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Mapping Figure and Material: Some Remarks on Fragment and Material in Modern and Contemporary Sculpture

Arie Hartog


An art historian invited to the Fragmented Figure Conference will try to find historical examples and parallels. Both the fragment and ceramics play a certain role in the history of modern sculpture, and so one may get the impression that there will be enough food for art historical thought. But there is not. There are no combinations of ceramics and fragment worth mentioning in the history of modern sculpture and this seems to confirm one of the theses of this project – that it is a relatively new phenomenon. The fragment admittedly is the core of modern sculpture, 1 but one could state quite bluntly that ceramics only appear at certain stages in the history of modern sculpture, mostly because it was cheap, both for artists and customers.

A paper dealing with the overall relationship of fragment and ceramics in twentieth-century sculpture would be a very short one, or rather far-fetched. On the other hand there seems to be a connection between figure, fragment, and the materials of sculpture that can be described and that gives clues for artistic, art historical, and critical practice. An investigation into this relationship may also point towards alternatives to a history of individual materials. A history of ceramics in sculpture has as much of an attraction from the standpoint of the history of modern sculpture as similar histories of bronze, marble, steel, or rubber. Such inquiries may give interesting details, but the complex relationship between artistic attitudes, forms, materials, and techniques requires a different approach. In this paper I will try to indicate a possible direction for such an approach.


In the history of modern sculpture one finds the visual compelling logic of a continuous reduction of form starting with Rodin around 1900 until around 1960 (fig. 1) (fig. 2). This scheme suggests that there is an inner drive to the development of art, which artists and art historians have believed for a long time. Such an idea of the development of modern sculpture is very attractive and even has a certain beauty. It suggests that sculpture has its own autonomous history guided by artistic form, and it is a story that can be told by images. Any alternative to this needs many more words.


Nowadays the beautiful fantasy of a formal logic has been destroyed by diverse forms of so-called postmodernism and, while this modernist logic could rely on images, the postmodern narrative needs much more explanation. An historian wanting to incorporate both Rodin and contemporary positions into one story cannot use form as the main guideline any more and the alternative is a very complex and manierist indirect argument mostly relying on philosophical texts. There is nothing wrong with this strategy, but one should remember that any narrative, be it modernist or postmodernist, excludes parts of the actual work of art. In both cases the actual physical presence of a work plays no role. The most striking example of this seems to be that all history of art excludes size.

It is a well known constant factor in our dealing with art that we think of the idea behind something to be more important than its actual execution. But let me remind you – and this will be a key argument in this paper – this is the heart of the European academic practice. The core of this is that an idea is valuable in itself and can be transformed to any material. Whether this can be actually realized is just a technical problem. Even the well known concept of ‘truth to materials’ is nothing but a modern costume of this academic concept, as here also the starting point mostly lies in a design: the form looks as if it fits the material.2 Thousands of sculptors have shown the enormous possibilities and limits of stone over the ages, but in modernism an ideology emerged that stated that only certain cubic forms fitted this material.


In an exhibition in the Gerhard-Marcks-Haus in Bremen we showed a group of German and French torsos from around 1900.3 When we asked young children about these there was a very strong agreement that any torso without a head could never be a human being, whereas a torso without arms and legs but with a head depicted the sad victim of a car accident (the girls’ answer) or warfare (the boys’ answer). Every human being will understand that it makes a difference – when talking about a fragment – whether head, arm, or genitals are missing. Fragmentation is full of content, but there are no overall useful theories, mostly because we have no vocabulary.

The best idea so far comes from the American art historian James Elkins. In his book Pictures of the Body he describes two basic ways of perceiving bodies in art, and this idea can be used just as well for fragments. Elkins calls these ways ‘pain’ and ‘metamorphosis’.4 While the concept and its connotations stem from German art history about 1910, Elkins moves its focus from production and national ideology towards perception. The first term (pain) describes what viewers feel directly: a work gets to them emotionally. The second (metamorphosis) describes the viewer’s perception that this body has a higher meaning. Both terms do of course overlap and Elkins points to the intriguing fact that some paintings that show distortion of the body (he mentions Francis Bacon) can be experienced as unpleasant, while others that show even further distortion (he mentions Pablo Picasso) arouse far less strong reactions, as they allude to a higher, analytic perception.

I think this proposal is very important as it puts the experience of a work of art into the centre of all further reflections. And although we know that experience is historically and socially driven, psychology points in the same direction as Elkins. On the one hand we perceive a depicted body intensely and emotionally, on the other we perceive it in a more detached mode as a sign for something else. It is of course impossible to separate these two philosophically, but they seem useful to use as a flexible scale.

It is a pity that Elkins has never used his terms for sculpture, because there he would have found the essential role of material. Materials have a different meaning, both historically and in daily life. We know this from the natural materials like stone, wood and clay, where humans have a direct reception. Some materials have a direct meaning, some don’t. (Two other categories that play an important role for the perception of sculpture are of course weight and size).

