PRINT September 1986


IN WESTERN ART FROM the classical period up to and including Impressionism, the artwork is located within a space. In the sculpture of the Italian artist Medardo Rosso, who in a number of ways may be seen as standing at the threshold of the early-20th century avant-garde, the space becomes part of the sculpture. Rosso’s work from the early 1880s on marks the syntactical beginning of a new conception of form, for the Modern art that in the first decades of the 20th century appeared as a kind of autonomous image, an unprecedented break with the past, is actually the result of a structural modification in art that was largely developed, at an accelerating pace, during the last twenty years of the 19th century. This period saw the appearance of one of the most important innovations in Modern art, an innovation in which Rosso was deeply involved: a new sense of space.

Where the Impressionism of the 1870s formulated new possibilities of light and color, in the 1880s there took place a redefinition of the structural orders that constitute a work of art. The ambience in which this secret revolution evolved is generally classified as Post-Impressionism, though several artists already identified, to greater and lesser extents, with Impressionism, including Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and Paul Cezanne, participated in the deciphering and formulation of the new space. Degas, for example, experimented with perspective in his works. Yet it is Rosso’s Impression d’omnibus (Impression of omnibus, 1883–84) that represents the most substantial basis for later spatial innovation. For this is the first work that eliminates the difference between painting and sculpture, and the first phase of the construction of the new space consists of the negation of the distinction between the two media and a movement toward a unique art form, a unique space and material.

Before turning to the composition of the new space we should recall that during these years a revaluation of vision was evolving, in effect a passage from one epoch to another. Newtonian mechanics were developing into what in the 1920s would become wave mechanics, non-Euclidian geometry had already been introduced, and new spatial typologies were altering the concept of three-dimensional mathematical space. In terms of scientific and philosophical thought, between 1880 and 1900 the capital of ideas was Paris (where Rosso lived from 1889 on). Henri Bergson’s philosophy developed in the same climate as Rosso’s spatial upheavals; in particular, Rosso’s sculpture is directly analogous to the concept of “duration”—the idea, argued in Bergson’s doctoral dissertation of 1888, that psychic life is not made up of discrete elements but flows continuously, so that one cannot define the boundaries between one state of consciousness and another. Also working in Paris during this period was Henri Poincaré, whose studies on topological space, or “analysis situs,” are often considered to approach the theory of relativity, many years before Albert Einstein’s early formulation of it in 1905. And indeed, exactly ten years before Einstein published his theory, the critic Charles Morice could express akin ideas in writing of Rosso, in Le Soir of September 25, 1895,

He thinks a being doesn’t exist in and of itself, isolated, limited on all sides by a surrounding line of air; he thinks a being exists only in relation to all other beings, most apparently to those that share its accidental life. He—and here we see that he is not a naturalist artist—wants to show on a face the reciprocal impression of the being itself and of those that surround it; the moment of relationship that transforms not only the physiognomy, but the very features; the moment of truth that the posture alone cannot render, and that in some way depends on the involuntary, unconscious manifestations of life.

From definitive shifts in thought such as these, the new century extrapolated clear directions in both art and science, directions that by the end of the 19th century were already organized and mature. Space is the key to the new epoch. It is surely no accident that the entire recent period is dominated by the category of space, which becomes a major technological and esthetic objective.

Open Space

The leap from the old to the new concept of space ruptured the Renaissance division between the spatial container and its contents, a division implicit in Renaissance perspective and continuing through much of Impressionism. (The sense of perspective in Monet’s early paintings may be related to photography as much as to the Renaissance, but in both systems, three-dimensional depth corresponds to the perspectival pyramid, and the spatial environment is defined by the walls of a cube.) Up to and including early Impressionism, there is still a separation between object and spatial setting; a thing, closed within itself, lies within a circumscribed space. Rosso does away with the idea of space as an enclosing container or box. He denies that space is three-dimensional and enclosable; instead, he affirms that it is open.

