Musée royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique (Brussels, Belgium): The New Berlin 1913-1932. From Crisis to Utopia
Model for 'Constructed Torso' is one of the key experimental constructions that launched Naum Gabo's career as a sculptor. It was conceived and probably started in Norway, where Gabo was taking refuge from his native Russia during the First World War. It was completed after his return to Russia at the end of 1917, in the midst of the Revolution. Renouncing traditional sculptural notions of volume and mass, Gabo developed a new working method in this period to express what he saw as the more authentic realities of depth and space. He neither modelled nor sculpted but constructed his works by sticking or welding together small elements, in this case pieces of cut cardboard. In the figure's torso, he suggested volume through intersecting planes to express the dynamics of the sculpture's internal spaces.
Gabo described his technique as 'stereometric', a term which he appropriated from Russian and German mathematical discourse. His fascination with scientific theory and practice was aroused in Munich where, between 1910 and 1913, he studied engineering and medicine alongside art history. Comparing the scientist's methods with those of the artist, he described in his 1920 Realistic Manifesto, co-signed by his brother, the sculptor Antoine Pevsner (1886-1962), how 'we construct our work as the engineer constructs his bridges, as the mathematician his formula of the orbits' (reprinted in Naum Gabo: Sixty Years of Constructivism, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1987, p.9). Model for 'Constructed Torso' echoes the cantilevered form of many modern constructions, its open latticed architecture reminiscent of the great engineering marvel of the late nineteenth century, the Eiffel Tower.
A series of drawings from 1915-16 suggest that this work was conceived initially as a complete standing figure (see Nash and Merkert nos.77-81, pp.156-9). Its subsequent adjustment and evolution is typical of Gabo's working process. Experimenting with sheets of paper or cardboard, he developed small models such as this one, repeatedly refining them until in their final form they became templates for larger versions of the work which were then produced in more durable materials. This work appears to have been the first in a series on the torso theme. It pre-dates another, very similar, cardboard work, Maquette for 'Constructed Torso' 1917-18, reassembled 1985 (see Nash and Merkert no.7, p.97). This maquette was almost certainly the prototype for a version in sheet metal of similar size, bought by the Russian State in 1920 but now lost (reproduced Hammer and Lodder, no.12, p.34). Another version in celluloid, probably constructed in Berlin in the 1920s, also disappeared after it was sold to an American collector in the 1920s.
The torsos followed directly on from another series of works, the heads of 1915-16 (see, for example, Head No. 2 1916, enlarged version 1964, Tate T01520). Where the heads had been relatively static and clearly dissected, the torsos were complex, dynamic figures, displaying Gabo's more confident use of the stereometric method. Model for 'Constructed Torso' consists of three interlocking structural sections: a base component built up around two vertical planes intersecting along a central axis, a waist which acts as a bridging section, and an upper body constructed around a steeply-angled diagonal axis. The fragmented surfaces point to the influence of cubism, with its challenge to the notion of a single viewpoint and its fractured conception of reality. Yet while such sculptors as Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973), Henri Laurens (1885-1954) and Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964) had eagerly translated these ideas into three dimensions, Gabo's response to cubism was ambivalent. 'The immediate source from which the Constructive idea derives is Cubism,' he said, 'although it had almost the character of a repulsion rather than an attraction' ('The Constructive Idea in Art', in J. L. Martin, Ben Nicholson and N. Gabo (eds.), Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, London 1937, p.3). Seeing cubism as an iconoclastic experiment which violently attacked the formal unity of the world, Gabo believed that it lacked the natural rhythms and unifying power which were the necessary basis of art. In conceiving the head and torso works, for example, the natural forms of the Norwegian landscape provided a source of inspiration for Gabo. 'I immersed myself in the fathomless expanse of my spatial constructions and visions,' he said; 'I lived in this new world of the silence and brightness of the fjords' (quoted in Hammer and Lodder, p.32).
Model for 'Constructed Torso' was shown at Gabo's first exhibition in France, at the Galerie Percier, Paris, in 1924. Presumed lost, it was discovered in 1977, stored in pieces in Gabo's studio. Following the original glue marks, the model was reconstructed in 1981 by Charles Wilson, Gabo's assistant from 1962 to 1977, and two missing pieces were replaced with new card. The constructive method, first fully realised in the series of heads and torsos, was to remain central to Gabo's conception of sculpture for the next fifty years.
Martin Hammer and Christina Lodder, Constructing Modernity: The Art and Career of Naum Gabo, New Haven and London 2000, pp.31-52
Steven A. Nash and Jörn Merkert (eds.), Naum Gabo: Sixty Years of Constructivism, Munich 1985, reproduced p.75 in colour
Sean Rainbird, Naum Gabo: In Space and Time, exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives, Cornwall 2002, reproduced p.4 in colour
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