From nature

Julio González, ‘Head called ‘The Tunnel’’ 1933–4
Julio González
Head called ‘The Tunnel’ 1933–4

The first decades of the twentieth century witnessed an unprecedented transformation of artistic styles and practices. Though rooted in representation, the sculptures in this room demonstrate a new concern with form and materials rather than in making realistic descriptions of the visible world. Many of these artists also strive towards an economy of expression, reducing a figure to its basic characteristics and thus to a universal form.

Despite moving towards abstraction, many artists still looked to nature as a point of reference. Henry Moore’s carved sculptures from the 1930s took their organic forms from such natural objects as pebbles, bones and driftwood. Constantin Brancusi’s marble carvings and bronzes consisted of variations on a limited number of natural subjects – heads, birds, fish – and simplified almost to the point of abstraction, with smooth surfaces and an emphasis on pure basic forms such as the ovoid.

The art of other cultures, particularly Africa, was appropriated purely for its formal qualities with no interest in its ethnic origins. The stylised and rhythmic representation of the body in African and Oceanic carvings offered artists a non-naturalistic alternative to the Western tradition and a direct means of expression that transcended visual accuracy.

Cubist sculpture analysed and interrogated form in order to recreate and redefine it. Alexander Archipenko combined concave and convex forms to create a new visual language, while Oto Gutfreund rebuilt anatomy in terms of architectural planes rather than organic shapes. The resulting works are often more mechanical in appearance than human. A pioneer of welded sculpture, Julio González, used industrial shapes and techniques to construct his figures while David Smith actually actually incorporated real tools and implements into his metal sculptures.