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"The Shape of the Figure the Space of the Myth" – Monika Rydiger

Monika Rydiger, The Shape
of the Figure the Space
of the Myth

Pygmalion, a famous sculptor, was king of Cyprus. Even the
gods admired his works. Until one day he sculpted the statue
of a woman of marvellous beauty and called her Galatea. One evening [...] a goddess appeared in the sculptor’s chamber. She touched the marble figure of the woman with her divine hand and breathed life into the lifeless stone1.

To endow statues and figures with the semblance of life has probably been the strongest desire of sculptors from Phidias, through Michelangelo, to Rodin. The shape, posture, gesture, and mimicry of the figures sculpted were to faithfully reecho, reproduce the image of man; they were to serve well-nigh as a mirror image, in accordance with the accepted iconographic models, canons, and stereotypical images.

Beautiful, idealised bodies were treated as if they were the portrait of the human soul. Thomas McEvilley calls this configuration “a sculpture of presence”. In his opinion the most important change in 20th-century sculpture, in its transition from Modernism to Post-Modernism, was the showing of the figure not as a metaphor of the human presence, but as an empty shell, a deserted, screaming non-existence2. That’s the image of Man in the work of Magdalena Abakanowicz, James Croak, and Kiki Smith. Resinous trunks, humiliated, bodiless boxes. Humankind is as if seeping through its external shape, is being deprived of its interior. All that remains is the shell. The “skin” of sculpture is gaining independence. Especially the art of the 1980s and 90s drastically demythologised the image of humankind, shocking observers with its vulgar biology, the boldness of its subjects, and its ugliness.

Igor Mitoraj is one of those sculptors who still show the human figure full of mystery, a poetic force, and a sophisticated beauty. Fascinated by the beauty of the ancient sculpture, he creates the figures of heroes, gods and goddesses, mythical characters. His Icarus, Ikaria, Iphigenia, Hypnos, the Gorgon, the Centaur, Eros, Mars cast in bronze or sculpted in marble, are delightful for their ideal proportions, for the perfection and beauty of their shapes. The bronze statue of Icarus (1998) is the upright figure of a naked man. The weight of the slender body rests on the right leg; the left leg is leaning forward freely at a slight inclination to the statue’s axis. The gentle tilt of the hips and the leg in a forward position anticipate movement. The turning of the hips to the left corresponds to the slant in the shoulder line to the right, endowing the figure with rhythm, freedom, and suppleness. The head slightly leaning forward marks out the axis of symmetry of the extremely muscular torso, with a harmonious shape arranged in accordance with a geometrical order. If we were to judge the statue by this description, we might think we were talking about a work by Myron, Polykleitos, or another classical Greek sculptor. But let’s reveal the whole truth: this “perfect” statue has a variety of pieces missing. It has no arms; in places it is damaged, it’s full of blemishes; like an archaeological relic. When we look at Mitoraj’s sculptures, we feel we are being entrapped in the ambiguity of our observations, pushed out of the obvious. Here we are standing in front of works which recall the classical anthropomorphic modus ideal but modelled on real, human shapes. Beautiful, with a studied muscularity, natural gestures, caught in postures which herald motion. But at the same time they emanate an intriguing tranquillity and melancholy. The cleft, cracked torsos are invaded by space. Deadened, dumb, empty effigies? Captured between the breathing of life and life’s taking.

