artblogny.com

Bernini Terracottas at the Met

Bernini is probably one of my all time favorite sculptors. I want to say that he’s one of my favorite classical sculptors, because there are many other sculptors whose work I also greatly admire and am inspired by. They would fall into categories such as modernist sculptors, contemporary video sculptors, installation artists, etc. But Bernini stands out over and above them for me.

This is probably because, like most artists, I was first attracted to art in the form of traditional, representational, figurative work. Of course, over the years I’ve grown to love many artforms. But I would say, he was one of the first whose work I could stare at for hours and not get enough.

I’m always very skeptical at the term, genius. I wonder whether they are everyday folks who happen to work very diligently at whatever they’re best known for and happen to be born into circumstances which allow them opportunity to shine. In this case, I would say that one advantage that Gian Lorenzo Bernini had was that he was a second generation artist.

Unlike Michelangelo, who was, for the most part, a homeless child taken in by some very influential patrons at a young age, inlcuding the Medicis, Bernini was born into his craft since his father, Pietro Bernini, was a renown sculptor in his own right. When one lives and breathes a field of study from the beginning, one inherently absorbs skills. This is not to say that Bernini didn’t also have incredible talent. I would say his skill in composition and execution surpassed that of Michelangelo.

The recent show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showcasing the clay models, modelli, leading up to the final cut marble sculptures, gave incredible insight into his working process. I knew before, that he made many clay models in his process. This was the first time that I got a chance to see them in person.

What was interesting was the method that he used to create the modelli. He would wedge clay, basically kneading it like a baker kneads dough, to remove air pockets from a lump of clay. From the wedge, he would carve out the form, adding whenever necessary, but using largely a subtractive process. He would push, squeeze, and build it up, but the bulk of the form was carved from the lump he wedged. This subtractive process is similar to the method by which stone sculptures are created. But in the case of the modello, it was more immediate and forgiving, allowing him to rework areas by building up. He would make many of them before settling on the final design. The stone sculptures which were the final works were created systematically, and nothing would have been developed in this final stage. There is no reworking in stone.

A more typical method for creating modelli, at least the way in which I was taught, was to create sculptures by building clay upon an armature, slowly pressing little balls of clay onto the structure. The armature would be a basic skeleton made of lead or aluminum wire, tied together with string, and secured to a solid structure of steel and wood.

Some terracotta sculptors might only use a minimal armature, which would be removed later so that the work could be hollowed out and fired. But this would be tricky, and requires repair work afterwards. It would also make outstretched limbs very difficult because they would break off easily somewhere in the process.

One thing that all the experts speak of is the lack of existing modelli, and they speak of it being part of the process which would not have been considered of any value. I believe that the more likely reason, is that wedging clay is not a perfect process, and that there still exists many air pockets in the wedge. These air pockets expand during the firing process, and often cause the work to explode in the kiln. It’s more likely that many of the clay models were not fired, or may have broken in the kiln and quickly discarded. (Of course I’m not an expert, and admit that I haven’t ready the catalog cover to cover. I look at the pictures, mostly 🙂 )
Below are videos from expert talks on the exhibition. They’re quite academic, but if you’re a big fan as I am, they’re worth watching.

Please enable flash to view this media. Download the flash player.

Please enable flash to view this media. Download the flash player.

 

Please enable flash to view this media. Download the flash player. 

Please enable flash to view this media. Download the flash player.

Please enable flash to view this media. Download the flash player. 

Please enable flash to view this media. Download the flash player.

 

Leave a Reply