SCULPTURE / The texture of memory: Andrew Graham-Dixon on the ghostly 'memory' sculptures of Medardo Rosso on show at the Whitechapel gallery in London

A baffled critic, writing in 1904, described the art of Medardo Rosso as 'sculpture that no longer resembles anything, not even sculpture'. The remark was meant disparagingly but Rosso may have taken it as a compliment. Simple resemblance to things was not, to his way of thinking, much to be desired. A Rosso sculpture is a solid paradox: a monument to evanescence; a thing that exists to challenge the notion that anything or anyone can pretend to be more than fleetingly substantial. Rosso made works of art that do, in fact, resemble things seen in the real world, but with deliberate, melting tenuousness. The likeness is always threatened and unstable, as though it might just have been produced by a trick of the light.

Medardo Rosso is generally less well known than he should be and virtually unknown in this country, a state of affairs which the small but invigorating exhibition of his work currently occupying the upper floor of the Whitechapel Art Gallery aims to correct. Rosso, who was born in Turin in 1858 but spent most of his creative life in Paris, has been remembered somewhat cursorily by art history as the Impressionist of sculpture. This is partially true, but one of the chief virtues of this exhibition is the extent to which it complicates such a judgement and makes, of Rosso, much more than a footnote.

To look at one of Rosso's figurative sculptures is to see a momentarily palpable ghost, an apparition that looks as though it has suddenly materialised rather than been made. The last of his sculptures, Ecce Puer, is a child's face made to look as if accidentally formed from lava: the likeness of a human being preserved but vulnerably so, on the brink of melting back and away into the nothing from which it came. The image itself, like many of Rosso's images, is fairly conventional - his ghostly young boys and pallid women are the stereotypes of Symbolist painting transmuted into sculpture - but what counts is the quality of its making. Rosso's achievement was to bring to sculpture a new language, full of visionary possibility. His deliquescent, almost insubstantial forms showed other sculptors (Picasso among them) that the indeterminate and changeable qualities of the visible world, so long the exclusive property of painters, might also be expressed in three dimensions.

Rosso's early sculptures are faintly irritating in their evident ambition to rouse the viewer to sympathy and pity: the laughing waif that is Rosso's Ragamuffin, an Artful Dodger cast in bronze, the cackling Procuress and toothlessly grinning Old Man are too much the stock figures of the underclass, too cliched a composite image of the poor, to touch the heart as Rosso presumably intended them to. He was not cut out to be a social realist. But these sculptures already contain omens of the later work: the roughness of their edges, the wavering contour with which Rosso models flesh (which recalls Daumier as well as the art of the Rococo), will soon be put to new uses.

'The impression you produce on me,' Rosso wrote to a friend, 'is not the same if I happen to see you alone in a garden, or amongst others in a salon, or in a street.' Rosso's ambition was to make sculpture that could be true to the mobile, fluctuant nature of experience: true to the fact that no one and nothing ever looks the same twice; and true, too, to the way in which experience is always refracted and altered by the distortions of memory. He began to make sculptures that combine a form of extreme precision with a form of disconcerting vagueness, as if he was attempting to recreate the quality of a memory in three dimensions. The small wax sculpture that he called Sick Man in the Hospital is exemplary. Its precision lies in the inclination of the modelled body, the way in which Rosso has recalled the hunched slump of an invalid in the angles and juxtapositions of the forms; yet the surface of the sculpture is elusive and slippery, molten, uninformative about the minutiae of the man's appearance. It is not strictly speaking the sculpture of a person but the sculpture of a memory of a person. It contains, like a memory, the essence of something seen, the recollection of how a man sat, ill and disconsolate, in his chair - but leaves everything else unfocused.

Rosso's preference was always for soft forms, forms made out of material so yielding and fragile that they seem perpetually on the edge of dissolution. His most innovative sculptures were made out of wax, which in Rosso's hands assumed the properties of a comestible substance. Impression on the Boulevard: Lady with the Veil is the likeness of a woman in a hat just discernible in a great yellowy-green chunk of wax, veined like a piece of Gorgonzola. Jewish Boy is the head of a child, solemn and impassive, that looks as though it might have been modelled in butter. Many of the sculptures have this unstable and faintly unpleasant organic quality, works of art that look as though they need to be refrigerated or they will decay: Sick Child, made from a particularly distressed piece of bright orange wax, is the drooping inclined head of an infant that has the slightly sticky sheen and tactile properties of heavy custard.

Rosso invented a new and resolutely anti-monumental form of sculpture that he clearly believed was truer to the way we are than other and older forms of art. This exhibition includes the disparaging and somewhat clumsy copies that he made of Donatello's David and Michelangelo's Medici Madonna, which were designed to demonstrate the superior lifelikeness of his own more volatile works. The truth is that Rosso's techniques did not produce sculptures that were demonstrably more like reality than those of the old masters, but sculptures that were truer to his own notion of what it means to be alive. Most of his innovations as a sculptor served to heighten his essentially morbid view of life. Rosso's subjects were often the diseased or the dying, and the sculptures that he made of them are, themselves, sickly and frail objects, poised between being and non-being. Rosso's sculpted equivalents for people are crumbling or melting things, objects that derive their pathos from their fragility.

Rosso made almost no new sculptures during the last 20 years of his life, when he seems to have devoted most of his energy to having his existing work photographed in ways that pleased him. This suggests a lack of self-confidence, a fear that, unless people could be trained to see the work as he saw it, it might be perpetually misunderstood. Rosso had his sculptures photographed to look like spirits emerging from circumambient darkness and in the most striking photograph that survives of the man himself, he looks like one of his own creations: a white-faced ghost, his face a blur, a likeness only half caught because caught in motion. Photography would, in the end, kill him: he died from blood poisoning after dropping a box of photographic plates on his foot. 'We are nothing but a play of light,' he once remarked. 'Nothing is material.'

(Photographs omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week