own pocket.
Few of our leading sculptors of to-day had anything but hardships to fight through, and immense difficulties to surmount in their student days. Yet, look at the successes they have achieved.
What would they have done, given the same opportunities as are afforded the student at the present time? Perhaps less??
But given all these chances, they will not make a boy an artist; they may help him to become a better workman, but that is all. There must exist a natural love for the work, combined with the determination to achieve something great. These are factors which alone make the art student worthy of his chosen calling.
I do not say he should not reach the goal all the same, if he has the love and determination, and all the quicker when he receives the assistance he is able now to get at these institutions; but it makes the end no less far off and little less difficult of achievement, for, before you arrive at the production of great art, you will find the path beset with obstacles which cannot be overcome except by your own individual struggling, no matter how much outside help may be given by Boards of Education or other governing bodies. And the young student whose desire it is to produce work worthy to take place in the loftiest realms of art, having fixed his mind upon a distant summit, must rely mainly on himself if he is ever to arrive at the height of his ambition. The genuinely ambitious man rarely gets there at all in his own mind. No matter what goal he reaches, there are others stretching beyond, limitless and unattainable.
The student cannot have too much good training if it is applied in the proper direction; the artist always remains a student, ever ready to learn. But I would warn the student that, with the many opportunities and the facilities afforded him in the various branches of certain schools, there is a temptation open to him—and, indeed, in many instances he is expected—to divide his attention too much by joining other classes, all of them excellent in their way, but of no use whatever to the student who is seriously taking up modelling.
He who takes up this art should devote the whole of his time to modelling and drawing, and only those things which have a distinct relation to modelling and sculpture; leaving all other classes to those students who can directly benefit by one or other of them.
The art student cannot expect to become proficient in more than the one great subject during his lifetime, for not alone does he live in a day of specialists, but he has taken upon himself a huge task when he has started on the career of a modeller or sculptor.
Too many students in these schools try to get a smattering of many subjects, and they become "Jack of all trades and master of none." They obtain, perhaps, a little knowledge of many things, and a little knowledge is a useless thing in this case, because it has robbed the student of much valuable time which would have proved of better service had it been devoted to the furthering of his knowledge of one particular subject; for many of the things the students do learn in these schools can be of no use whatever to them in their calling.
What need has a modelling student to know anything about bookbinding, or a student studying figure-painting to take up the hammering of iron or copper work? Very nice work, perhaps, if he wishes to take it up as a hobby, but the artist does not want a hobby.
Excerpted from Modelling and Sculpture by Albert Toft. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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