PRINT November 1969

The Partial Figure

IT IS DIFFICULT TO RECONSTITUTE all of the private as well as published reactions that the public has had to the partial figure in sculpture since Rodin began to exhibit his unmade or fragmented figures in the late 1880s. There are probably strong common denominators between our own intellectual and instinctive responses and those of our predecessors. The confrontation in sculpture of a figural part, such as an arm or leg, or a limbless torso, disappoints intellectual and esthetic ideals of wholeness; bringing unity to diversity of shapes and experiences, it contradicts our inclination to favor complete, as opposed to fragmentary, knowledge. Then there is always the suspicion that the sculptor has evaded the technically difficult. In his essay of 1903 on Rodin, Rilke showed his sensitivity to these challenges, against which he defended Rodin’s use of the fragment by saying, “In the art of sculpture . . . it is left to the artist to make out of many things one thing, and from the smallest part of a thing, an entirety.”1

Esthetics aside, the partial figure is an attack upon the integrity of our own body image. It violates our natural instinct to preserve the body image intact, the instinct that causes the recurrent phantom image experienced by an amputee. The human attitude towards one’s own body is contradictory, however, and while we may seek to keep our body image within its normal limits, there is also the desire to expand and extend it, both to keep the parts together and to dissipate them. All of us have destructive and constructive tendencies, so that we do not always favor the whole as opposed to the part, integration over differentiation, especially in times of stress.

Modern painting and sculpture remind us of how uncertain a possession is our body. Its completeness and firmness are constantly under challenge. Involvement with sex, sadism or masochism can lead to one’s imagining parts of the body as symbolizing other parts, or their erotic identification with those of another, or to fantasies or dreams of dismemberment. Observable in the use of the torso by modern sculptors such as Brancusi is what psychologists have told us, that the male and female body images are closest in the erogenic zones. We cannot permanently shut off our own body image from the world, and it is natural to see it as part of our environment, to which certain drivers of sports cars can testify. Psychologists have pointed out what many artists have themselves discovered, that the body and its environment are continually interchanged.2 One of the important and distinguishing characteristics of modern sculpture and painting has been the increased fidelity of the artist to the world of private bodily experience, the exploration of its mystery and wonder.

In the last ten years the persistent and increased interest in isolating parts of the body in sculpture may in some way be connected to the fact that considerable commercial energy is dedicated to making public that which used to be considered private regarding one’s own person, and the specialized nature of many goods and services has drawn attention to the economic divisibility of the body. Consider the powerful conditioning concerned with a fragmented body image to which we are exposed by advertising, medical science and sports coverage, as examples. Daily the mass media mesmerize millions with images of stomach linings, arthritic joints, shattered nerves, aching backs, sluggish bowels, hairless legs, damp armpits, clogged sinuses and the Playtex invisible woman. Sports writers eulogize “quick hands,” guts, surefootedness, or mourn sore arms and trick knees. Football fortunes, alumni donations and a new academic building can teeter on an athlete’s hamstring muscle. The modern dream of immortality depends upon artificial parts. Newspapers and TV inform us of the replaceability of internal organs, new advances in prosthetics, and the ecology of man and the machine. With their heightened awareness, drug addicts sometimes make trips through parts of their bodies. The daily facts of war and disease remind us of the vulnerability of arms and legs as well as the heart and lungs. The human body and its parts are still central to human consciousness and culture.

The sculptor or painter who now wants to work with the figure in three dimensions can go to the mannequin or life cast for a leg, hand, or torso without traumatizing art and the public. In Rodin’s time, life casting was done covertly to help a sculptor satisfy public tastes for facility and exactitude in the full figure, and illusionism had to be maintained. Starting with the Cubists, sculpture could be certified as a concrete object, desacralized in terms of illusionism, democratized in terms of subject matter. Giorgio de Chirico’s early paintings of mannequins, sometimes themselves partial figures, replacing human beings, were prophetic of what would take place in sculpture starting in the thirties with the Surrealists’ use of the ready-made figural part. The broad leveling of the old exalted position of the human form in art has thus included both the figure’s fracturing and the development of artificial surrogates for the human torso or limb; the elimination of the pedestal and base; the rejection of marble and bronze in favor of new and often vernacular materials; the shift away from celebrating the external appearance and anatomy of the body; the fusion of the human with animal, mechanical and geometrical forms, and the de-emphasis upon the esthetics of making achieved by manual miracles. The partial figure satisfies for many artists the ethic of the artist’s intellectual intervention with the motif, either through editing, conception or selection.