For Rosso a new component—time—breaks down the walls of the finite spatial box, introducing a new dynamism to take the place of the old static tranquillity Later, Cubism would add the idea of the fourth dimension to the space/time formula; for Rosso, whose work leads up to this idea, the problem was to tear down the walls of the spatial cube, to open up the space. This he did by representing space through the relationships between matter, light, and environment, implicating these three elements together in the origination of form. Open space thus corresponds to relativity, even in Rosso’s first theoretical texts from the early 1890s, and in the interviews of Morice and of Camille de Sainte-Croix with the artist.

Rosso found various ways of manifesting these relationships, but his formal constructs fall into three basic types. In “tactile space” he would work his material with his hands and fingers, animating it with protrusions, depressions, and furrows. The visible intervals between the modeling touches, and thus between the parts of the sculpture that conform to the outlines of the subject modeled, are like accretions of space on the surface of the figure. The works that display this technique include Impression d’omnibus, Malato all’ospedale (Patient in hospital, 1889), Ritratto di Henri Rouart (Portrait of Henri Rouart, 1889), and Madame Noblet, 1897. In “curved space” the surface of the work extends in a rounded expanse, a curving or oval movement, as in the wax Madame X, 1896, in which the head of a woman can be made out as if through or beneath the swell of matter, or as if that swelling curve signified a kind of skin of space over the head. The work of Constantin Brancusi reveals the greatest legacy of Rosso’s curved space. Finally, in “vibrating space,” matter is rippled in sequential striations, creating a luminous vibration over the outline of the subject represented—for example, in Ecce Puer (Behold the boy, 1906). The constant in all these formal and spatial modes is the abolition of the difference between the subject of the work and its context: environment, exterior, air, space, all are equally sculpted.

Rosso achieved his greatest effects through an inversion of roles, a location of matter in the place of void, so that in his mature pieces the two merge. His first “official” work, Impression d’omnibus (he disavowed earlier, more classically derived sculpture), documents the discovery that is fundamental to the new space: here body and air, solid and void, have identical compositional value and formal importance. This clay piece—now destroyed, though a photograph remains—showed a group of people seated on a bus. Clay ridges ran where one would expect the intervals between one body and another, while the bodies themselves were pitted and hollow where one would expect them to be rounded. Rosso was endowing space with as much physicality as matter, and in so doing he was freeing matter from its sense of weightiness within space. One could see the gestures of his hand working between the void and the solid, between the space and its inhabitants. To the extent that space was made physical, its psychological character as void was overturned. And the figures received no definitive resolution; their boundaries were left unclear. Each one lost its own outline through its connection to the others, and in a way the work itself had no outline, but floated in space like a fragment. Later, the artist would perfect. this sense of continuity between the work and its environment by refining the link between the sculpture and the supporting base.

Rosso’s theoretical texts expand on his first axiom: “Everything is matter, so everything is space” He saw materials and objects as dynamic phenomena (“tout bouge,” he believed, “everything moves”) which could not be described without expressing their motility. And if movement, the shift of masses in space, was imbricated in the object, the passage of time also had to be assumed. Time enters Rosso’s idea of space both formally and theoretically. As soon as he attacks the outlines of figures, he acts upon the external space as substance: “What air,” he once said, “you’d think you could bite it” Clearly to make space physical is impossible except through the incorporation of time, for time may be said to be the support, the ground, for everything that moves, including matter. This idea is rooted in pre-Socratic philosophy, but in the 1880s it was new to formal application in art, though it was to lie at the foundation of modern thought. Rosso’s theory does not postulate time as an elapsing interval, as a linear trace of change, but neither does it propose time as something concise, synthetic, like the impulse associated with the visual image, with sight, which absorbs so rapidly as to be immediate. For Rosso, the image is “a visual, instantaneous, interior emotion’: and form is a unity of space, perception, matter, and time. Time is not vaguely but exactly defined: ”l’instant d’émotion," the instant of emotion. A mature work of Rosso’s may be thought of as a sort of instantaneous visual and mental explosion.

Open Space and the Question of the Site (Topos). Fragmented Form and Overturned Perspective.

If space is matter and matter is space, the limits or borders of the object crumble, the object expands, and the entire environment must be sculpted, must become the artwork. The idea of “open space” demands that the “open work” be unlimited. How, then, can a sculpture placed in a site be reconciled to the pedestal, table, or floor on which it stands? Certain of Rosso’s works pose the problem drastically, for example the head titled Rieuse (Laughing woman, 1890), a bronze of which he gave as a gift to August Rodin (versions also exist in wax and plaster): the piece can stand on its chin or be supported from higher up and behind, so that the chin may rest on the base or hang beneath it. With the chin, the work breaks through the geographical plane of the site.