I want to exemplify this idea and add a second to it in discussing two important figurative sculptors whose work explores the relationship between figure and material and who may conversely give us some clues for dealing with the overall theme. The Austrian sculptor Alfred Hrdlicka (born 1928) and the German sculptor Lothar Fischer (1933-2003) are linked by a shared attitude of using material as a way out of modern academicism. In the work of these two artists the actual material presence of the single work is crucial but in each case the relationship of material and fragment is different.


Alfred Hrdlicka was trained at the Akademie der bildenden Künste in Vienna, where he studied in the class of Fritz Wotruba, and specialized, conforming to the themes of this class, in single standing figures and torsos. 5 Hrdlicka later summarized the credo of this education as ‘bringing the sculpting in stone towards the borders of its technical possibilities’.6 His early works met the central ideas of this ideology, a language of form based on blocks related to the used stone.


For his degree the sculptor got a piece of limestone and searched for a form that was closely linked to the early works of his teacher (fig. 3). It is a classic example of modern academicism, as the artist stays within the limits he has learned – in this case stone – and a fine example of modernist ‘truth to materials’. Hrdlicka remembered the respect he felt for the stone, he did not want to destroy the column. It is notable that Hrdlicka did not stop working on this sculpture after his degree, but reworked it. He himself stated that he ‘worked it to death’ and by this he found a truly individual language of form (fig. 4) (fig. 5). The fragment became a crucifixion, broke during the carving (as was to be expected from a craftsman’s point of view), and was finally hung. In this new language fragment and material found each other. It is a concept of sculpture that only works in stone – only in this material the form really breaks.


Hrdlicka is one of the European artists who rediscovered the fragment as a bearer of meaning after the Second World War. While the torso within the school of Wotruba was the consequence of ‘truth to materials’, Hrdlicka made it into a real fragment again: a part of a broken body, thereby addressing emotions and not analysis. It is noteworthy that during the 1960s in the German-speaking countries discussion of the torso (the fragment) moved in two directions: it was seen as a reduction of the body to an aesthetic core on the one hand and as a depiction of suffering humans on the other. The first direction related to the art historical discourse, the second to a more anthropological impulse and it is this second impulse that Hrdlicka addressed with his crucifixion.

In 1964 the artist represented Austria at the Venice Bienale, and among the works presented there was Marsyas (fig. 6), a sculpture that would develop until 1965 (fig. 7). In this case also traces of the ‘working to death’ are visible. The final sculpture is glued together, and the work gets a part of its content by this method. Marsyas was the satyr who challenged Apollo and when the god punished him he was flayed alive and hung on a tree. Marsyas was a central symbolic figure of the 1960s, referring to the human experience of Buchenwald and Hiroshima. 7 Hrdlicka takes the possibilities of the stone, this man is broken, but he doesn’t exaggerate, flaying doesn’t work in stone. Marsyas tells of suffering, even without knowledge of mythology, just by the combination of fragment, hanging, and material.


In the early works of Alfred Hrdlicka the overlap of iconography and the iconology of the material is extremely strong. However, this strength, this overlap, restricts the possibilities in both directions. For example, a broken, damaged stone can hardly depict positive statements about the human condition. And this is what he does; in this material you will only find signs of suffering and flesh. Another problem one can see in studying Hrdlicka’s work is that he at one point starts to control his urge to destruction and this means that borders are not crossed any more, but he returns to the limits of his craft.


Alfred Hrdlicka showed the possibilities of and limits to the mutual relationship of content and material, leading to an emotional perception. Torso and the way a material has been treated can work together in such an emotional way, but more often they don’t. In the same period that Hrdlicka investigated the suffering of human beings in stone, the German sculptor Lothar Fischer started working with clay. Fischer’s teacher at the Munich arts academy, Heinrich Kirchner (1902-1984), who was also the head of the foundry of this arts school, had developed in the 1950s a method for his own sculptures by building them from sheets of wax.8 Wax here was not the supple, adaptable material to transpose any form to casting, but a material with its own constructive characteristics (fig. 8). Kirchner’s sculptures in this new technique were never larger than 50 centimetres, as sheets of wax lose their stability over a certain height.


Lothar Fischer developed from this the idea that there are two forms of dealing with a material. 9 Sculptors working in wax or clay work a soft amorphous mass. Other sculptors are confronted with materials that have intrinsic tectonic qualities that direct the working process. To Fischer working in wax and clay is utterly academic. All ideas and ideologies about so-called ‘truth to materials’ are not valid for artists working in clay and wax, because every idea can be carried out in them (their main function is reproduction). The solution to Fischer lies in giving character to clay, as his teacher Kirchner did when working in wax. He cuts sheets of clay and forms them (fig. 9).

Looking for an alternative to modelling Fischer uses the term ‘forming’ and this hints at the aspects of technique and methods that are so often completely underestimated in critical discourse. Regardless whether it is true or not in absolute terms, Fischer’s ideology is very interesting. Materials predetermine certain forms, but material can be redefined. The starting point is the thinking about and knowledge of the quality of material, but Fischer (like Hrdlicka) gives an interesting twist to this. To Fischer there is no material without character, but the artist has to find a way to bring out this character. Fischer developed his own language of forms reminiscent of ancient cultures, but the main reason for this relationship is the way he treats materials, which is similar to what we know of Asian and Cretan ceramics, whose forms were also built rather than modelled (fig. 10).


