Book Review

A Moment’s Monument: Medardo Rosso and the International Origins of Modern Sculpture. By Sharon Hecker; Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form. By Sharon Hecker and Tamara H. Schenkenberg; Medardo Rosso: Sight Unseen and his Encounters with London. Edited by Sharon Hecker and Julia Peyton-Jones

A Moment’s Monument: Medardo Rosso and the International Origins of Modern Sculpture

By Sharon Hecker. 328 pp. incl. 20 col. + 80 b. & w. ills. (University of California Press, Oakland, 2017), £50. ISBN 978–0–520–29448–6.

 

Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form

By Sharon Hecker and Tamara H. Schenkenberg. 152 pp. incl. numerous col. + b. & w. ills. (Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St Louis MO, 2018), $45. ISBN 978–0–9976901–5–6.

 

Medardo Rosso: Sight Unseen and his Encounters with London

Edited by Sharon Hecker and Julia Peyton-Jones. 112 pp. incl. numerous b. & w. ills. (Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, London, 2018), £28. ISBN 978–0–9957456–4–3. 

 

Three new publications on Medardo Rosso seek conclusively to retrieve his reputation from the margins of the history of sculpture. Indicative of the steep rise of interest in Rosso among artists and art historians, they approach their subject from different perspectives. The first, a monograph, emphasises the internationalism and antimonumentality of Rosso’s work, aspects that were not conducive to the success of his sculpture in his day, but which made him so influential for modernist sculptors. The second, an exhibition catalogue, studies Rosso’s sculptures, drawings and photographs by focusing on the role of light across media. The third, also stemming from an exhibition, addresses Rosso’s work in London and his impact on the contemporary British sculptor Tony Cragg.  

A Moment’s Monument: Medardo Rosso and the International Origins of Modern Sculpture is the first English-language book on Rosso’s art and life not attached to an exhibition. This allows the author, Sharon Hecker, to look at Rosso’s complete oeuvre – from unrealised monuments to Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1882 to his continued repetitions of his previous motifs after 1906 – and to do so free from institutional obligations to champion him as a product of Italy or France. In fact, Hecker resists this approach completely by arguing for Rosso as a cosmopolitan artist. This approach is well-founded – Rosso referred to himself as a citizen of the world – and fastidiously researched.  

Hecker both sharpens the facts of Rosso’s life and work and reflects with insight upon their connotations. For example, contrary to previous scholarship, she argues that Rosso moved to Milan in 1877 not 1870; in the intervening years, he was educated in Corio, a town with a Franco-Provençal dialect, which aided Rosso’s ability to communicate during his nearly thirty years in Paris from 1889. 

With each such clarification Hecker strengthens her overall argument that what forms the basis of Rosso’s importance ics ‘not so much whether he did or did not fit into the artistic movement of his time, but rather the way in which his art expressed themes that would become important for twentieth-century artists even outside his national context’ (p.86). Hecker traces the resonance of Rosso’s anti-monumentality, focusing on interest in the subject of the outsider or migrant in the practice of later sculptors such as Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, Maya Lin and George Segal.  

In placing Rosso (rather than Rodin) at the origins of modern sculpture, this book makes a bold and erudite intervention in the history of the medium. Moreover, the emphasis on the cosmopolitan nature of artistic networks in fin-de-siècle Europe will be instructive to historians of modern art in all media.  

The two recent exhibition catalogues remind the reader that Rosso’s drawings and photography are as fascinating as his sculpture. Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form is the product of last year’s exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St Louis, co-curated by Hecker and Tamara H. Schenkenberg, which focused on the artist’s concern with light across sculpture and drawing, and his photography of both. Published six months after the show and lush with installation photographs and images of works from multiple angles, it provides concise and reflective essays on Rosso’s work, descriptions of each of the artist’s motifs and a chronology.  

The curators’ essays highlight the ambiguity of Rosso’s practice in terms of the critiques traditionally raised against sculpture in the paragone with painting: light, space and time. Hecker argues that Rosso’s sculptures do not suffer from changing light but actively seek to exploit it. Schenkenberg explores Rosso’s spatial ambiguities – his support of a primary point of view for sculpture contrasting with his attention to the entire surface – in an Einsteinian context. This leads to the temporal question, addressed by Matthew S. Witkovsky, in a focused assessment of Rosso’s sculpture Portinaia (Concierge) and his photographs of it. The fourth and final essay, Jodi Hauptman’s close analysis of Rosso’s rarely seen and diminutive drawings, is especially welcome. Often made on envelopes, cartes-de-visite and other scraps of paper, the drawings showing figures perambulating the city are comparable in their heavy shadows with the graphic works of Seurat and Degas. This comparison, however, belies the material strangeness of the well-travelled paper itself.

Some of these drawings were made in London and they returned to the city in 2017–18 for an exhibition at Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, again co-curated by Hecker, here with Julia Peyton-Jones. Ropac’s gallery at Ely House on Dover Street is close to the site of the Eugene Cremetti Gallery, where Rosso’s works were exhibited in 1906. The recent show was an intimate display of twelve sculptures, installed on the pedestals made for the Museo Medardo Rosso in Barzio by the artist’s son, accompanied by drawings and photographs. The visual variety among these twelve sculptures, which range from working plaster to bronze, including the artist’s characteristic wax-covered plasters, some cleaner than others, is not captured by the catalogue’s elegant black-and-white photography. Hecker’s catalogue essay addresses his reception in London from 1888 and studies the works he made there in 1896 and 1906, particularly Ecce Puer (Fig.6), an absorbing portrait of the youngest son of the London industrialist and art collector Emile Mond.  

This historical research is paired with a contemporary comparison, as one might expect from this venue. An interview between Peyton-Jones and the sculptor Tony Cragg highlights Rosso’s legacy as an ‘artist’s artist’. Cragg recounts his discovery of Rosso in 1970–71, and the importance to his work of Rosso’s approach to materials and the figure, endorsing the position put forward by the three publications.  

Hecker’s scholarship positions Rosso’s work as at once a bold rejoinder to Baudelaire’s provocative essay ‘Why sculpture is boring’ and embodiment of the same author’s call for the painter of modern life ‘to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world’. These substantial publications provide a sound academic and visual argument for reconsidering Rosso as a central node in the world of modern sculpture and as an artist whose legacy is no longer hidden.  

by ROSALIND MCKEVER

 

1 The exhibition was reviewed by Martina Droth in this Magazine, 159 (2017), pp.349–50.