In Femme à la voilette (Woman with veil, 1893), and in related works, Rosso dealt with the same problem through the solution of the splinter or fragment. Here, the head of the subject, and the matter from which it emerges, are like a piece detached from the whole, a stone falling from a mountain. The splintered-off piece has all the characteristics of the mass from which it comes; it matches it; it is the mountain and it is itself. (A later development of this approach can be seen in Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, with its figures and spaces fragmented into planes like splinters of glass.) A second solution of Rosso’s, visible in both his experiments with single figures and his group studies, is topographic in a more specific sense, and represents his greatest innovative efforts in structure and space—the reversal of perspective visible in such works as Uomo the Legge (Man reading, 1890), Impression de boulevard. Paris la nuit (Impression of boulevard. Paris at night, 1895), and Conversazione in giardino (Conversation in the garden, 1893). The arrangements of these works follow the precepts of geometrical perspective, but not in the classical sense, for they are informed by non-Euclidian geometry, new and revolutionary at the time. The dogma of three spatial dimensions and of grids of parallel lines is no longer observed. To reverse perspective is to create a dynamic situation: the lines of the figures and the lines of the supporting plane interact in such a way that the viewer’s eye seems to dilate. The masses farthest from the viewer, rather than becoming gradually smaller as they grow more distant, instead seem to run toward the eye. In visual, perceptual terms, the way that the work penetrates space infuses what should remain still with motion. From the clash of the planes among themselves, and from the way they are combined, Rosso obtains a perspectival curve; reversed perspective is a curved perspective. Space is developed through a geometry of linked, curving movements, exactly like the geometry of topological space then being developed by Poincare. The sculptural groups that best illustrate Rosso’s sense of perspectival reversal are Impression de boulevard. Paris la nuit, in which the figures were full-scale (the piece was destroyed during World War I; again, a photograph remains), and Conversazione in giardino.

Light: Deformations Connected to the Action of Light. Abstraction.

The dialogue between space and matter in Rosso’s work moves toward the double objective of materializing the former and dematerializing the latter. What profits most from this tendency is light, and it takes an increasingly prominent role in Rosso’s mature sculpture, becoming the true “content” of such pieces as Madame X and Ecce Puer. The action of light unifies the dynamic process that Rosso saw inherent in matter and the optical process of perception; light measures the formal and spatial achievement of the work, and constitutes the essential element to be read in it. Rosso’s attitude to light is like an athlete’s to another runner toward the finish line: the greater the competition it offers, the greater its part in the piece, the more extended his interpretation of space, matter, perception. Truth to the subject depicted takes second place to truth to the positions and movements of light. The image is in fact dispersed, abstracted ordeformed—two techniques that compose another substantial contribution of Rosso’s to the new art. Morice writes, in the same article in Le Soir,

I enjoy an emotional pleasure in following from work to work the logical development of a thought in full harmony with that of the new poets. [Hippolyte] Taine has said, “Form tends to be annulled and to vanish; this is the most characteristic trait of modern art” And Rosso, in his mastery, forgets and makes one forget matter, and form as well, so as to convey the expression more clearly, more intensely, more uniquely.

Rosso’s violation of the original outlines of the subject stems not only from his need to clarify the relationships of light with space but also from the fact that one’s position in observing an object or figure conditions one’s perceptions of it. Both the primacy of light and the need to render the mobility of the factors at play in perception led Rosso to his deliberate deformations of his subjects. The deformation declares the nexus of light and space. Later, the work of Picasso, and clearly of Umberto Boccioni, would rationalize and codify this way of seeing and describing space. The Expressionist attack on the figure has a different impetus: its meaning is less spatial than narrative—the deformation represents suffering. Both Julius Meier-Graëfe and, in the following passage, Ardengo Soffici discussed the ideas behind Rosso’s process:

