The History of Modern Sculpture: From Rodin to Barbara Hepworth to Ai Weiwei

Updated on October 3, 2019
chef-de-jour profile image

Andrew has been writing for decades, publishing articles online and in print. His many interests include literature, the arts and nature.

Auguste Rodin, father of modern sculpture.
Auguste Rodin, father of modern sculpture. | Source

Rodin and The Start of Modern Sculpture

Modern sculpture began with Auguste Rodin in the late 19th century. This French sculptor was responsible for a kind of artistic revolution, bringing human emotion and powerful realism to his work, breaking free of old traditions and staid convention.

He created pieces that have become iconic, such as The Thinker and The Kiss, the former a figure of a man sitting, resting his chin on his elbow, the latter a couple embraced in a passionate kiss. Both are naked.

They are statements of solid intent, expressive masses of stone that give the viewer much food for thought.

'Sculpture is the art of the hole and the lump.'

Auguste Rodin, French sculptor, 1840-1917

Before Rodin, sculpture was based on classical realism, the conventional figures we know so well from the ancient Roman and Greek cultures. Although he worked on human figures, he sought to break away from conforming by imbuing his pieces with a more natural aesthetic.

As society and values changed, so did the sculptor. At the Paris Exhibition in 1900 Rodin put forward his Burghers of Calais (1889), a wonderfully fluid set of figures expressing anguish and the pain of sacrifice, instead of a more heroic stance.

This proved to be the turning point in the art of sculpture. Rodin kept on exploring new ways of producing bronzes, starting off with primitive lumps of clay, concentrating on texture and character, giving his pieces rough finishes so they caught the light in exciting ways.

As his reputation grew, he exhibited in the USA and Great Britain, making controversial nude pieces and causing an uproar in artistic and societal circles. Yet he forged ahead and by the time of his death had become one of the most influential artists of the emerging modern era.

The Kiss by Rodin
The Kiss by Rodin | Source

Brancusi - The Essence of Sculpture

Following Rodin is the Romanian, Constantin Brancusi (1876 - 1957) a former student of the great French master. With a peasant background he is an unlikely member of the artistic elite but is a bit of a legend these days, his work turning up in all the world's major galleries.

As his sculpture evolved he sought to find the spirit of animation within things. He was renowned for his total immersion in the material he was working with. With Brancusi it wasn't the material for the idea but the idea within the material?

Don't look for obscure formulas or mystery in my work. It is pure joy that I offer you. Look at my sculptures until you see them.

...what they call abstract is in fact the purest realism, the reality of which is not represented by external form but by the idea behind it, the essence of the work.

Constantin Brancusi

Fish by Constantin Brancusi
Fish by Constantin Brancusi | Source
Modern Sculpture: A Concise History (World of Art)
Modern Sculpture: A Concise History (World of Art)
Useful book, with great images, information and insight into the history of modern sculpture.
Giacometti's Dog
Giacometti's Dog | Source

Alberto Giacometti - Imagination and Feeling

Giacometti developed a wonderful organic style for some of his work, often reducing human figures down to a thin minimum ' the shadow that is cast.' His pieces are lean, highly textured or sometimes stylish and clean.

One of his most famous pieces is Dog 1951:

One day I was walking along the Rue de Vanves, in the rain, close to the walls of the buildings, feeling a little sad perhaps, and I felt like a dog just then. So I made that sculpture. The sad muzzle has a likeness to the Saluki.'

Alberto Giacometti, Swiss sculptor 1901 - 1966

Giacometti and thin lady in studio.
Giacometti and thin lady in studio. | Source

Barbara Hepworth - Shape and Light

Barbara Hepworth was a British sculptor who became very well known in the 1940s and 50s and went on to become a world wide success by the time of her death in 1975.

Her birth town, Wakefield in Yorkshire, UK, is home to the Hepworth, a new gallery that sits by the River Calder. Its severe architecture contrasts sharply with a 14th century chantry chapel on the nearby medieval bridge. Many of her sculptures are at home in the clean cut white light of the show rooms. Some are also outdoors.

