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“I have never seen the collection from this angle before.” A dialogue between curators Tony Cragg and Dr Roland Mönig of the sculpture exhibition FIGUR!

Editors’ Choice

In cooperation with the Von der Heydt Museum, the Waldfrieden Sculpture Park in Wuppertal will be showing masterpieces of sculpture from the museum collection from 18 March 2023. Before the exhibition FIGUR! began, the sculptor and founder of the sculpture park, Tony Cragg, and the director of the Von der Heydt Museum, Dr. Roland Mönig, talked about the show they curated. The following, abridged version of the conversation sheds light on the background to this special collaboration.

Image above: Tony Cragg, Photo Wolfgang Schmidt

Tony Cragg: I have had the idea of doing an exhibition with the sculptures from the Von der Heydt Museum for many years. Of course, I have known the museum for over forty years, and I know its strengths, which lie in particular in a great collection of paintings. But it also has a wonderful sculpture collection. I hope that we can make the quality of this collection, which is truly remarkable in its breadth, visible with our exhibition.

Roland Mönig: The sculpture collection of the Von der Heydt Museum has impressive examples of how to see the human being, how to see the figure. That’s why I found your idea of doing this exhibition with the focus on the figure very fascinating. Apart from that, Waldfrieden is a place where sculpture has developed a special sound over the years and has gained a special status. You have achieved a lot here for the reception of sculpture as a whole, you have given it greater visibility and worked out its special appeal. Sculpture usually meets with a rather weak response from the public.

T.C.: Yes, that is indeed the case. And perhaps there is a reason for that: Sculptures are literally bulky. I experienced this again very clearly myself when I did my large retrospective at the Von der Heydt Museum in 2016. That only worked with small pieces and with works that we could put together in the museum. Because everything had to be brought into the building through a small window. Here in the sculpture park we can offer different conditions. And that’s why I hope and believe that we can shed a new light on sculptures – also on the sculptures from the collection of the Von der Heydt Museum. We have very clear, functional spaces in which real time becomes visible with the changes in daylight. I am very excited to see the very beautiful works from the museum here.

R.M.: I feel the same way. You have done something in Waldfrieden that is not so simple. You have created a feeling for the real qualities of sculpture: through contact with nature, through contact with the forest plot, which is criss-crossed by paths. And then also through the exhibition venues. This applies not only to the works set up outdoors, but also to the exhibition pavilions, which themselves already have a sculptural quality. They are minimalist sculptures, so to speak, and they have very different characters. The lower of the two pavilions we have chosen for our exhibition has a rectangular floor plan, the upper one an oval one. Both offer the possibility to see the sculptures in an ideal light, I think.

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Exhibition view Skulpturenpark Waldfrieden, Figur! © Cragg Foundation, Photo Süleyman Kayaalp

T.C.: Sculptors always work in daylight, at least as far as I know. In the evening light, a sculpture is something completely different, that also applies to my works. And you talk about the physical setting of the exhibition. Of course, it is also very important that people come in, that there are not only sculptures, but also people who fill the exhibition space. Art needs viewers anyway – but they are also physically there, real in the space. And especially when it comes to figurative works, a certain tension arises. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that people see themselves reflected in the sculptures. But in any case there is a moment of recognition in the form. And that is very important!

R.M.: At the end, the visitors see themselves in a figurative sculpture. And they encounter a body to which they must relate.

T.C.: Exactly, because you have your own body. And the most interesting things around us are usually other people and other characters. It’s definitely something we react to very strongly. When we look at each other, we register with an insane accuracy every little change in facial expression, every shape and every change in form: Mouth, nose, eyes. And these changes in form immediately influence and change the idea of the person sitting across from you. And that is something that is definitely a factor in all figurative works.

R.M.: Sculpture, before it is anything else, is always material. An oil painting, for example, before it is a landscape, is always oil on a support. A drawing or a print, even a photograph – this is often underestimated – also has a body. But this physical and material impression is probably clearest in sculpture, because you have to encounter the sculpture physically one to one. A painting – whatever it is made of – always has only one view. You can look at it from the side or from below, in which case the representation appears distorted, but you don’t get any closer to what is depicted in any other way. But you circle around a sculpture, you explore a sculpture with your own body – and you do so with profit. This is exactly why Bruce Nauman once said that sculpture has always been performance.

T.C.: You can actually see this in the works, for example in ancient sculptures: this is theatre. A still or static theatre, of course, a statue. But it is something that has a theatrical background.

