Turn-of-the-century artist Medardo Rosso defies categorization as much as his body of work, now on display at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, was ahead of its time. He was born in Italy but spent many decades of his working years in Paris primarily as a sculptor, although he also produced photographs and drawings.
Rosso was intimately involved in the turn-of-the-century arts scene in Paris alongside Rodin and Degas, but by 1928 at the age of 68, his work was still shrouded in relative obscurity. In fact, the exhibit at the Pulitzer is the first large-scale exhibition of his work since 1963 in the United States. It won’t tour anywhere else beyond the museum.
“He was rubbing elbows with some of the most important artists and critics of the day. He wanted to do something that was very innovative,” said Tamara Schenkenberg, the co-curator of ‘Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form’ at the Pulitzer. “He was part of that circle and wanted to create modern art for the new age and his experimental approach to art-making was one way to do that.”
Schenkenberg said that even if Rosso is not a household name, he’s still an important artist.
“In the lead up to the exhibition, we were quipping that he is the most important impressionist artist you’ve never heard of,” Schenkenberg said. “He was so ahead of his time — stylistically, formally, and also in terms of subject matter.”
There are a few things that make Rosso singular. First, as a sculptor, he cast the material himself.
Traditionally, Schenkenberg said, sculptors would create a model and send it to the foundry for a skilled craftsman to produce a perfect rendition. Not so with Rosso, who wanted to forge and chip away at his sculptures in plaster, wax and bronze himself.
“He wanted to create something that appeared more fluid, in flux, that felt alive,” Schenkenberg said. “He started casting himself. That allows him to take control over the process. He can interrupt it and manipulate it in interesting ways.”
That means his sculptures appear with gashes, air bubbles and other non-conventional markings, including holes.
“This was not only not typical, but unacceptable to the 19th century eye,” Schenkenberg said, which was one of the reasons Rosso did not rise to prominence as many of his “impressionist” contemporaries did.
The second thing that sets Rosso’s work apart from other artists of the age is the subjects he used in his work. He focused primarily on everyday people – women, children and the elderly or friends and acquaintances.
“He wanted to capture emotion: joy, sadness, emotion,” Schenkenberg said. “People in the every day.”
For example, the first creation on display as you enter the Pulitzer is a sculpture of a door woman, or concierge.
The third thing that sets Rosso apart is his obsession with light. He constantly reworked the same subjects over and over again under different lighting conditions.
“He said that a work of art that does not concern itself with light does not deserve to be art,” Schenkenberg said.
That’s what makes the Pulitzer a good fit for such a wide-scale display of Rosso’s work – the museum features plenty of changing natural light, which means his pieces never look quite the same as the moment before.
“If you don’t know him, it will be a revelation for you to see him at the Pulitzer, where light is treated as material and he also treats light as material,” Schenkenberg said. “It is really a magical way to experience this artist’s work. If you do know him, you’ll experience him in a different way. It is a rare opportunity and perhaps even a lifetime’s opportunity."
What: The Pulitzer Presents "Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form"
When: Through May 13, 2017, various times
Where: Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 3716 Washington Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108
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