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What makes sculpture ‘sculpture’?

Sculpture is its own form of art, complete with technical and genre-specific terminology. In this video, we learn how to describe sculpture.
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In this next section, we’ll be thinking a bit more about how we talk about a work of art. We might think of this as the Art of Describing or using art historical terminology. When talking about an art work, we don’t need to use academic jargon that can be hard to understand, but it does help to use language that is clear and specific and has relevance to the type of object we’re talking about. Let’s consider how we can transform a direct experience of an art work into a verbal description. We’re going to use the Bust of Ralph Vaughn Williams as an example. We’ve already thought a bit about the different contexts for sculpture displayed in or outdoors.
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This is already a useful way to describe the object in relation to its scale and display context. We also know already that this is a free-standing sculpture rather than a piece of architectural sculpture like the Concrete Relief panels we discussed in the last section. We know from the title that this is a bust a specific type of sculpture that depicts a persons head. This also tells us that this is a figurative sculpture depicting some aspect of the human form rather than an abstract work.
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Looking at its shiny brown surface with patches of green here and there, we can determine that this sculpture is made of bronze and not brand new, since there is evidence of oxidisation which has turned parts of the bronze green. Describing the material whether its bronze, marble, wood or plaster is a helpful way to think about how the sculpture might feel to the touch, its colouring, and weight. Looking closely at the object, we can see that the sculptor has given William’s hair and face a rough texture. The sculptor, Jacob Epstein, used a technique called direct carving, emphasising his direct encounter with the object with distinct chisel marks and the rough finish of the surface.
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This description gives us a context for understanding the artists technique and process for making sculpture. What we’ve done here is use our visual encounter, looking at the object, to describe it, which is also known as close reading. Like reading a book, close reading asks us to look at the visual elements of an object and translate them into language. In the same way that you learned to read letters that made words and words that made sentences, you can learn to read a work of art.
The history of sculpture is a fascinating story.
Humans have been making three-dimensional objects for thousands of years. In this course, we are studying sculpture from the twentieth century, but it is important to acknowledge the centuries of artists and artworks that came before, developing the medium and inspiring future generations.
As one of the three main artistic mediums along with painting and architecture, sculpture has endured from the ancient world, across cultures, through to the technologically-advanced present day.
Like any other technical process, a language has developed around sculpture to describe its specific characteristics: the way it’s made, what it’s made from and how it looks. It’s important we get to grips with how to think and describe in sculptural terms.
In this video, we’ll look at a single example to start to think about relevant sculptural terminology.
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Modern Sculpture: An Introduction to Art History

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