In Fischer’s work you will find a lot of fragments, but they are never orientated towards a direct emotional effect. They are not broken humans. The content in his work comes from the repetition of motifs. Over the years he developed his own language of forms that can never be as emotional as Hrdlicka, but while having lesser depth of content it has greater breadth. Thinking back to Elkins’s terminology, Fischer comes close to Picasso in his reduction and distortion without any direct emotional identification. His sculptures do evoke feelings, but they do this in a very indirect way.


Hrdlicka and Fischer both represent a form of sculpture that is based on the possibilities and limits of materials. Both use the figure and fragmentation and with artists like these it makes sense to ask about the relationship between material and fragment. In both cases the material and its qualities play a very important role, but how do we describe the value of materials in broader terms, for the sake of scholarly research? Neither in Hrdlicka’s case, nor in Fischer’s case, is there an ideological ‘truth to materials’, but rather a dialectic process. The first step seems to be knowledge of the possibilities and limits of materials and the second lies in breaking or redefining these rules.

In my opinion one could also use a two-part system when dealing with materials and technique, similar to the one mentioned for dealing with emotions and the figure. We could construct a scale that puts an academic approach on the one side, that is, a view that the idea is essential and can be transformed into any material. On the other side one could put something we could call anti-academic that starts from material, technique, or process.


If we combine this relative scale of opposites with the earlier scale about the figure, we end up with a frame that might help us to describe the topics that have been discussed at this conference (fig. 11). 10 We could start talking and thinking about ceramics, figure, fragment, and sculpture in these simple terms and just try to put them on a relative scale within this frame and we would start seeing relationships and attitudes that are normally covered up by theory. The orientation of this frame can be arbitrary, but putting the academic approach on top reflects the importance of this attitude in scholarly and theoretical debate. The subtle irony of this frame is that artists in the upper half tend to get more attention from critics and historians, as both are working with the same academic set of ideas, while artists in the lower part often are difficult to tackle in mere theoretical terms. 11

Such a simple model based on opposites and then positioning works of art within the frame is one of the things we easily forget, and one of the problems is of course the terminology, because no artist wants to be called academic, although their approach to material and subject may tend in that direction. Such a way of thinking is not philosophically elegant, but to me it seems to be a good instrument to return to the actual works that are being made. It is a tool not a theory.

It is remarkable that both Hrdlicka and Fischer are mostly missing in the history of sculpture. The focus on abstract art has put these artists into the background, but they show alternative strategies during the 1960s for dealing not only with the figure, but also with material. They work with a new combination of figure and material that goes one step further than modernist ‘truth to materials’ and they seem to be part of an art historical missing link to newer positions that work with figuration. Figuration is an essential part of their art and strangely enough figuration can make materials important on a level beyond mere reference. It is important that these artists show that material does not have a fixed character, but that this character can be redefined, and this redefinition links figure to material. Based on the diagram pain-metamorphosis and academic or not, we could write a very interesting history of the figure in sculpture, but most of all we can start a contemporary discussion on ‘material and fragmentation’. The diversity of artistic positions presented at this conference shows that a tool such as the one I propose might help us to delve deeper into the question of what this fragmented figure is.


  1. Werner Schnell, Der Torso als Problem der modernen Kunst, Berlin, 1980. back to text
  2. While the central myth of modernist architecture, ‘form follows function’, was already deconstructed in 1960 by Reyner Banham (Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, London, 1960), a similar critical inquiry into the history of sculpture still is a desideratum. back to text
  3. ‘Für Deutsche unnachahmlich’, Bremen, 2003. back to text
  4. James Elkins, Pictures of the Body: Pain and Metamorphosis, Stanford, 1999. back to text
  5. For the history of Wotruba’s class see Gerhard Habarta, ‘Frühere Verhältnisse’, in Österreichische Bildhauer Gelernt bei Wotruba, Wien, 1986, pp.18-31. back to text
  6. Alfred Hrdlicka, Schriften (Das Gesamtwerk IV), Wien, p.38. back to text
  7. See Peter Selz, New Images of Man, New York, 1964. back to text
  8. Dorothee Höfert, Heinrich Kirchner: Das plastische Werk, Heidelberg, 1991. back to text
  9. Fischer published his ideas in Lothar Fischer, Zur Kunst: Aus bildnerischer Sicht, Waakirchen, 2001. back to text
  10. There is a visual similarity to the frames Rosalynd Kraus uses (see ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’, in October 8, spring 1979, pp.30-44 and The Optical Unconcious, Cambridge, 1993). Although Kraus showed their advantages, art historians seldom use visual aids to visualize relationships. back to text
  11. During the lecture I presented work by Heringa/Van Kalsbeek and related this to the frame (see http://www.heringavankalsbeek.nl). back to text

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Mapping Figure and Material • Issue 8