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Auguste Rodin, Striding Man, 1900 © Von der Heydt-Museum, Photo Süleyman Kayaalp

R.M.: But back to our exhibition and our concept: from the approximately 500 works that would be available in the collection of the Von der Heydt Museum, we have selected 45. And the spectrum within this narrow selection is enormous: there are the positions of Auguste Rodin, for example, which we consider classical today – even if revolutionary in their time. Then there are the positions of the 19th century that are classicist in the sense of art history, Christian Daniel Rauch, for example. On the other hand, we show artists who only think of the body as an abstraction or show it in a hint, such as Hans Arp, Lynn Chadwick or Kenneth Armitage. Bernhard Afinger’s Penelope, which has guarded the entrance area of the Von der Heydt Museum for many, many years with a melancholy gaze and is now leaving the building for the first time, meets Germaine Richier’s Mantis in our selection, for example. These are two female figurations that could hardly be more opposite: Penelope, the ever-waiting, ever-patient one in antic-classical form, and the man-eater and man-eater with her emaciated body, with her body reduced to wires. You can really read a lot there – in terms of bodies, gestures and roles.

T.C.: Yes. For me as a sculptor, this is an important point. You just used the term “classical”, you talked about classical sculpture. And when you hear that, you think of the Greek-Roman tradition, which is quite amazing, because technically these works were simply fantastically executed. And this accuracy of representation and production was then taken up later. Take French sculptures of the 18th and 19th centuries, executed in perfect marble: they are technically and technically on an enormously high level. The aim is realism, that is, the depiction or “representation” of figure. And with this goal in mind, one becomes ever more precise, ever more perfect. But despite the admiration one has to pay to the craftsmanship, these works seem to lack emotion. You see this throughout the 19th century, when so much happened in painting and so little in sculpture – until the turn of the century. Then artists came along who were no longer satisfied with the exact reproduction of a figure and began to depict psychological states beyond the exterior of the human being. The Von der Heydt Museum and its collection came into being at precisely this moment, when very little was actually classical, when people said: no, the figure does not have to be depicted exactly. You can see that with Rodin, of course, but also with Degas.

Dr. Roland Mönig, Photo: Achim Kukulies

R.M.: I find that an exciting reading. I’ve never seen the collection from this point of view. And I find it interesting that you mention Degas in this context. It is, of course, an incredible figure, this dancer in a resting position – a resting position that nevertheless has something tense about it. It contains all the power and energy potential that then unfolds in the dance. While you were talking, I thought of a work by Christoph Voll that we chose for the exhibition. It was created in 1925/26: a naked boy, physically and psychologically emaciated. Basically, this sculpture is the exact opposite of Degas’. Degas’ figure is very small, a bronze maquette. And this boy by Christoph Voll is about life-size and executed in wood, which characterises this gaunt figure in a special way with its warmth, with its corporeality, and also distinguishes it as a human being.

T.C.: A 12-year-old is depicted, I guess. And that means that he experienced the end of the First World War as a 5-year-old. So the boy grew up in the consequences of that time, of the war. So the picture – the picture is really very strong. A document of time.

R.M.: Just like a work by Oskar Schlemmer, by the way, which we are also showing: Relief H from 1919. The two pieces are not far apart historically. Schlemmer’s work is a relief made of plaster, all white, with an idealised figure broken down to a few essential geometric forms. With such formulations, Schlemmer basically wants to tie in with the idea of a perfect body as it existed in antiquity. So if one can say that Oskar Schlemmer shows an ideal with this relief in 1919, then one can also say that Christoph Voll breaks the ideal with reality. That’s where you can see the tension in the body of work selected for the exhibition.

T.C.: Yes, this is how we can encounter figurative sculpture today. We then see in it the attempt to seduce us, be it with beauty or wisdom; the attempt to take us back to the aesthetic ideal of classical sculpture. And we let ourselves be pulled in a different direction sometimes by Rodin, sometimes by Voll. That is what the figure can do. I have always been interested in sculpture, what I can achieve with material and how; what emotions, what ideas I have when I work with material. That seems to be far removed from the figurative sculptures we have chosen here for this exhibition. But in essence it is about nothing else. It’s essentially about how you react to material. In a very abstract way, as babies we experience our environment through warmth, through tactile experiences with our parents, things and so on. But that never stops. And we are always surrounded by people. What shapes and forms us is simply our encounter with people.

Read the full interview in the exhibition catalogue
Text editing: Maximilian Brücher

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