“Their source is feeling,” the artist explains, “a momentary thought, a mood, a reminiscence. An abstract nostalgia gradually taking on shape, a longing for a defined form. I am not the one looking for it, it is breaking out on its own. I’m just the instrument.”3 
Those splinters of reminiscences determine the shape and nature of his sculptures. In them we discover familiar images, motifs, and metaphors, accompanied by a touch of nostalgia and an undefined pensiveness. Mitoraj’s penetration of the ancient tradition seems more involuntary and intuitive rather than rationalised and literal. It is not a precisely worked out strategy. Anamnesis – “reminding”, recalling fragments of ideas, contents, and forms latent in the subconscious is one of the principal features and methods in the Post-Modern poetics enumerated by Jencks4. For Donald Kuspit it’s precisely the “reminding”, submitting to memory in dignified respect for the culture of bygone generations, that is a mark of the “European sensibility today”5. Indeed Mitoraj does not play around with rediscovering familiar themes, or gooey and sentimental déjà vu, so characteristic of popular Post-Modernism. The polysemy of his art is not supposed to provoke the observer into solving intellectual puzzles; rather it leaves him engrossed in a variety of senses and interrupted thoughts, with a feeling of insolubility. Insolubility, being ‘pushed out of the obvious”, “problem-hunting” describe the actual condition of contemporary art, which is fighting against its mindless perception and experience6.

Overcome with a passion for sculpture, moulding, and hewing, the artist himself submits to the power of his experiences, the fading reminiscences, and the nagging thoughts; he is in discourse with his own art He alludes in other works to his own sculptures, scaled up or down in size, depleted or reduced to a fragment. We rediscover the winged Ikaria (1996) in Paesaggio Ithaka (1997) and Pannello con centauro (1999); Grepol nero (2000), hewn out of black marble, originally appeared in Colonna I (1985), and its headless and armless torso with a square incision on the right side of the chest may be seen both in Porta Italica (1997), and in Paesaggio Ithaka (1997). The same mysterious hand grabbing Ikaria (1996) by the foot recurs in the marble Piede con mano (2000). None
of these sculptures makes up a closed composition. They are transformed and change well-nigh before our very eyes. One form turns into another. In Grande porta (2001) a female torso emerges from the left side of a male torso. It pushes out, to finally come into existence. On the back of the smooth body
of Torso alato (2000) an eye is outlined, as if some hidden form were trying to break free from the bronze torso. A face? A head?
A mysterious force seems to be exploding from within the wing-wrapped body of the Nascita di Eros sculpture (1984). Parts of the body are in motion relative to each other, forming crevices. The outer shell is “cracking”. Also the black torso of Grepol nero, albeit tightly bound, has lost its coherence; the parts of its muscular body have been displaced. Figures that are cracked, bound by belts, with the marks of joins, bring doubts to mind: have these damaged, dismembered parts been put together again, or have they been arrested in the process of a shape being created and escaping out of them? Fragmentariness, discontinuity, dispersion, the inability to portray the whole of something these are the attributes of contemporary art.Today artists like to apply the technique of dis- location. Dislocation means the rearrangement of component parts within one work, a slight incongruity between them, a subtle discord between one part and another. A massively huge hand supports the side of a winged torso. It’s too big, it can’t possibly belong to that delicate, headless female body. It looks as if it came from another composition. Perhaps Eros alato con mano (2001) is the residue of a larger composition? Torsos bereft of arms and heads, riddled with holes, empty. Faces with no eyes, no forehead, no nose. Sometimes the remnants of a physiognomy are no more than a graceful mouth or almond-shaped eyes. Enveloped by a space that turns into an integral part of them. The non-existent, missing components are just as important as those that have been accomplished in the material. The spatial nature of Mitoraj’s oeuvre gives ample evidence that they are the work of an artist who has not steered clear of the Avant-Garde transformations that have taken place in 20th-century sculpture. But he treats them as something that is obvious, as natural ways of expression avail- able to a contemporary artist. The careful observer will notice a trace of Brancusi, Giacometti, Malevich, Picasso, alongside Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Anthony Caro, and Richard Serra. What is striking about Mitoraj’s sculpture is its sensual physicality, the studied shape and expression in a block of material full of delicate contrasts of light and shadow. As Michael Brenson observes in his essay “Memory of the Hand”, a traditionally modelled or hewn sculpture has the gift of be- ing able to arouse the experience of relationship and presence through the mediation of the hand. “It is initiated by the hand of the artist. It is received by the hand of the visitors. It is an encounter by touch”7. In the 20th century, when sculptors discovered the hitherto untapped values of space and brand new materials, they abandoned “touch”. The monolithic block with mutually complementing forms which turn into new forms, the block of “tangible”, bulging matter has been “split up” and replaced by a rationalised spatial construction consisting of many elements in the logical arrangement of engineering. Sculpture has lost contact with the body. Its unattainable model is now the machine the ubiquitous myth and utopia of modernity. Fitted together, constructed, pieced up, welded, sculpture has ceased to be a record of the exertion of the artist’s hand with the material; it has turned into an art of shaping space. Carl Andre distinguishes three stages of development in this complex process: the sculpture as a form, the sculpture as a structure, and the sculpture as a place8. The works of Mitoraj are a synthesis of these quests. They embody a return to “touch”, alongside a continual search for the expression of space. This artist puts these quests into a concrete architectural context, into a public space that is full of life.