All those images of saints, heroes, nymphs, and characters from other times in antique paintings had the ordered, studied air of people in a theater, or from another world, where lights, colors, and forms were untouched by change or unforeseen effects, where the bodies always had the same rounded look, the same plastic regularity, where the faces always had two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, all in their proper places, and the hands five fingers, and the draperies familiar, natural folds. What Rosso observed in reality was quite another thing. Faces had nothing in common with conventional painting in their colors, and their very structure, and the structures of bodies, seemed shattered, deformed, violated, and obliterated by the play of light and shadow When illuminated from the front, the sides, or from above, a woman’s face was a dark, undelineated stain over a light background, a mask made up of displaced, contorted, very sharp strokes; men’s legs seemed at times, when seen against a shiny floor with strong reflections, like black hollows; while the shadow on the ground of a group of people looked like a dark abyss dug out before or behind them. Everything was massed together in broad surfaces, bodies, limbs, clothing were in a hieroglyph of volumes and tones continuously changing with people’s movement, retreat, and approach.1

The Avant-Garde Record

In the early 1900s such writers on art as de Sainte-Croix, Louis Vauxcelles, Edmond Claris, and others described sculpture as an explosive avant-garde force. Today, we are in some ways fixed on the idea that the avant-gardes of the beginning of the century revolved around issues of painting. But a scandal from the turn of the century prompts a reminder of sculpture’s pivotal role, and in particular of Rosso’s: Rodin’s unveiling of his statue of Balzac at the Salon of 1898, and the ensuing war of words waged on him by Rosso, a war that ran in the newspapers until 1905. Rodin’s statue made a strong impact: lines and contours, body and cloak, all seemed blended, continuous, in a way that was new to the sculptor’s work. Rodin had become a kind of “official” artist, a symbol of France, and so the “official” critics declared that Balzac inaugurated a new era in art. But Rosso could document that the new Rodin, sprung from the ashes of Rodin the classicist, was born from Rosso’s sculpture. In fact, the two artists had entered on a kind of ratified friendship with an exchange of work they had made in 1893—Rodin’s Torso, 1878, for Rosso’s Rieuse. The changes that followed in Rodin’s sculpture undoubtedly were influenced by Rosso’s ideas, and thus the claims that Balzac heralded a new era caused Rosso and his defenders to affirm that he and not Rodin was the true revolutionary.

Yet Rosso was playing outside his home territory. He was an Italian pitting himself against an emergent national idol of France. The result, once the polemics died down, was that Rodin was still in the picture while Rosso was excluded from important exhibitions. Nothing further was said about revolutionary sculpture, for Rodin found it more convenient to be a state artist than a radical one. Outside its continuing development in painting, the avant-garde had to choose another moment of birth.

Actions and Language

Up to this point we have discussed the avant-garde aspects of Rosso’s work more or less in formal and sculptural terms, but one can also look to him for a contribution to the idea that actions in the world beyond the studio have a place in avant-garde activity This and his interest in and way of using language prefigure certain developments of the period between 1912 and 1917 in Futurist and Dada circles. Rosso created some rather clamorous “actions,” and these performances of his correspond in their rationale to a fundamental aim of the avant-garde: the demolition of 19th-century concepts of academic art. In Rosso’s field, this meant, among other things, the abolition of monumental sculpture. He showed an intolerance for the “old” art as early as the first years of the 1880s, when he was still very young, a student at the Accademia di Brera, Milan. One may imagine that something in the artistic mood of the city stimulated his natural originality. The phenomenon of “scapigliatura,” or bohemianism, a strong literary and artistic current at the time, encouraged dissent; it was unruly, socially revolutionary, and it often sought to break the esthetic and semantic rules, including within its own writings.

