Online College Courses for Credit

2 Tutorials that teach Modernist Sculpture
Take your pick:
Modernist Sculpture

Modernist Sculpture

Author: Ian McConnell

This lesson will explore modernist sculpture.

See More

Try Sophia’s Art History Course. For Free.

Our self-paced online courses are a great way to save time and money as you earn credits eligible for transfer to many different colleges and universities.*

Begin Free Trial
No credit card required

29 Sophia partners guarantee credit transfer.

312 Institutions have accepted or given pre-approval for credit transfer.

* The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit®) has evaluated and recommended college credit for 27 of Sophia’s online courses. Many different colleges and universities consider ACE CREDIT recommendations in determining the applicability to their course and degree programs.


An overview of modernist sculpture.

Video Transcription

Download PDF

Hello, I'd to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about modernist sculpture. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move, forward or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin. Today's objectives are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, will be able to identify and define today's key terms and identify examples of modernist culture.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is abstraction, in the arts, the simplification of form down to its most basic elements, and cubist sculpture, three dimensional artworks characterized by qualities of planes, facets, and non representational forms that intersect and are reassembled. And the big idea for today is that modernist culture explored the representation of forms as well as the use of non-traditional materials, like sheet metal, raw iron, wire, et cetera.

We'll be looking at works of art today from between 1912 and 1950. And we are going to get some frequent flyer miles today. We'll be traveling to Capri, Italy, where Jacques Lipchitz died in 1973, Paris, France, where Picasso lived and worked during this time, Julio Gonzalez died in near Paris in 1942, and Constantin Brancusi died in Paris in 1957. Traveling to New York, Alexander Archipenko died in 1964, St. Ives, England, where Dame Barbara Hepworth died in 1975, and London, England, where Henry Moore received some of his training.

The modernist sculpture that we're looking at today is cubist and or abstract, in either assemblage art or casting. And we'll discuss all these things as we go. The cubist sculpture, "Bather," is a cubist's interpretation of a classical subject, that of a female bather either stepping into or out of the water, clutching a garment and looking back over her shoulder. Now what Lipchitz has done is completely reduce the figure to its most basic and abstract elements, and then fracture those parts into geometric protrusions that move in different directions. He's essentially taken a two dimensional cubist art work and made it in the round, or three dimensional.

Now Picasso, the co-founder of cubism, also dabbled in sculpture. Actually, he made quite a few. Now where Lipchitz's "Bather" is an example of bronze casting, Picasso's "Guitar" is an example of assemblage. He's taken sheet metal and metal wire and assembled it into this object. Picasso's use of layered sheet metal gives a suggestion of greater depth to the work that actually exists, and at the same time completely distorts the viewer's expectation of physicality, the best example of which is perhaps the sound hole of the guitar, which protrudes from the figure, it comes out, versus receding into it.

Alexander Archipenko's "Woman Combing Her Hair" is another example of a modernist interpretation of a classical subject. Archipenko's bronze sculpture is a brilliant example of his skill at reducing a form to its most essential elements, but at the same time, the central theme isn't lost. Only the essential parts are included, just enough to tell the story. The simplified lower body displays a contrapposto type stance and realistic depiction of shifting weight. But as we move upwards, the form continues to simplify until we're left with nothing but an arm, the suggestion perhaps of a comb, and the further suggestion of hair. The head and left arm are completely left out. They're nonessential to what the artist is depicting.

Now compare this with the assemblage sculpture by Julio Gonzalez. Though at first glance they appear very different, both artists have achieved the reduction of form to its most essential elements. Gonzalez's sculpture provides a scaffolding upon which the viewer's imagination fills in the details or fills in the blanks.

British artist, Henry Moore's "Family Group" is an abstract interpretation of the traditional family posing, now one man, one woman, and one child. Everything has been reduced to simple forms, again just enough to tell the story with a complete lack of specificity. And I think this is one of the aspects of modern art that makes it so appealing to people generation after generation. It's open to interpretation. It doesn't depict somebody. It depicts anybody. It's universal in that regard. And Moore only includes what's necessary to differentiate forms, like the addition of the skirt and hair to distinguish between the man and woman, and only includes one child, just enough to transform the sculpture from the depiction of a couple to that of a family.

Now I think this is the real talent that sometimes gets overlooked by the average individual in critiquing modern art. But think of it like this. Try writing a story with access to every word in the English language, versus writing a story using only 10 words. Which is easier?

The work of Brancusi always appealed to me and still does. It's a timeless look. It's simple, beautiful, and in my opinion, more accessible visually. But the simplicity is what always appealed to me the most. It's the epitome, in my opinion, of abstract art. Because it reduces the subject matter about as far as it can go without completely losing its hold on what it's trying to depict. For example, I can see the suggestion of a bird, at least the beak, sort of careening through space, almost lost within a cloak of wind and lines of speed, like something entering the atmosphere.

So rather than chronologically, I've arranged the images today to show the reduction of form to pure abstraction. As we've gone on, it's gotten more and more abstract. And Dame Barbara Hepworth's "Three Forms" is an example of just that, pure abstraction. There's no discernible human form or object. It's simply three spherical and elongated shapes placed in proximity to each other. But there's something appealing about it. Hepworth hasn't simply just glued three rocks to a slab. The forms are carefully shaped with dimensions that are proportional to each other and situated within a triangular arrangement that is also proportional in its dimensions. Hepworth has completely remove the color. It's a monochromatic experience of pure shape and pure form that truly exemplifies modernism as well abstraction.

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives again to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you identify examples of modernist sculpture? And let's take a look at our big idea, which is that modernist sculpture explored the representation of forms as well as the use of nontraditional materials, like sheet metal, raw iron, wire, et cetera. That's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.


Image of Lipchitz, Bather, Photo by Jennifer Mei, Creative Commons, Archipenko, Woman Combing her Hair; Creative Commons: Picasso, Guitar, Photo by Navin75, Creative Commons, Gonzalez, Woman Combing Her Hair¶m.idSource=FR_O-42aa952c362e189aef9024c2c0949bb3 Image of Brancusi, Bird in Space, Photo by Art Poskanzer, Creative Commons,  Image of Hepworth, Three Forms, Photo by Jennifer Mei, Creative Commons, Henry Moore, Family Group, Photo by Andrew Dunn, Creative Commons,,_Family_Group_(1950).jpg

Terms to Know

In the arts, the simplification of form down to its most basic elements.

Cubist Sculpture

Three-dimensional artworks characterized by qualities of planes, facets, and non-representational forms that intersect and are reassembled.