He forces the observer to operate within the configuration of meanings ascribed to the given place. He makes his observer fully realise the consequences which were inevitable once the 20th-century creators rejected the basis, once sculpture “climbed down from its pedestal”.
Sculptures which have come into existence in the same space as their observer force him into a direct confrontation with
art; they break the everyday routine of motion; they mobilise him. The situation itself which arises between the observer, the work, and the space becomes important. This situation
has the attributes of a drama. This becomes apparent particularly in the minimal art sculpture9. According to Richard Serra, the intention of contemporary sculpture is to actively introduce people to the context of sculpture10. We find this message in the works of Mitoraj as well. Using subjects and forms to which we have grown accustomed, he sets a trap for our perception and its conceptual schemes; he shakes us out of our automatic ways of thinking. The term “Classicism” is an institution, regarded as obvious and used addictively. Mitoraj’s art rediscovers Classicism, shatters its canons, removes the inertia from it, enlivens it, rereads it yet again, rereads it
in a new way. Mitoraj’s revival of ancient beauty, his reference to classical form is not a sign of traditionalism. Those who accuse him of being anachronistic are not able, or do not want, to see the finesse and depth of this artist’s struggle with shape, matter, awareness, and memory.
Dormiente grande, Sonno tatuato, Ifigenia, Tybris, Testa addormentata, Hypnos, Eclisse. Heads that are recumbent, resting, sleeping. They are reminiscent of archaeological finds, parts
of fallen figures. Relics of the past, or the essence of the figure proper to contemporary sculpture? In this condensed motif
of the human figure, reduced to just a horizontally arranged head, we may perceive a lesson from Brancusi. In his Sleeping Muse, Head of a Sleeping Child, or Prometheus the image fades away in the simplified, synthetic form of the oval. In Mitoraj identity hides in rolls of bandages. Several layers of them have been tightly wrapped round the head in Eclisse (1992), making the face inscrutable. In Coppia reale (1998) the bandages are thinner, not very accurately wrapped around the physiognomy. In Testa addormentata (1983) the beautiful, sleeping features of a face are visible through the adhering, thin bands of material. His mastery in reproducing the delicate folds comes up to theartistry of the Greek sculptors, who created the wet robe style. The tendency in contemporary artists to cover, wrap up and envelop their works goes back to Man Ray’s Surrealist idea in The Secret of Isidore Ducasse (1920) the emballage of a sewing machine. Emballage has often been used, differently by each, by Maurice Henry, Christo, and above all by Tadeusz Kantor, who was especially fascinated by the polysemy and metaphorical nature of “packaging”, which entailed:

“a promise,

a hope,



the taste of the unknown

and mystery [...]



you want to save something,

secure it
to let it survive.

