Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 20, 2019
Sharon Hecker A Moment's Monument: Medardo Rosso and the International Origins of Modern Sculpture Oakland: University of California Press, 2017. 328 pp.; 20 color ills.; 80 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780520294486)

Sharon Hecker’s recent monograph on Medardo Rosso (1858–1928) situates this all-too-often marginalized sculptor within the field of the international avant-garde. Often considered as either a slightly mysterious three-dimensional Impressionist or as an inspiration to movements such as Futurism, Rosso has rarely received sustained attention as a figure in his own right. Hecker makes a significant effort to counter this by placing him at the center of a key modernist concern: the tension (as suggested by the book’s title) between the momentary and the monumental. “A moment’s monument” was the description given to Rosso’s sculpture Ecce Puer (Behold the Child, 1906) by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, but it is no accident that these terms also mirror Charles Baudelaire’s celebrated description of the modern as caught between the transitory and the eternal. This slippage between English and French modes of rhetoric in the period is exactly the point: that Rosso’s techniques and aesthetic place him within the context of an international rather than distinctly Italian avant-garde.

With the antiheroic as a point of reference, Rosso finds his home here alongside not only Impressionist painters, but also more various sculptors such as Auguste Rodin, Constantin Brancusi, Alberto Giacometti, and George Segal. Structured roughly chronologically, the book proposes a comprehensive coverage of Rosso’s life and practices, from his early rejection of heroism and myth in 1880s Turin to his rejection in turn at the hands of the Italian establishment for his increasingly political use of sculptural technique against what Hecker terms “falsely reassuring nation-building myths” (3) and his relationship with the Parisian avant-garde.

While the intent of the book is to give Rosso an international status, the archival work that throws his work in Italy into relief is fascinating and essential to understanding the later sections. Chapter 2 focuses on Rosso’s funerary monument designs and, in particular, on the rejection of his two proposed monuments to Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1882 and 1884 and the removal in 1883 of a funerary monument commissioned for a local cemetery and titled La Riconoscenza (Gratitude). The projects were rejected respectively because of their depictions of a subject in a state of melancholic reflection, of an unruly mob representing remonstration and political struggle, and of a grieving working-class female lying prostrate over an open tomb. Hecker skillfully paints a picture of projects for which in some cases no photographs are available and shows how they did not conform either to expected subject matter or, more importantly, to accepted modes of representation. Instead of making a hero of the deceased, Rosso seems to critique the society in which they had existed. As Hecker succinctly explains, these projects come to stand for Rosso’s invention of “a language of protest that spurned the heroic idioms of traditional sculpture” (31).

Rosso worked in Paris from 1889–1917 (his arrival coinciding with that of the Eiffel Tower) and through her analysis of this period in chapter 3, Hecker effectively demonstrates Rosso’s relevance and importance in the development of modern sculpture and its exhibition beyond Italy. In his use of a naturalistic surface, parody, and caricature, she argues that he combines the hallmarks of Italian Verista painting with those of quintessentially French Realist painters, notably Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, and Honoré Daumier, providing them with an avant-garde legacy that transcends national boundaries. In translating ideas from two dimensions to three, Rosso does more than simply produce a sculptural version of Impressionism; he fuses artistic vocabularies that seem to belong to different national identities.

Rejection, as for so many avant-garde artists, was to underpin Rosso’s success from the 1880s onward. In chapters 4–7, the focus is on the way in which he was able to claim and use his outsider status within his own country and abroad as an exhibition strategy, forging an identity for himself as a “citizen of the world,” but also as a standpoint in his sculptures: Impression de boulevard: Paris la nuit (ca.1896–99) is a case in point. Now destroyed, and known only from photographs, this piece has long been understood as relating to Impressionism’s use of evident brushstrokes and interest in the disintegrating effects of light on surface (a concern also of the Futurists). Hecker, however, presents Rosso’s looming, shadowy, life-size figures as a challenge to the relationship between sculpture and viewer, a “disengaged mode of experiencing the world” (156) that constitutes an alternative understanding of modernism and draws Rosso closer to sculptors such as Giacometti. Finally, chapter 8 focuses on Rosso’s European travels from 1900 onward and makes it clear that the main activity of his last three decades was not making sculpture but rather promoting it.

As well as containing excellent analysis and interpretation, the book is full of thorough research. It might be considered frustrating that a figure who has remained so marginal and mysterious propagated this private image of himself by destroying so many archival sources, notably his correspondence. However, Hecker has navigated this problem by dredging what is available at Rosso’s archive and museum in Barzio, Italy, and drawing on an impressive range of bibliographic references and methodologies, taking in the vast and rich literature in English, French, and Italian on Impressionism, sculpture, and the interwar “call to order.” Despite the book’s chronological structure, therefore, it refuses a straightforwardly biographical approach: the possibility of biography is in part eluded by the available materials, and the attention to Rosso’s working practices and sculptural and photographic output is far more interesting. Hecker was previously involved in the exhibition Medardo Rosso: Second Impressions (Harvard University Art Museums, 2003), which exposed the unorthodox casting and photography techniques employed by Rosso. He used gelatine molds, for example, to create his emblematic wax sculptures. He deliberately took photos from unexpected angles, which sometimes were blurred and often overdrawn to create specific and intended impressions of his sculptures. Hecker builds on this discovery in the present volume, arguing that Rosso’s use of “the newest advances in photography and unorthodox exhibition strategies prefigure practices that became part of the language of modern art” (6). Rosso’s use of photography is especially important, given that after about 1900 Rosso ceased the creation of new works and took to recasting and photographing his existing output. This, and the fact that so many of Rosso’s sculptures are now destroyed and known only from his photographs, also explains the reason why, while the book is visually rich, the photographic plates included are of such varying quality: they tell us so much more than simply what the sculptures look like.

This is not the first time that Rosso has been considered in a modernist context and given status alongside better-known contemporaries. Rosso’s work in series, his photographic experiments, and his direct involvement in the sculpting process were key bases for the exhibition Brancusi, Rosso, Man Ray—Framing Sculpture (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, February 8–May 14, 2014). This triumvirate of artists hints at ideas broached by Rosalind Krauss, for example, in her seminal Passages in Modern Sculpture (1977), concerning the “part-object” and various forms of readymade. The stage has been set for a while for Rosso’s reemergence and reevaluation, and A Moment’s Monument is the result of Hecker’s engagement with Rosso’s oeuvre over more than twenty years. The present volume came amid a resurgence of interest, spearheaded by Hecker, in the United States and London. From November 2016 to May 2017, Hecker’s cocurated exhibition Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form was on show at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis, Missouri, and shortly after the book’s publication, she was involved in mounting the exhibition Medardo Rosso: Sight Unseen and His Encounters with London at the Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, London, from November 2017 to February 2018 (both accompanied by catalogues). Hecker could be found speaking on Rosso at the most recent Association for Art History and CAA conferences. This tireless insistence on forging a place for Rosso in the history of art is admirable and has undoubtedly changed the way in which he will be regarded in the future. The assumption that the only appropriate contexts for him are Impressionism and Futurism has been irrevocably challenged, and his place alongside the modernist greats has been reevaluated and firmly claimed. The relevance of Hecker’s approach means that this book will be of interest to sculptural historians and those seeking to better understand the importance of artists’ dissemination and critical reception, as well as those wanting to get a grip on Rosso himself. A Moment’s Monument is eminently readable. It remains to be seen whether any of the major art museums, almost all of which hold at least one work by Rosso, will ever consider him worthy of an exhibition in his own right, but this publication clearly demonstrates that a book-length study was warranted and overdue. 

Caroline Levitt
Courtauld Institute of Art