The Against Nature Exhibitions were visible from February 2 2008 till 7 December 2008
A project by
HMI Against Nature wednesday lectures
This project has been funded through the generous aid of the European Union (Culture Programme- DG Education and Culture)
Sculpture has frequently been used as a medium for transformation and metamorphosis, allowing artists to reinvent and reconfigure the human and animal body. This was never more so than during the late-nineteenth century when sculptors felt the need to turn their back on normative, classical notions of anatomy and used sculpture as a vehicle for the imagination in competition with the realisms of the time. Sculptors such as Heine and Khnopff created imaginary beings and hybrid creatures, some part-animal part-human, others incorporating plant forms to make new combinatory species of flora and fauna. Symbolism also provides the intellectual cultural climate of this period and with it the heightened use of sculpture to articulate ideas and altered states (sleep, dream, death, hypnosis). This climate engendered new sculptural species of angels and devils, horned and snake-like beings, which are seen in this exhibition to emerge from the earth and soar skywards. Combinatory figures drawn from classical mythology, such as sphinxes, chimera, satyrs and centaurs were stock subjects of the salon exhibitions. Outside the gallery, the pressures of industrialisation, technology modernity and of Darwinian advances in biology and natural history provide further contexts for the circulation and popularity of such fantastical art work. To say that sculpture was ‘against nature' at this time is to suggest two intriguingly contradictory issues. First that sculpture was used as a medium to create impossible beings that both went beyond the natural order, but that evolution could potentially deliver. Second that sculpture presented impossible fantasy beings, but often used a realistic sculptural language to suggest their ‘real life' existence.
Normally it is the painting of this period that is discussed. This exhibition attends finally to its sculpture which it places in relation to the sculpture that followed. 1900 is considered merely a year, not a moment of rupture and separation. This ‘fantasy legacy' was to extend well into the twentieth century and across a wide range of sculptural practice – from vorticism and futurism, into constructivism and surrealism, and beyond. Despite the various positions of each successive avant-garde movement the idea of fantasy sculpture and anatomical reinvention runs across them all. This exhibition hones in on this characteristic, deliberately cutting across more official, movement based art histories and focusing on the objects rather than the manifestos - foregrounding the ongoing presence of fantastical, hybrid forms across the period and across countries. The exhibition includes the work of sculptors active in Britain , Germany , France , Belgium , Romania , Italy , Spain and Switzerland . Sculptors soon moved from taking on mythological subjects to inventing their own modern monsters, now drawing from modernity and the machine as much as myth and literature. Looking at Epsteins' Rock Drill (1913-15) and Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) through late nineteenth-century symbolist sculpture (by Minne, Heine, Roche and Khnopff) is illuminating and points to a continuity of thinking about the possibilities of imaginative sculptural that crosses decades and asks us to look at such well-known modernist work as part of a wider family of sculpture. Similar connections are to be had in relation to the later sculpture of, Max Ernst, Julio Gonzalez, Jean Arp, Hans Bellmer, André Masson and Isamu Noguchi, and in turn through the kind of approach to figuration we then find in the work of Louise Bourgeois, Maria Martins and Germaine Richier. Looking, for example, at a sculpture like Emile-Antoine Bourdelle's Centaur on this landscape allows us to look back and forth, and see the continuation of such images in the modern sculptural imagination, whilst also understanding the varying treatments and meanings of hybridity at the time. Some treatments are coordinated by biology and modern science, some by mythology and psychology; some are informed by broader cultural and societal anxieties, and others are sculptural fantasies carried out in the laboratory of the sculptor's studio. Although this exhibition is framed by the international movements of symbolism and surrealism, and informed by traditional art histories, it radically exceeds these parameters, suggesting new and subtle ways of looking at sculptural continuities c. 1890-1990. Finally, a further major achievement of this exhibition will be to present the work of an important, but very little-known contributor to this subject – namely the extraordinary chimera sculptures of the Romanian sculptor Dimitrie Paciurea, whose works will be shown outside his country of origin for the first time.