Claes Oldenburg’s projected monumental knees for London suggest that the partial figure can take its public place as naturally in our urban environment as the figural parts signified in the signs hung out before the shops of opticians, glove and boot makers in the past. Before 1911, Rodin’s torsos must have stunned salon visitors by their palpable reality. Sculpture of the human body had been placed ideologically within reach and physically invited touch. Rodin’s plaster hands and bodies, unlike his Burghers of Calais, did not force the viewer back on his learning in history and literature. They had a greater immediacy and explicitness, for they belonged to the living and seemed themselves to live. Since Rodin, many sculptors, when joining art with life, have found the partial figure of great value, whether they were responding to the 19th-century injunction to be of one’s time, or followed Maillol’s dictum, “II faut faire moderne,” or pursuing more recent ideas about relevance.

After years of reflecting on his own fragments and those of ancient art, by his will and example, Rodin established the partial figure as a self-sufficient artistic unity before 1900. It was no longer a special case to serve religion, be an ex-voto, or a souvenir of a loved one, or great man, or provide building ornament. With Rodin, the part is the whole, formally and in terms of the subject. “A well-made torso contains all of life.”3 His own writings on the Venus de Milo, as well as his exhibitions, did much to make modern museum goers aware and appreciative of the ruins from many historical styles. By the time of his death in 1917, every younger sculptor of importance, excepting Nadelman, Minne, Barlach and Modigliani, but including Maillol, Archipenko, Brancusi, Duchamp-Villon, Boccioni, Lipchitz and Van Tongerloo, had found his own use for the torso: whether to renounce theatrical and illustrative objectives; to find a new expressiveness and mystery; to achieve formal perfection in an art of simple forms; to employ new materials and involve space as an integral part of sculptural composition; to work toward achieving a modern style of abstraction; and to facilitate new metaphorizing by the fusion, rather than simple additive joining, of the human with the animal, mechanical and geometrical. (Duchamp-Villon’s Horse illustrates the former; Bourdelle’s Dying Centaur, the latter.) Rodin had changed the norms of human appearance in art, and, hence, the sculptor’s mental body image.

Between the two World Wars, both within and outside the influence of Dada and Surrealism, the partial figure and figural part came also to serve private sexual and aggressive expression. Lachaise’s private art produced some of the most powerful sexual imagery in modern sculpture. By their use of plaster casts, mannequins and dolls, Surrealist painters mocked the traditional reverence for the ancient fragment and parodied its use in art schools, while creating enigmatic figurative objects. Giacometti’s ten-year preoccupation almost exclusively with the partial figure and Ernst’s sand-cast armless personages were important examples of imaging the body from memory and imagination, influenced by irrational and obsessive conceits. In the work of Brancusi, Arp and Moore, the memory of figural parts and non-human sources were imaginatively joined in new and formally independent but still allusive configurations which broadened the artists’ poetical ecological observations about man and nature. Internal parts of the body were externalized in Moore and then in Noguchi’s bone-like shapes. The partial figure had thoroughly penetrated into the subconscious thought of sculptors as well as painters. While the pars pro toto (condensations referable to an implied figural whole) continued, new fictive entities in sculpture such as those by Ernst, unimaginable in an expanded form, had come into being before 1940.

