ST. LOUIS — An extensive study of the little-known turn-of-the-century Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso, Experiments in Light and Form, now on view at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, does the important work of rescuing specificity from history. I fell in love with each of Rosso’s sculptures individually, as well as the way architecture by Tadao Ando held the difficult forms lightly on their pedestals, giving each work more than enough space to tell its story. Rosso’s sculptures run the gamut of sensations, from evil to angelic, while maintaining an uneasy chiaroscuro abstraction. Peers like Auguste Rodin may have overshadowed Rosso, but time has vindicated him as a decisive contributor to the birth of Modernism.
Rosso falls into the stereotype of an “artist’s artist.” Experts on his work hypothesize that he wasn’t just influential in the Parisian avant-garde during the emergence of Modernism, but that he also had a productive impact on artists like Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, and Henri Matisse. Brancusi’s slick and elegant sculptural forms echo famous works by Rosso, like “Enfant Malade” (1893–95) and “Madame X” (1896). Matisse and Picasso’s gestures and textures with oil paint mirror the surfaces of Rosso’s rough edges.
Prior to an extensive exhibition at the Center for Italian Modern Art in 2014, Rosso hadn’t been featured in a major US show in more than 50 years, since his 1963 show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Meanwhile, Brancusi’s “La Muse Endormie” (1913) is scheduled for auction at Christie’s for an estimated $20 to $30 million in a few weeks. Once the connection is made, it’s impossible not to see Rosso’s sculpture of the sick child in Brancusi’s bust with the same angular, lean features, Brancusi’s lovingly rendered muse reflecting the soft oblong face of the ailing youngster. Walking through the galleries at the Pulitzer, I kept thinking of the textures in Käthe Kollwitz’s charcoal portraits and woodcuts of abstracted, everyday suffering. How far-reaching was this unsung hero’s influence?
Rosso’s “Madame Noblet” (1897), cast in plaster, demonstrates how his work needs to be circumnavigated by the viewer to be appreciated in its fullness. The front of the sculpture, a figure rendered almost unrecognizable in clay, bears likeness to the emotionally charged charcoal gestures in portraits by Kollowitz. Long abrasions are left where the artist used his fingers to carve out big pieces of clay from the woman’s face. The form is even more voluptuously material from behind, where the figure of Madame Noblet has all but disappeared. The immediacy with which Rosso stacked blocks of clay to wrestle out an image is preserved in the cast. He was violently, unapologetically experimental, and the result is work that requires patience to fully appreciate.
The show’s title is didactic and self-evident, but it’s true that Rosso was obsessed with light and experimentation. The drawings and photos on view, many of which have never been exhibited before, offer glimpses into the artist’s vision for his works, which were created to be exhibited under obsessively strict lighting conditions. In his studio, Rosso cast and recast, exhibiting wax forms from lost-wax casts — what is normally “lost” in the process — as final works, purposefully creating unfinished edges and imperfections in bronze and plaster. He photographed or sketched the works over and over with different light, sometimes even photographing his own drawings and reprinting them with different papers and cropping.
These and many other secrets are revealed by Sharon Hecker and Tamara H. Schenkenberg’s curating, which deserves recognition for its restraint and precision. Museology tends to be an underappreciated art, because when exhibition design is at its finest, it goes unnoticed: The show opens up to the viewer and takes them by the hand, keeping them unaware that they’re being led. Here, the combination of Rosso’s humble sculptures — which demand a wide radius despite their subtle scale — Ando’s grand architecture, and Hecker and Schenkenberg’s curatorial vision made me want to dance around the museum, trying to see each piece from every possible angle.
The Pulitzer’s pitch-perfect galleries are a regional treasure, providing a strong argument for major exhibition spaces outside of crowded metropolises where space is expensive and galleries are often overhung as a result. When over-curating reigns supreme, both the artworks and the architecture can suffer catastrophically from a “the more the merrier” approach. Getting out of the city and discovering an exhibition space like the Pulitzer presenting such an outstanding show — and truly giving it room to breathe — is exciting for the possibilities of world-class institutions off the beaten path.
Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form continues at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation (3716 Washington Boulevard) until May 13.