Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the way that material shapes art. This has mostly come up in the context of making things myself, as I often have questions about the way my materials will affect the final result. How will different types of fabric change the drape, weight and look of the garment being sewn? How will paper of various weights change the delicate way the watercolors spread across the surface? One of the things I love about the creative process is the ability to change the art I produce through my choice of materials.
I think about this, not only in terms of what I make, but also in terms of the centuries-old art that exists to this day. One of my favorite materials is marble. I love that marble sculptures showcase not only the beauty of the marble itself, but also the talent of the sculptor in bringing subjects to life through technique. It’s amazing to see how lifelike and animated sculptures can seem when they’re executed well.
An example of this is Auguste Rodin’s sculpture Orpheus and Eurydice. This sculpture embodies the qualities I love in such a bold and striking way.
What I really love about this sculpture is the contrast between the finely sculpted figures and the unfinished texture of the surrounding marble. This artistic choice of Rodin’s is important in conveying the pathos of the original story.
In the ancient myth, Orpheus seeks to retrieve his wife Eurydice from the underworld after her sudden death. Hades, god of the underworld, agrees under one condition. This condition is that Orpheus lead her from the underworld into the real world without once looking back at her. Orpheus leads her patiently until the last moment, at which point he loses faith and looks back at his wife. She has been with him all along, but only as a shadow waiting to reclaim her human form. Of course Orpheus would be unable to hear her footsteps. Eurydice is tragically condemned to the underworld forever because of Orpheus’ broken promise.
Rodin chooses to depict the lovers just after Orpheus looks back at Eurydice. Her resignation to life in the underworld is apparent, and the sculpture is also shot through with Orpheus’ inconsolable grief. Understanding this moment leads us to see how masterful Rodin’s choice of material and method was. His material, marble, evokes the humanity of both lovers. His method, non finito (or “not finished”) carving, evokes Eurydice’s pain as she is pulled back into the underworld. It is almost as though the uncarved marble represents death and the carved marble life. Eurydice almost seems to melt back into the roughly hewn marble as Orpheus exits out of it. Rodin’s use of non finito carving expertly signifies Eurydice’s transition back into death and Orpheus’ movement towards life again. This conveys the agony of their separation better, I think, than any traditional sculpture could.
I love this sculpture for many reasons, but especially because of the mingling of material, method and story. I’d love to keep an eye out for other artists who successfully merge these important facets.
What art have you found that does this well?