Sculpture was sick, that it had become very sick with Rodin and his influence. There was too much modeling in clay, too much 'mud'.
Amedeo Modigliani Signature

Summary of Direct Carving

The Direct Carving of wood and stone to create primitive, intuitive, and indigenous sculptures, masks, and effigies has celebrated a long history, dating back to the ancient times in many cultures. Yet, the term in art history and modern art is used to refer to the sculptural approach pioneered by Constantin Brâncuși in 1906. Rejecting the established and rigid sculptural practice, he emphasized the artist's solitary engagement, carving the work in line with the inherent qualities of the raw materials, an approach that emphasized both the materiality of the object and the process.

Also known as taille directe, Direct Carving was widely adopted among both contemporary and subsequent generations of artists in various movements and approaches to artistic expression, such as Expressionism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Neo-Expressionism, Biomorphism, and Primitivism.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Direct Carving was seen as a more authentic creative process in juxtaposition to the classical and traditional means of planning for and composing a final work. Thus reflecting a truer engagement with the material, and often connected with spiritual values, arising out of an elemental connection with what Brancusi called "the inner form," as he said, "direct cutting is the true road to sculpture." What emerged was an intuitive dance between sculptor and medium.
  • The art of non-Western cultures, seen as expressing this more "primitive" and more genuine approach, was taken as an inspiration. Many indigenous cultures informed the Direct Carving aesthetic through their ancient artifacts and the personal resonance associated with such primal forms.
  • By taking cues from the past, Direct Carvers married antiquity and modernism in a unique way that had not been seen before. By adding a contemporary remix to an ancient lexicon, the sculptures that emerged became a fine example of the way artists oftentimes mine history to evolve art on both personal and societal levels.

Overview of Direct Carving

Direct Carving Photo

Leading up to the 1900s, sculpture was based on the traditional forms taught in the academies and employed by leading artists like Auguste Rodin. Sculptors used a somewhat collaborative process that relied upon help by skilled assistants. The sculptor would make the original work in clay, wax, or plaster, and assistants, using a pointing machine, would then carve the work in wood or stone. Plotting specific points on the raw material, the machine made it possible to create accurate copies and to enlarge or reduce the size of the original. But Direct Carvers soon emerged to reject this approach.

Key Artists

  • Constantin Brâncuși, a Romanian artist working in Paris, was one of the founders of modern sculpture. His abstracted animals, portrait busts, and totem-like figures revolutionized the traditional relationship between the sculpture and its base.
  • Paul Gauguin was a French Post-Impressionist artist who employed color fields and painterly strokes in his work. He is best known for his primitivist depictions of native life in Tahiti and Polynesia.
  • Amedeo Modigliani was a Jewish-Italian painter working in Paris from 1906 onwards. His unique style was influenced by Post-Impressionism, Brâncuși and Cézanne, and featured ovaloid faces, elongated forms, and the use of brushed, modulated color fields.
  • André Derain, the co-founder of Fauvism, was a French artist whose paintings exhibit the writhing energetic lines and bright colors characteristic of the movement. He strove to keep art modern and current throughout his career.
  • Nolde was a Danish-German painter and printmaker who was affiliated with the groups Die Brucke, the Berlin Secession, and Der Blaue Reiter. His bright, evocative paintings of religious scenes, seascapes, and flowers earned him a unique place in the greater Expressionism movement.
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Do Not Miss

  • Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. They hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
  • A vast number of major modern artists in the West were greatly influenced by art they deemed 'primitive' or 'naïve', made by tribal or non-Western cultures. Such art, ranging from African, Oriental, Oceanic, and Native American to naive depictions of the French peasantry, was thought to be less civilized and thus closer to raw aesthetic and spiritual experience.
  • Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany and beyond, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
  • Biomorphism was a twentieth-century art movement with close ties to Surrealism. The term referred to styles of painting and sculpture that assumed an organic appearance or form, and contained characteristics reminiscent of nature.

The Important Artists and Works of Direct Carving

The Kiss (1907-08)

Artist: Constantin Brâncuși

This sculpture depicts two figures kissing, carved to accentuate their closeness within the block of stone from which they emerge. Intimacy is prevalent in their curvaceously embracing arms with bodies and faces that press together. Only a slight variance in hairstyle and contour evokes gender.

The simplified forms emphasize oneness, made convincing by the unpolished singularity and authenticity of the material. As art critic Nicholas Fox Weber wrote, "This is the purest of geometric sculptures, yet the bodies are completely lithe, and the eyes, which are represented so sparely, meet with an infinity of emotion...This stylized sculpture, a cube of stone, is the essence of connection."

Saying, "direct cutting is the true road to sculpture," Brâncuși's emphasis on elemental form and texture in this work was undoubtedly meant to artistically counter the romantic naturalism of Auguste Rodin's famous sculpture, The Kiss (1882). Rather than a polished surface, this work's surface is rough, enhancing the natural qualities of the limestone. As a result, the sculpture takes on an archaic quality, evoking ancient cultures but confined to none of them, as it becomes startlingly modern.

Homme accroupi (1907)

Artist: André Derain

This sandstone sculpture depicts a crouching man. His compressed and tightly coiled form evokes a sense of dynamic energy, as if at any moment he might burst outward from the stone. The geometry of the block contrasts with the more organic and curvilinear lines of his form. Carving only a few lines, the artist stayed true to the elemental, almost abstract cube, which allows for a 365-degree perspective depending on where the viewer stands.

The work was acclaimed as a pioneering example of early Cubism when shown at Kahnweiller's Gallery in Paris in 1907. Art historian Edith Balas called it the most influential work of the period. At the same time, in the huddled figure's powerful expression, it also draws upon Derain's early Symbolist work.

Derain was a pioneer of both Fauvism and Cubism, and in this work, the artist, primarily known as a painter, brought a new vision to sculpture. Drawing upon his enthusiasm for pre-Columbian and African sculpture and the volumetric forms of Paul Cézanne, the artist has left the working marks of his chisel in the stone, creating a sense of the work as if it had been recently excavated from the earth.

Tänzerin mit Halskette (Dancer with Necklace) (1910)

Artist: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Carved out of a cylindrical log of wood, this work depicts a nude dancer, her body torqued in a tight spiral, counter to the forward movement of her legs. Roughly carved, it is reminiscent of a tribal artifact. As art critic Christopher Knight noted, "The painted wooden dancer exudes an animistic spirit, as if temporal nature is infused with conscious life. She's a modern totem."

Kirchner cofounded Die Brücke in 1905, a group of Dresden Expressionists who wanted to create "the bridge" between the modern era and the ancient past - here considering the past traditions of German woodcuts and wood working and those of non-Western cultures. Kirchner frequented the Ethnographical Museum, and as Knight noted, "was especially smitten with sculpture from Cameroon and Palau, so he started to carve." As the artist said, "How different that sculpture appears when the artist himself has formed it with his hands out of the genuine material, each curvature and cavity formed by the sensitivity of the creator's hand, each blow or tender carving expressing the immediate feelings of the artist."

Though he was most known for the powerful forms in his drawings and paintings Kirchner saw this innovative work in his oeuvre as exemplifying the aims of Die Brücke, as he reproduced it in a woodcut for the group. The Nazis later destroyed much of Kirchner's work as examples of what they called "degenerate" art, and, as a result, few of his wood sculptures survived. This work disappeared and was only rediscovered in the 1980s.

Useful Resources on Direct Carving

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

"Direct Carving Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 04 Feb 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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