Sculpture is a three dimensional projection of primitive feeling,touch,texture,size and scale, hardness and warmth,evocation and compulsion to move,live and love.

I prefer my work to be shown outside. I think sculpture grows in the open light and with the movement of the sun its aspect is always changing; and with space and the sky above, it can expand and breathe.

Barbara Hepworth, British Sculptor 1903-75

Hepworth sculpture outside the Hepworth, by the River Calder, Wakefield UK.
Hepworth sculpture outside the Hepworth, by the River Calder, Wakefield UK.
Signature of Miro
Signature of Miro

Joan Miro - Playful and Profund

Joan Miro, the Catalan painter, sculptor and ceramicist (1893 - 1983) created many whimsical yet profound sculptures, some based on objects he had picked up or observed whilst out on his walkabouts.

For me an object is something living. This cigarette or this box of matches contains a secret life much more intense than that of certain human beings.

Joan Miro

You gain a sense of freedom with some of Miro's sculptures. They can take you back to childhood and help release inhibitions which is inspiring. And yet, such intrigue surrounds some of his more abstract work. Surreal, oddly shaped, curiously animate, his sculptures work on different levels of the human psyche.

Joan Miro on grass.
Joan Miro on grass.
A Joan Miro sculpture.
A Joan Miro sculpture.
Joan Miro in the walled garden.
Joan Miro in the walled garden.
Joan Miro under natural skies
Joan Miro under natural skies
Eulogy to the Horizon by Eduardo Chillida
Eulogy to the Horizon by Eduardo Chillida | Source

Eduardo Chillida - Control and Element

Sculpture may be for entertainment only, a conscious attempt by the artist to control the space or area with material figments of their imaginations. It's surprisingly similar to some ball sports, especially football. You don't believe me? Listen to the celebrated Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida.

..the conditions you need to be a good goalkeeper are exactly the same conditions you need to be a good sculptor. You must have a very good connection, in both professions, with time and with space.

Eduardo Chillida 1924 -2002

Chillida did happen to play football professionally for Real Sociedad before injury forced him out of the game and he took up the study of sculpture.

El Peine de los Vientos, 1977, San Sebastian by Eduardo Chiilida
El Peine de los Vientos, 1977, San Sebastian by Eduardo Chiilida | Source
A toilet seat suspended from a metal branch. An example of modern sculpture. Dennis Oppenheim the sculptor.
A toilet seat suspended from a metal branch. An example of modern sculpture. Dennis Oppenheim the sculptor.

Dennis Oppenheim - Conceptual and Transformative

Dennis Oppenheim was initially a performance and body artist before becoming a part of the conceptual movement. His progress as a sculptor began to build momentum in the 1980 and 1990s and on when his large pieces featuring everyday objects became well known.

Full of metaphor and allegory, his later pieces can baffle and delight. A born commentator on societal ills and issues, his sculpture finds time to question the present whilst pointing to an uncertain future.

Dennis Oppenheim, American artist and sculptor, 1938-2011

Dream. Jaume Plensa.
Dream. Jaume Plensa. | Source

Jaume Plensa - Peace and Dream

Not all sculptures lead to the bathroom. Some are truly remarkable. They get your minds ticking and imaginations brewing.Plensa's giant heads impressed me greatly and really made sense when I read the words of its creator.

" I always consider the body the most beautiful architecture in the world ... and the head, probably the most beautiful part of that architecture because probably it’s where we develop our dreams, something untouchable, something that is owned only by ourselves "

Meeting a gigantic white head isn't something you can do every day. The idea isn't new but the way it's presented might be. I'm reminded of those huge stone Easter Island heads looking out to sea, the faces of protective Gods perhaps.

When I looked at the Dream long enough these words appeared -

  • Behind Closed Eyes A Titanic Vision
  • The Big Idea Is Born
  • Dreaming God of Meditation

If you want to escape into dreams, poetry and timelessness Plensa's work is perfect. His figures, heads and other pieces take you into a world of contemplation, reflection and ecstasy.

