The Beauty of Shapes
The Place of Geometry in Sculptors’ Thinking
Main sculpture galleries, Leeds Art Gallery
Through (1965) by Phillip King
Courtesy of Leeds Museums and Galleries
This is a display in the main sculpture galleries of Leeds City Art Gallery, including sculptures and sculptural drawings based on cubes, cones, spheres and other simple shapes. The show looks at how 20th century practitioners have responded to notions of the spiritual in geometry, as expressed by artists since the dawn of Western culture.
‘I do not now intend by the beauty of shapes what most people would expect, such as that of living creatures or pictures, but... straight lines and curves and the surfaces or solid forms produced out of these by lathes and rulers and squares... These things are not beautiful relatively, like other things, but always and naturally and absolutely’.
The questions posed by this passage from Philebus have fascinated art theorists ever since Plato first raised them: namely, is it possible for concepts such as beauty, which exists only in the abstract realm of idealistic thought, to be linked on equal terms with the solid, physical world of the man-made object? And if such a thing is possible, what is the role of the artist in forging this link between the arbitrary and the absolute, the temporal and the divine?
Notions of perfection have tormented figure-makers throughout the history of art, with the bodies of ‘gods’ doomed to degradation through simple, primary association with the calloused and filthy hands of craftsmen. But with the square, the circle and the triangle, artists were given a glimpse of the world outside the cave.
Architects, of course, have long been attuned to the sublime purity of the cube, the sphere and the pyramid, and it is tempting to think of the sculptors contracted to work on the temples of the Greeks, or more recently the 18th century neo-Palladian palaces of the third Lord Burlington, being mesmerised by the perfection hinted at by pure form. In some ways, though, it took the freedoms of the 1900s to release this deep fascination, so that it might be inspected by a wider public.
The display in Leeds City Art Gallery uses the collections of Leeds Museums and Galleries to examine how 20th century sculptors have responded to the possibilities on offer from simple shapes and pure geometry. Featuring work by constructivists, minimalists and land artists, it re-poses rather than definitively answers the questions set by Plato, while at the same time suggesting that such answers as there are may in fact reside in the self-fulfilling observation that a circle makes us happy because we want it to, and believe that it does. As Robert Vischer put it:
'As far as pure forms are concerned... I would claim that they are pleasing to me because they favourably dispose the activation, the mobilisation and the transposition of my imagination, and because they generate a generally harmonious process of feeling in me'.