Perpetuate it,

elude time

you want to hide something



isolate it off,

secure it

against interference

by ignorance

vulgarity [...].”11

The image of Man, although so unclear, so ambiguous and changeable, has not ceased to be the most important source of inspiration for artists. This was made patent in 2001 at the 49th Biennial in Venice, where the main exhibition, Platform of Humanity, was read as the guiding message of 21st century art.

The art of Mitoraj refers to what is eternal in Man. It searches for the sense of existence. Existence between the entirety
and the fragment, between beauty and the disfigured part, between endurance and the fleeting moment, harmony and decomposition, between the canon and eurhythmy, apotheosis and humiliation, between soaring up and crashing down. The hidden, mysterious, inscrutable countenances of his sculpures prompt the question of identity. Who is the human being we are confronted with in contemporary art?

MONIKA RYDIGER – art historian, curator of exhibitions, and the author of texts on contemporary architecture and sculpture


1 W. Markowska, Mity greckie (The Greek Myths), Warszawa, 1962, p. 33–34.

2 Cf. T. McEvilley, “The Millennial Body: The Art of the Figure at the End of Humanity”, “Sculpture”, 1997, 16, No. 6, p. 28–29.

3 Cited after A. Wagner, “Igor Mitoraj und seine Zeichnungen” | ”Igor Mitoraj i jego rysunki” (Igor Mitoraj and His Drawings), in Igor Mitoraj. Die Schönheit – eine zerbrochene Utopie | Piękno – zraniona utopia (Igor Mitoraj. Beauty – An Injured Utopia), ed. K. Wolbert, Institut Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt, 2002, p. 231 and 254.

4 Cf. C. Jencks, “Postmodern Poetics and the New Rules”, in Postmodernism. A Reader, ed. T. Docherty, New York, 1993, p. 286–288.

5 Cf. D. Kuspit, “European Sensibility Today”, in New Art, ed. A. Papadakis, C. Farrow & N. Hodges, London, 1991, p. 231.

6 “Being thrust out of the obvious”, “problem-hunting”, and querying the possibility of unambiguous solutions are typical Deconstructivist practices. While not overestimating its influences, we cannot overlook its con- sequences. They are most patent in literary studies, but have also been felt in other disciplines of the humanities. For a Polish compendium, see A. Burzyñska, „Dekonstrukcja: próba krytycznego bilansu” (Deconstruc- tion: A Critical Assessment), in Po strukturalizmie – wspó3czesne badania teoretyczno-literackie (After Structuralism: Contemporary Studies in the Theory of Literature), ed. R. Nycz, Wrocław, 1992, p. 53–56. Also R. W. Kluszczyński, „Z rozważań nad cyberkultur1. Modernizm – postmodernizm – dekonstrukcja”(Some Reflections on Cyberculture. Modernism, Postmodernism, Deconstruction), „Magazyn Sztuki”, 1996, No. 1, p. 120–133.

7 M. Brenson, “Memory of the Hand”, “Sculpture”, 1995, 14, No. 3, p. 30.

8 Cf. U. Loock, “Places of the Sculpture”, in Art and Tectonics, ed. A. Papadakis, London & New York, 1990 (=Art and Design Profile), p. 77.

9 In his celebrated essay “Art and Objecthood” published in 1967 in “Art-forum”, Michael Fried observed the attributes of drama in the relations between the work and its viewers, and accused sculpture of minimalism as regards this dramatic quality. Minimalist works have a special bond with their observers, a visual bond which is the outcome of the double nature of the act of seeing: what I see is also what is looking at me.

10 After „Sfera publiczna jako rzeźba. Od Civitas Dei do ornamentu z ludzkiej masy” (the Polish translation of M. North’s “The Public as Sculpture: from Heavenly City to Mass Ornament”), „Magazyn Sztuki”, 1995, No.2–3, p.180.

11 T. Kantor, „Manifest ambalaży, 1963” (Emballage Manifesto), in W. Borowski, Tadeusz Kantor, Warszawa, 1982, p. 147–148.

[From Polish by Teresa Bałuk-Ulewicz]

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