One of my obsessions is silence, silence as a key need. And in a very noisy world, silence should be produced, must be made, because it does not exist; an inner silence so that people return to be with themselves.

Jaume Plensa, Spanish sculptor, 1955 -

Jaume Plensa. Two seated giant males made of metal letters.
Jaume Plensa. Two seated giant males made of metal letters.
Seated Figure on a platform
Seated Figure on a platform
yorkshire sculpture park, west bretton, yorkshire,uk:
Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, Wakefield, West Yorkshire WF4 4LG, UK

get directions

Modern Sculpture in a Sculpture Park

Living in the county of Yorkshire, UK, we have one of the world's largest sculpture parks on our doorstep. It's a former aristocrat's estate and covers 500 acres or more. Massive exhibitions are held each year attracting all sorts of people who come flocking to puzzle, stare and wonder at some amazing objects!

You can visit this hub for more information :

A Visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Being a regular and a local I've had the privilege of viewing some of these 'world class' pieces and many are wonderfully awe inspiring. But occasionally I have to stop myself to ask that basic question : Sculpture, what is it for?

Smooth granite created by Masayuki Koovida
Smooth granite created by Masayuki Koovida
Composition - Man and Woman. Giacometti
Composition - Man and Woman. Giacometti | Source

What's In A Name?

There are some famous sculptors around today but compared to the top musicians or painters they are relatively unknown.

Works by big names in the art world often fetch huge sums at auction. Paintings regularly go for tens of millions of dollars. They make international headlines. Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Emin, Hirst - they're huge names and bring serious investors to the bidding table. Sculptors rarely feature. Until recently.

In 2010 one of Amedeo Clemente Modigliani's sculptures sold at auction for 43.2m euros, five times the expected figure. 'Tele' a limestone head, was sold to an unknown telephone bidder at Christie's in Paris.

Does this signal a change for the future of sculpture? Will it increasingly become investable and start to compete with painting?

Smaller Joan Miro works plus framed paintings.
Smaller Joan Miro works plus framed paintings.
Two very large pieces of burnt wood.
Two very large pieces of burnt wood.

Sophie Ryder - Mythological Forms

The British sculptor Sophie Ryder creates massive wire creatures, part animal part human, and wants them to come to life in people's minds. She claims not to know what is happening once she gets a new idea going, it could lead anywhere.

I start making a new piece by developing ideas in different media.....I just look at the way a dog moves, a hare jumps and translate it into my work.'

Sophie Ryder 1963

A giant mythological woman-hare.
A giant mythological woman-hare.
Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei | Source

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese sculptor and dissident, born in 1957. He is world renowned and travels widely, exhibiting a variety of abstract and architectural works.

Many of his creations reflect the state of society and are made from diverse materials such as ice, wood, iron and stone. Ai Weiwei also constructs functional pieces - bridges, beds and a one off Birds Nest stadium so called, built for the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

Trees by Ai Weiwei
Trees by Ai Weiwei | Source

Modern Sculpture - Into The Future

Is modern sculpture in good shape? By all accounts yes it is. There are more sculpture parks and more sculptors worldwide than there has been for centuries, certainly since the Renaissance. Their work is eclectic, abstract and witty.

The definition of sculpture is I think broadening. This will continue to happen as different media are introduced by cutting edge sculptors keen to break away from traditional clay, stone and wood.

Modern sculpture is becoming more daring, incorporating other media such as light, sound and live performance. No material is out of bounds, no space too small or large. Perhaps the one argument levelled at today's sculpture is that it is not controversial enough, not political enough.

Which begs the question:

What is sculpture for? Ultimately the answer to this question must be down to the sculptor, the creator of the work. They produce the shapes and forms and offer them to the viewing public. That's all an artist can do. Once the finished piece is 'out there' it's up to people like you and me to answer a quite different question - What does that piece of work do for me?

