Friday, August 12, 2011

Sculpture That Spooks

Phyllis Kulmatiski  , who makes beautiful figurative sculptures inspired by Romanesque art, posted an  article by Michael Kimmelman in which he laments the near-oblivion into which traditional European pre-modern sculpture has fallen.

Baudelaire seems to have put his finger on what bothers us moderns about figurative sculpture when he called it “Carib art,” by which he meant art that is too close to its primitive, religious, animistic roots.  Somewhere inside our brains, we all still carry  the three-year-old who endowed dolls and teddy bears with souls and personalities, just as we still carry the paleolithic carver who believed that his round little "Venuses" had the power to ensure the fertility of bison, reindeer, and women.

Because three-dimensional figures touch us at a level we would rather not acknowledge, we turn away from them, and won't have them in the house.  Interestingly, we are more comfortable with sculptures in the garden--that middle ground between the wildness of Nature and the civilized space of the house--where mystery and imagination are still allowed to have some play.

Me, I am not spooked by figurative sculpture.  In Spain in the 1950s, religious sculptures were household objects as common as soup tureens.  Every room of the house had its appropriate statue.  A crucifix hung above my parents' bed;  a wooden carving of the Sacred Heart presided over the dining room;  a terracotta Immaculate Conception stood on my dresser.  At Christmas, our Nativity scene included, in addition to the Holy Family, tiny painted clay figures of kings, shepherds and peasants with their retinues of camels, sheep, cows, geese, chickens, and pigs.

Next door to our apartment building there was a statuary maker, and I could watch the progress of his work every day on my way to and from school.  On Sunday, in church, there were statues everywhere, and I used to imagine that at night, when the great doors were closed and the church was dark except for the lamp that burned perpetually in front of the Blessed Sacrament, Saint Joseph with the infant Jesus in his arms came down from his plinth and went to visit his wife on her altar, and Saint Francis and Saint Theresa walked around in their brown habits, talking quietly and breathing the incense-saturated air.

No wonder Luther banned sculptures from his church.

Not long after I was married, as my father lay dying, my mother took down the crucifix above their bed--the crucifix, she reminded me, under which I was conceived--and gave it to me, to hang over my marriage bed.  As crucifixes go, this one was pretty subdued.  Both the cross and the corpus were metal, and the look was stylized and vaguely Byzantine.

I thanked my parents and put the crucifix in my dresser drawer, under a stack of sweaters, where it lies to this day.  I never could bring myself to hang it over our bed.  I found it...spooky.

2 comments :

  1. The superstition in my household--I don't know if it's from my Irish roots or my Ozark ones--is that you never put a crucifix over the bed but where you can see it when you wake up in the morning.

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  2. Maybe the over-the-bed position is so HE can see you.

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