The richly symbolic sculpture of the Surrealist-inspired American artists in the late forties and fifties, such as Hare, Lipton, Roszak, Ferber and Bourgeois, broadened and increased the complexity of associations between human parts and non-human sources. These often violent meditations on the destructive energies of mankind drew from the boneyards of museums, avian sources, myth and private body imagery. It was not coincidental that welding became a favored technique for many sculptors whose conceptions involved bringing together partial anatomies from disparate species in open forms. The metaphorical employment of figural parts in amalgamated forms did not grow in acceptance after the mid-fifties, being successfully challenged by abstraction and greater interest in figural readymades, life castings, and stylization of the body. In the sixties use of the partial figure has been characterized by greater vernacular imagery, sexual candor, morbidity, wit and social commentary, with a diminished emphasis upon esthetic sensibility. Duchamp’s sexual trilogy, Johns’ painted casts of bodily parts in his Target of 1955, Rivers’ “vocabulary lessons” and, more recently, James Dine’s aluminum castings show the continued importance of painters for body imagery-in sculpture. One of the ironies of the modern history of the partial figure is that, since the second World War, it has become the basis in fact and planning for monumental sculptures. A larger than life size full figure is unacceptable to many sculptors who, like Le Corbusier and Noguchi, conceive of open hands as fitting projects for civic and individual monuments. Kiesler and Ipousteguy believe in its viability for reviving large literary tableaus, and Oldenburg and Cesar focus ironically on the public preoccupation with parts celebrated by fashion and sex.

What is the historical significance of the partial figure and figural part in modern sculpture? The history of modern sculpture can be written in terms of the development of options, new premises from which sculptors have derived new ideas. As evolved by Rodin and his successors, the partial figure offered critical new choices and assumptions. In Rilke’s words, “. . . an artistic whole need not necessarily coincide with the complete thing . . .”4 Completeness, beauty and perfection in figural sculpture are no longer exclusively predicated upon preservation of the figure intact, nor is the harmonious relation of all the parts to each other and the whole. For sculptural purposes the body is infinitely divisible. Parts of the human form are dispensable to sculpture, and disembodied limbs can by themselves serve the artist. Internal parts of the body, known or imagined, can be made visible, viable motifs after Picasso’s anatomical fantasies of the late twenties, and Moore’s sculpture of the mid-thirties. Human reference and inspiration are still possible in otherwise abstract sculpture by the suggestion or traces of postures, gestures and movement. The partial figure can facilitate the supersession of verisimilitude by artistic and personal demands. Beginning with Rodin, chance and accident have been undisguised collaborators of the sculptor in working with the figure.

What was separated from the human form besides its parts? For artists at the turn of the century, such as Duchamp-Villon and Archipenko, there was liberation from conventional subject matter, literary identity or extra-artistic associations. The traditional expectations of critics and public that the sculptor would give a character analysis of his subject and perfect the physical deficiencies of the model were no longer the sculptor’s obligatory burden. The life of the head, with all of its cultural and psychological implications in previous sculpture, was no longer a pre-requisite. Masculine torsos frustrated the depiction of cultural ideals of the whole man, an ideal descendant from the Renaissance, assurance that there was a sound mind in a healthy body. Not just didacticism, but before 1914 the traditional rhetorical gesture and facial expression as devices of communication had become optional. Matisse demonstrated with the full and partial figures that these devices could be set aside in favor of the artist’s personal expression of feeling through evidence of the sculptural process and overall effect of the composition.

What was transferred to the partial figure? Rodin’s sentiments about a well-made torso containing all of life were echoed by others who followed: for Henry Moore the condensed meaning of a torso fragment “can stand for an entire figure”;5 and David Hare sees “Just the torso is the whole of man.”6 Rodin, Lehmbruck and Giacometti showed that the body could be invested with the general expressiveness that formerly resided in the face and gestures. Picasso gave to the Boisgeloup heads the sexuality of the body. Even without the head, a sculpture by Henry Moore celebrates the human spirit. Separated from the body,an isolated leg or hand by Picasso and Giacometti can gain in intensity as well as enigma of meaning; whereas for sculptors like Lipchitz and Hare, the limbless torso can acquire mystery, and there can be a manifestation of life in the fragment which in actual life would either not be possible or not be focused upon. David Hare expresses it thusly:

An incomplete object with which we are most familiar is incomprehensible, but one with which we are familiar often gains in comprehensibility and in impact by its very fragmentation. One would think a fragment of a figure would be less alive than the whole, but this is not always true. Life is continually on the move and a fragment is visually on the move since one’s mind is always in the process of completing it. The completion of a figure makes it static while its fragmentation explodes it back into the movement of life.7

Many sculptors have found that the partial figure idea has greatly added to the plasticity of their mental body imagery. They have recognized, often independently of psychologists, that the destruction of a certain norm by which the body is viewed and thought of in art comes closer to actual experience of the body in terms of feeling, impulse and consciousness. The highly personalized partial figures of Lachaise, Picasso and Butler, to name a few, have done much to bring erotic candor to modern sculpture. Early in the century, as a reflection of their optimism about the future of mankind, Duchamp-Villon, Epstein and Boccioni made of the partial figure the symbolic locus of modern dynamic energy.