What do you think about public sculpture?

Public sculpture Is A Waste of Time and Money?

See results


All photographs by chef-de-jour unless otherwise stated.

© 2012 Andrew Spacey


Submit a Comment
  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thank you for the visit Kristen. I felt I had to write a hub on sculpture living in the area where both Hepworth and Moore were born and raised.

  • Kristen Howe profile image

    Kristen Howe 

    5 years ago from Northeast Ohio

    Andrew, great hub of modern sculptures. I've heard of Rodin and not of the others, past and present. Very interesting and cool. Voted up!

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    7 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Hey Ben, not sure if I replied! Hope your sculpturing is going ok. We have Yinka Shonibare at the YSP, a very different sort of sculptor.

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    7 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thank you Kosmo. Belated welcome - I 'm not sure if I replied? Take care.

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    7 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Belated thanks.I never know if I've replied or not. Your visit is very welcome.

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    7 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK


  • Ben Zoltak profile image

    Ben Zoltak 

    7 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

    Wow, a wonderful tour-de-force art hub, well done. Giacometti and Miro are two of my influences, thank you for introducing me to some of their work that I haven't seen before.

    I also loved the waved artist, magnifiscent!

    Sculpture is many things, but at it's best I believe, it serves the viewer in some way. Sometimes this is specific as in say, women, or children, or aboriginal Americans, sometimes it is broad, as in an entire community, or state.

    Last year I finished my first permanent sculpture at the Stevens Point Sculpture Park in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, USA. My piece is entitled "Swift Nesting Wing" and it doubles as a habitat for Chimney Swift birds, so in my case there is a utilitarian component, but my work broadly is made to capture the attention of a large audience (not just of the avian variety, ha).

    If you get the chance, pay a visit! I can't wait to go to the UK to see some of the parks you've mentioned!


    Ben Zoltak

  • Kosmo profile image

    Kelley Marks 

    7 years ago from California

    This is my kind of hub! I like how you displayed the images, most of which I've never seen before. I like the work of Jeff Koons and Umberto Boccioni, though I don't really have a favorite sculptor. Later!

  • Petra Vlah profile image

    Petra Vlah 

    7 years ago from Los Angeles

    Hello chef,

    This is a terrific hub - pure joy of beauty.

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    7 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thank you stessily, a nice story about Big Lick (what a name for a home address) and Wayne White's sculpture. Sculpture is certainly on the move - there are many different kinds of sculpture these days, from light to sound to plastics to kinetics and concept - plus the more traditional abstracts! I wonder what'll come next?

    Appreciate your comments.

  • profile image


    7 years ago

    chef-de-jour, Alberto Giacometti had a distinctive talent for portraying figures as "a thin minimum ' the shadow that is cast'". In fact, each of these sculptors projects a distinctive personality through their artistry.

    On one of my recent monthly visits with my sister to the local art museum, the Taubman, in Roanoke, Virginia, I was mesmerized by "Big Lick Boom", a sculpture by Wayne White, who has achieved fame as an illustrator and set designer. It's a brilliant tribute to Roanoke, which started out in life with the unappealing place name of Big Lick, so named for a huge outcropping of salt.

    Thank you for sharing your sculptured interests.

    Appreciatively, Stessily

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    7 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thanks for the comment donnab... yes you're right about art being a subjective kind of thing. I wanted to shine a light on sculpture because I've become interested in it the last few years and wanted to explore a little - like you there are certain sculptures that resonate deeply, others not so much.

  • donnah75 profile image

    Donna Hilbrandt 

    7 years ago from Upstate New York

    What is considered "art" is often in the eye of the beholder. The toilet tree is not my idea of art, but I bet someone else would pay for it. I happen to love sculpture. It amazes me sometimes what an artist can create in 3D just from an idea. Your article here has me remembering great museum visits, like to Rodin's museum in Paris, and thinking about how art is one of the things in this life that I believe makes us human.


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