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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Wood Sculpture

Ancient Egyptian carved wooden figures. If they did this to celebrate the birth of a calf,
I wonder what they did when a baby was born. These may have been toys.

Grinling Gibbons, 17th century
If you mention or think about sculpture, the first material to come to mind is stone, probably marble. The first artist to come to mind is Michelangelo. However, if we're to believe the Bible, the first carved images mentioned are of wood. Although wood was not all that plentiful in the biblical middle-east, it was a good deal easier to shape into recognizable images of worship than stone, and had the added advantage of being more portable. Even cast gold, silver and other metals seem to predate carved stone. And even at that, most early stone carving was what we term "low or bass relief" solely for the purpose of storytelling wall decoration. Free-standing stone figures were a relatively late addition to the sculptor's repertoire. Aside from reclining sphinxes, even the Egyptian figures of Ramses II were usually fastened to the wall behind them. However, we find a long tradition of in-the-round wood carving in Egyptian art (top) dating back to the earliest dynasties, four to five thousand years ago (2980-2475 BC). More recently, wood carving is mentioned by Moses in Chapter 35 of Exodus. The Chinese have a similarly long tradition of carving items from wood.
Adam and Eve, 1491-94
Tilman Riemenschneider
Yet we glorify that which is carved from stone and largely ignore, even great masterpieces carved of wood. Perhaps the greatest artist employing wood as his sculptural medium of choice was the German sculptor, Tilman Riemenschneider (06-16-12), (1460-1531). His life-size Adam and Eve (left) is typical, though less complex than some of his pieces. Moreover wood carving had a long and illustrious tradition long before that among the Greeks. Some Bible historians postulate that Jesus of Nazareth's skill as a carpenter might be better translated as a wood carver. In England during the 17th century, the greatest wood-carving artist would have been Grinling Gibbons (above, right), who worked with the great architect, Sir Christopher Wren. He specialized in floral designs and throne decorating. In France and Italy from the Renaissance on, most wood carving centered on crucifixes, which had to be light enough to hang from church walls. Even the great Michelangelo (below) started out carving such wooden decorations.

Christ Refound, late 15th century, Michelangelo

Colonial American woodcarving,
Powell House, Philadelphia
In colonial America, the major emphasis seems to have been on ships' figureheads and interior architectural decorations around windows, doors, and fireplaces (right). Today, and for the past hundred years or so, woodcarving had relied on power tools, everything from chain saws to Dremel tools, while the selection, preparation, and preservation of the materials employed in such works has been the a major focus of modern art objects made of wood. Today stone carving is approaching the realm of a "lost art" more often incorporating sand-blasting than hammer and chisels. However, the tools of the woodcarver have hardly changed in more than a thousand years. That's not to say that wood carving has been unaffected by modern technology. Most noticeable has been the computer driven CO2 laser (below, right) which costs about $8,000. It can work from any digital source to carve or "etch" images into wood varying in size from that of a silver dollar (below, left) to 24 inches by 36 inches. Items include everything from family photos to intricate, highly decorative keepsake boxes. Yet, we insist upon calling even this, wood "carving" rather than wood sculpture.
Computer-driven CO2 laser
Woodcarving using a computer driven laser.



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