Sculptor Rosso Coated Work in Wax As Performance Art

The reputation of the Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) has traced a strangely fugitive course in the annals of modern sculpture. Acclaimed in his lifetime by such influential critics as Guillaume Apollinaire in France and Julius Meier-Graefe in Germany, and now well represented in museum collections here and abroad, Rosso nonetheless remains an elusive figure, condemned to be repeatedly “rediscovered” and then, if not exactly forgotten, somehow overlooked when it comes to organizing exhibitions and writing books. In this country, there was no solo exhibition of his sculpture until some 30 years after his death, and that exhibition, in 1959, wasn’t organized by a museum, but by a commercial dealer-the late Louis Pollock at the long-defunct but fondly remembered Peridot Gallery in New York.

Writing about that exhibition at the time, I pointed out that “the 100th anniversary of the birth of Medardo Rosso last year passed without notice in this country or, indeed, almost anywhere else,” and that, “Until a year ago, no American museum owned a single work by him.” Since then, the museums have acquired some fine examples of Rosso’s sculpture, but the current exhibition at Harvard University’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum- Medardo Rosso: Second Impressions -is only the second museum exhibition to be devoted to Rosso. The first was the show organized by Margaret Scolari Barr at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1963-long before many of today’s museumgoers were born.

The reasons for this neglect are anything but obscure. Rosso’s modestly scaled sculptural oeuvre simply does not lend itself to the blockbuster-type exhibitions that museums now favor. The pleasures that Rosso’s work offers are of another order-an order that requires an intimate, sustained attention from the viewer if the sculptor’s limited repertory of subjects and his astonishing varieties of casting and facture are to be seriously appreciated. This means that the viewer is also obliged to take a keen interest in the way Rosso produced his sculpture, for in this respect he was totally original-original, it might even be said, to the point of eccentricity and obsession. As Sharon Hecker writes in a catalog essay that is undoubtedly the best single account of the sculptor’s life and work, “Rosso became the only artist of his time to publicly locate the creative moment of sculpture in the art of casting.” Whereas most sculptors conformed to the traditional practice of consigning their clay or wax or plaster “originals” to a professional foundry to be cast in bronze, Rosso turned the casting process into something akin to a performance art. “He did so,” writes Ms. Hecker, “in his Paris studio in front of select groups of writers, poets, artists, critics and potential clients … in a private mini-foundry he had built directly into his Montmartre atelier.” Each bronze was itself an original creation, and so were the more poetic works he created by coating his plaster casts with thin layers of wax-the medium in which, in my judgment, he produced his finest work.

The first sculpture we encounter in the current exhibition-a 1883 wax-over-plaster head called Carne Altrui ( Flesh of Others )-is something of a shock. It looks like something unearthed in an archaeological excavation, so aged and distressed and at times illegible do the hard-worked surfaces and forms of the sculpture seem to the contemporary eye. A wall text informs us that its subject is “a prostitute whose head may be partly covered by bedclothes.” Apparently there are other versions of Carne Altrui that show its subject full face, but this one has the appearance of a head emerging from the fragmented, nearly abstract environment that resulted from Rosso’s improvised casting process. Distinctly more beautiful in every way is the sculpture I would nominate as Rosso’s masterwork: the wax-over-plaster version of Ecce Puer ( Behold the Child ), 1906. Rosso was a genius at depicting children, and in this version of Ecce Puer the purity of its finely wrought wax surface is a perfect embodiment of the subject’s untroubled innocence. The bronze version of Ecce Puer is inevitably coarser and less affecting, for the child seems to have aged in the casting process.

More important to Rosso’s career, however, are the three versions of an adult male figure called Bookmaker (circa 1894), for this was the sculpture that caught the attention of Auguste Rodin, who openly acknowledged its influence in the creation of his own more monumental Balzac (1891), one of the crowning achievements of his later years. Rodin was, in any case, a huge problem for Rosso. Both as a sculptor and a public personality, Rodin was so overwhelming that his command of the scene had the effect of relegating the work of his contemporaries to a marginal status. Understandably, Rosso was somewhat paranoid on the subject of Rodin; he came to believe that Rodin had “stolen” something from him in the creation of his Balzac .

I doubt if we shall ever see a better exhibition of Rosso’s work than the current show at the Sackler Museum in Cambridge. It brings together all of the important works, with enough variations to give us a sense of how essential it was to Rosso’s artistic mission to recycle his subjects in the casting process. If, in the end, we are left with the impression that Rosso’s oeuvre remains in some sense incomplete, that too may account for the fugitive course of his reputation: He left it to the many sculptors he influenced to carry his ideas to completion.

Medardo Rosso: Second Impressions remains on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Cambridge, Mass., through Oct. 26 and then travels to the St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri (Nov. 21 to Feb. 15, 2004), and the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Tex. (April 3 to June 20, 2004).