What were additional implications of the partial figure? Some artists have felt it invites new imaginative participation by the viewer. For David Hare, “Some of the value of an art object is that its reality exists not in the work as such but in the understanding of the work by the viewer, or perhaps we should say it exists in the space between the viewer and object. A detail from a figure is sometimes much more poignant than the whole figure would be.” Starting with Brancusi and Archipenko, the partial figure idea has facilitated conceptualizing, allowing the artist to hold a torso in mind, thereby helping to achieve a new formal self-sufficiency that moves directly from the idea through the execution. Directness and concentration of expression made available through a figural part has appealed to many sculptors down to the present moment. In the recent histories of sculptors such as Rosati, Hague and Edward Higgins, it would seem that the partial figure lends itself not only to greater permissiveness in the balancing of shapes, but is also an intermediary phase between representation and abstraction. Brancusi’s contribution to “shape” consciousness presumed the partial figure. Beginning with Maillol, the contracted figure has been therapeutic or permissive, in terms of removing the obligation to treat the troublesome appendages of hands and feet. Sidney Geist has found that he may occasionally instinctively suppress certain feminine features. The partial figure can influence the way one sculptor views another’s work. Again, David Hare:

Some artists are better at certain parts of the human figure than at others. This produces a tendency on their part to sculpt the attributes with which they are most familiar. Whether the resulting work is of interest or not seems to me to depend to some extent upon the reasons which underlie their incapacity to handle certain parts of the figure. For example, should a sculptor have difficulty with hands, does this difficulty come from a lack of technique, or from some actual fear or fearful love of hands? In the first case it seems to me the work would be of little interest. In the second, the very absence or disregard for the hands might well show a struggle on the part of the artist, something I always find interesting when talent is involved, or it might show a strong psychological involvement which then also extends in different ways to other parts of the body. In this case the artist is then speaking about hands even when sculpting a navel or a neck. The very absence of hands calls attention not so much to the hands themselves but to what they stand for—they must touch—they must not touch—they represent activity and contact (things which the artist loves or hates) depending upon his orientation. In the art of symbolism, analogizing and metaphorizing, consciously and unconsciously, the figural part and torso have exerted fertile influence.

As Brancusi was perhaps the first to discover, elimination of the distinguishing features of specific bodily parts leads to simplified forms that in turn lend themselves to analogizing or transposition within the body itself. Arp found that he could work from abstract beginnings to biological suggestiveness because of universality of the torso. Louise Bourgeois has evolved ambivalent shapes that simultaneously evoke fingers and figures, and the irrational reminiscences of a lifetime. Twentieth-century paradigmatic figural sculptures such as Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Epstein’s Rock Drill, Duchamp-Villon’s Torso of a Young Man_, and Horse, Schlemmer’s robotic form in Free Sculpture, Moore’s reclining women, Trova’s Falling Man, and Lipton’s Prophet, to name some of the most important, are inconceivable without the prior history of the partial figure and its influence on imaginative conceptualizing. As in Rodin’s own art, there have been excellent full-figure sculptures in this century. There continue to be important sculptors for whom the partial figure has been an occasional motif or of no interest. With all its ramifications and transformations, however, the idea of the partial figure has greatly contributed to the meaningful prolongation of the human form in modern sculpture.



1. Rainer Maria Rilke, Rodin, 1903. Reprinted in my anthology, Auguste Rodin: Readings on His Life and Work, Prentice Hall, 1965, p. 123.

2. For information concerning body imagery I am indebted to Paul Schilder’s The image and Appearance of the Human Body, International Universities Press, 1950, especially the concluding chapter.

3. Judith Cladel, Auguste Rodin, L’Homme et L’Oeuvre, Van Oest, 1908, p. 97-98.

4. Rilke, Ibid.

5. Conversations with Henry Moore, winter of 1966.

6. Conversation with David Hare, April 12, 1968.

7. This and the next two quotations from David Hare come from a letter to the author in June of 1968.