2 Reductive Thinking Skills
It may not be possible to begin at the beginning. The re-carving of images and explanations, like the re-carving of blocks of stone, has a long tradition. Most aspects of culture have been prone to periodic recycling. So much is already given that for now it is necessary to carve out an understanding from what is given and adjust it where it is needed.
The material received from the past might occasionally be treated like an inheritance, but most of the time it is just slightly compromised raw material. The impression of alla prima vitality that direct carving conveys is in contrast to carving’s centuries of reassembling and rethinking.
One of the clearest examples of this process took place in Europe as the Roman Empire collapsed and Christian culture took over. It wasn’t worth the effort to work the quarry when stones from so many pagan buildings were there to be used. Some of these old stones were re-carved; others were appropriated for building; anything made of limestone or alabaster was likely to be burnt to make lime or gypsum.
Re-cycling saved time but it had the additional benefit of defusing pagan energy and converting heathen rock into Christian significance. From the Middle Ages until well into the Renaissance, stonemasons were busy recycling earlier human energy and separating it from its original content. The façade relief of the Orvieto cathedral is reused stone, as is Nicola Pisano’s pulpit in the Pisa baptistery. The marble cladding from Rome’s Coliseum was stripped off and transported to St Mark’s in Venice. One of the porphyry baptismal fonts in St Peter’s Basilica is the cover of Hadrian’s sarcophagus, now simply turned upside down. The poetry of reuse is filled with extremes of meaning. After the Bastille was destroyed the larger stones were used to construct a bridge across the Seine, while small stones from the rubble were mounted as jewelry.
The most famous description of the reductive process is Michelangelo’s image of a figure trapped inside of a block of stone. He also explained that he carved as if he were witnessing the revelation of a submerged object. Michelangelo’s friend Vasari described how Michelangelo put his model into a little coffin, filled it with water, and slowly dipped the water out of the box. The nearest parts of the figure emerged from the water first, like little islands. These were carved as he saw them. More water was let out; more stone was carved. The carving dug deeper and deeper into the block, increasing the figure as the block disappeared. The maquette and sculpture changed together, each mimicking the other. In each case the figure was being drawn slowly into the air.
The explanation of carving began as two separate images but they soon become linked together. There is the trapped figure, and the figure revealed as the water recedes. When taken together these images create an unmistakable biblical analogy, one that would not have been lost on a devout audience at the time. The receding water in the box parallels the receding waters after the flood of Noah. The figure emerging from its burial in the box is simultaneously the revelation of land after the end of the flood, and The Resurrection. The Resurrection is essentially an image of liberation, and this is made explicit by freeing the figure trapped in stone.
The triumphant sculptor is the liberator. Part of the appeal is that the viewer seems to feel part of the process and consequently empowered. Within the process is the contagious power of moving boundaries. Shifting boundaries also suggests how a drawing might slide into three dimensions, something that is not always easy to understand or obvious.
Michelangelo offers up carving as a kind of theatre. The sculptural relief becomes a proscenium arch pulling the audience into another world. The process of carving is approached from a single position. Because Michelangelo’s explanation of carving is broadly accepted today by both specialist and non-specialist, it follows that most of our shared understanding of carving is grounded in relief carving. This does not at first appear to be a problem, but it causes difficulties in several ways. It sometimes gives those who think literally the idea that there is only one authentic figure in each stone. This gives permission to believe that any particular sculpture might be the ‘wrong’ one. In fact the potential is broader than this, more akin to the way that Homer described language in the Iliad: "The tongue of man,” he said, “is a twisty thing; there are plenty of words there of every kind." Carving is really a world of plenty. Any problem with the twisty thing in sculpture can be circumvented. The bigger difficulty is that these accepted explanations are at odds with the most important contribution to human perception that sculpture in general makes.
The real genius in sculpture is that it looks at things from multiple points of view. The figure trapped in stone and revealed as if by receding water, presupposes a single, meager point of view. The world of carving is more generous than that. No comprehensive understanding of the sculptural approach can be formulated when a single point of view eclipses all others. Michelangelo’s explanation, as brilliant as it is, obscures carving’s true parentage. The hazards of the single view appear in the two most common frustrations faced by young sculptors: the surprise discovery of a sculpture that is wonderful from one position, but horrible from others, and the common mistake of making a portrait face that is too flat, where the nose and cheeks barely come out into space.
Explanations of carving that are based on bas-relief are a Renaissance re-positioning of an earlier way to work, a repositioning that rejects a process of carving that shapes form by approaching it simultaneously from all sides. It would be a shame to discard Michelangelo’s resonant explanations, but neither can they remain unchallenged.
Any attempt to articulate the reductive mode today has its own analogy to the Biblical Noah. The effort is no longer involved with the receding waters but in the cleanup after the flood. A lot of talking had taken place since Adam began his adventure, but when the waters were finally gone it was time for Noah, the second Adam, to start over. The things that happened before could not be denied, but they were only one limiting view, a view that for Noah was not immediately useful.
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