Has Sculpture Become Just Another Pretty Face?

BERLIN — Sometimes on a whim I stop into the Bode Museum here to commune with a tiny clay sculpture of John the Baptist.
It’s in a corner of a nearly always empty room, a bone-white bust, pretty and as androgynous as mid-1970s Berlin-addled David Bowie. The saint’s upturned eyes glow in the hard light through tall windows. Attributed to the 15th-century Luccan artist Matteo Civitali, the sculpture is all exquisite ecstasy and languor.
Sometimes it’s not the saint I check on but a sculptured portrait in the same room of the banker Filippo Strozzi — stern like a Roman emperor, the face of rectitude and power — by Benedetto da Maiano, Civitali’s contemporary. Then I usually climb the stairs to admire Houdon’s bust of Gluck, the composer, and ogle a towering pair of craggy German knights, relics of Renaissance pageantry made of painted wood, each taller than the N.B.A. star Dirk Nowitzki.
Mostly, though, I go to the Bode for the silence.

Like a sentry commanding the northern tip of Berlin’s Museum Island, its back turned to the busier Pergamon Museum, the Neues Museum, the Altes Museum and the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Bode seems to attract just a few handfuls of visitors a day. Some go there to see the paintings, coins and Byzantine art. The sculpture rooms are mostly abandoned.

Is it me, or do we seem to have a problem with sculpture today? I don’t mean contemporary sculpture, whose fashionable stars (see Koons, Murakami et alia) pander to our appetite for spectacle and whatever’s new. I don’t mean ancient or even non-Western sculpture, either. I mean traditional European sculpture — celebrities like Bernini and Rodin aside — and American sculpture, too: the enormous universe of stuff we come across in churches and parks, at memorials and in museums like the Bode. The stuff Barnett Newman, the Abstract Expressionist painter, notoriously derided as objects we bump into when backing up to look at a painting.

A few minutes’ walk from the Bode, the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche, the rebuilt neo-Gothic former church designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the 1830s, houses its own sublime assortment of 19th-century sculpture. It’s usually even emptier than the Bode, and it is free to boot. I’ll occasionally spend an hour or so there, feeling small and unimportant before the portraits of Kant and the great German archaeologist Johann Winckelmann. Except for the doleful guards, I rarely encounter another living soul.

I grew up with the smells of plaster dust and clay in my mother’s sculpture studio on Third Avenue. Making a figure out of stone or metal retains its childlike wonder for me. But sculpture skeptics from Leonardo through Hegel and Diderot have cultivated our prejudice against the medium. “Carib art,” is how Baudelaire described sculpture, meaning that even the suavest, most sophisticated works of unearthly virtuosity by Enlightenment paragons like Canova and Thorvaldsen were tainted by the medium’s primitive, cultish origins.

Racism notwithstanding, Baudelaire had a point. Sculpture does still bear something of the burden of its commemorative and didactic origins. It’s too literal, too direct, too steeped in religious ceremony and too complex for a historically amnesiac culture. We prefer the multicolored distractions of illusionism on flat surfaces, flickering in a movie theater or digitized on our laptops and smartphones, or painted on canvas. The marketplace ratifies our myopia, making headlines for megamillion-dollar sales of old master and Impressionist pictures but rarely for premodern sculptures.

Critics bow to fashion and a legacy of lazy disdain, largely avoiding the topic — I’ve done it myself, so I know — and museums only perpetuate the cycle, offering a steady flow of Botticelli, Monet and Rembrandt exhibitions, before which we genuflect like medieval pilgrims praying before sculptured shrines. But sculpture shows that might broaden our horizons, being costly and difficult to mount, are almost rarer than genuine newly discovered Michelangelos.

In an age of special effects, we may also simply no longer know how to feel awe at the sight of sculptured faces by the German genius Tilman Riemenschneider or before a bronze statue by Donatello. We can’t see past the raw materiality and subject matter. Never mind that Donatello may have been the greatest creative genius until Picasso; he long ago got lapped in the public’s imagination by Madame Tussaud, who has given way to “Avatar” in 3-D and Alexander McQueen’s trippy costumed mannequins.

I read the other day that the Metropolitan Museum had decided to stay open late to accommodate the bewildering crowds for its McQueen extravaganza. Mass hysteria is how a friend described it to me. It clearly became the height of fashion for people to stand in the endless line, if only to have been able to say that they stood in the endless line. How many of those people, I asked myself, stopped to look at any of the Met’s sculptures while they were there, or ever had?
How wonderful, I also thought.

I have the Bode to myself.

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