The many academic copies of classical statuary produced in these years, and the monumental sculpture of the piazzas, were the targets of two closely connected actions that Rosso launched in 1884: a protest against a projected monument to Giuseppe Garibaldi, and a demonstration in the Accademia di Brera. The Garibaldi protest took the form of a proposal that Rosso submitted to the competition for a memorial to this revolutionary hero of Italian independence. A contemporary critic described his sketch thus: “a group of demonstrators come to blows with some security men and policemen; a standard-bearer climbs a lamp post and waves a flag; all around, people scuffle and tumble on the ground” In the essay that accompanied the proposal, Rosso forcibly argued that it was time to put an end to conventional sculpture and to the rhetoric and historicism of the monument. Notwithstanding the controversy raised by his project, he was awarded a prize, but was invited to submit another plan. His reply was, “Either that one or nothing” And he did nothing.2

During this same period Rosso organized a provocative action within the very temple of academicism, the Brera. Here he was enrolled in sculpture classes, where he followed a rigid course that consisted mainly of the drawing and copying of plaster casts of classical statues. It didn’t take long for him to grow impatient with his studies, to the point where he led a student demonstration against the Brera’s didactic program. This was the first school revolution, and it posed a true challenge. Rosso circulated a petition to protest the academy’s policies, requesting the abolition of the use of plaster casts of statues and of mannequins in place of human models. His demands were turned down, and he increased the pressure, gathering more than 250 signatures. He was so worked up that he came to blows with a student who wouldn’t sign the petition. The faculty called an urgent meeting, and Rosso was expelled from the Brera on March 29, 1883.

These “actions,” these exhibitions of extreme, provocative, theatrical behavior, would always be part of Rosso’s activity, both during his most creative period and after 1906, when, following the completion of Ecce Puer, he stopped making new sculpture. The public—collectors, passersby, and especially art critics—were both witnesses and targets of these events. The many unorthodox episodes in Rosso’s life, and his ideas on record, are more than proof of eccentricity; they are convincing evidence that it was his intention to exalt these activities as an extension of his work, that in them he saw himself as a protagonist in an “art theater?” And Rosso’s castings of bronzes at his Paris studio were themselves carried out as performances, in the presence of invited guests and critics, who described his ritualistic gestures in his work, aided by an assistant, as resembling those of a gleaming Vulcan.

Even more unique, and linked to future developments in the avant-garde, was the way Rosso’s theatrical activities were closely tied to an unusual use of written and spoken language. To read an essay of his or an interview with him is always a semantic exercise. The texts follow no linear track; Italian, Milanese dialect, and French are all mixed together, often in the same phrase. Rosso’s structural expansion of language is analogous to the way he used matter in his sculpture. He can seem to have known no grammar, but the fact that while he wrote theoretical texts in Italian, French, and English, the greatest distortions occur in his Italian, the language he knew best, suggests that his “bad” writing is really a kind of experimental form. Throughout his life Rosso worked on the tool of language, linking it to his "actions?’ An anecdote of Soffici’s describes a language event typical of Rosso:

It’s a memory of the first trip we made from Paris to Florence. Rosso was having a retrospective there, and, since I was the main organizer, we were talking about it in our train compartment when suddenly I noticed something strange. Maybe he was distracted, maybe it was the emotion of returning to Italy after a quarter-century absence, but my companion began to talk and answer in Piedmontese dialect. He continued in it while we changed subjects and the train crossed the French border I was struck by this, and though I didn’t think it was only patriotic emotion, I was even moved. But this was an illusion, and my sense of emotion soon gave way to another—one of surprise. For when we reached Turin, I noticed that Rosso, rather than continuing to express himself in the rediscovered language of his childhood, had begun to speak Genovese, but at such a fast pace that no one could possibly understand him. We had barely arrived in Genoa when Rosso was talking in Milanese with the porters—and with the same effect. Thoroughly amazed, I wondered what would happen upon our arrival in Florence. There, he started out in Parisian, and for days he spoke nothing else.

The date of this event, 1910, is significant: Futurism was coming to life, along with the beginnings of a new avant-garde and of a great expansion in art’s experimentation with language and behavior. It is also significant, of course, that Soffici was among the principal theoreticians of Futurism. The seeds that Rosso sowed grew in many fields.

Jolt De Sanna is an an critic who lives in Milan and teaches at the Accademia di Brera. She is the author of several books, most recently of Medardo Rosso, or the Creation of Modern Spare (Milan: Murcia, 1985).

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.



1. Ardengo Soffici, Medardo Rosso (1858–1928), Florence: Vallecchi, 1929, pp. 163–65.

2. See Mino Borghi, Medardo Rosso, Milan: Edizioni del Milione, 1950, p. 16.