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
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
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.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003