At the 2022 Venice Biennale, American contemporary artist Simone Leigh was selected to represent the United States and display her commissioned artwork in the United States Pavilion. The Venice Biennale, or La Biennale di Venezia, is an international cultural festival and perhaps the most prestigious art exhibition in the world. Monumental and rendered in bronze, Leigh’s works at the Biennale exude a timeless quality and were a sensational success, garnering the American a Biennale Golden Lion — the highest honor available at the exhibition. Leigh’s oeuvre is undeniably a cultural force, but it also underscores the power of bronze in artistic creation, a material that has been used by artists for nearly 5000 years.
The term “Bronze Age” may conjure up memories of sitting in a history class and learning about the emergence of human civilization. After societies began utilizing bronze as the material of choice, the ensuing era represented a large leap in technological advancement. Humans were no longer reliant on stone tools for agriculture and urban development, and the longevity of bronze tools and objects meant that less labor was needed to maintain architectural triumphs, weaponry and cultural artifacts.
Not every metal is given the title of an entire age in human history, but bronze holds the first title of its kind. Bronze has served as the backbone of human innovation for over five millennia, and continues to play a major role in contemporary art production. Join us as we journey through the many different ways humans have used this highly important metal to create timeless sculpted works of art.
How are bronzes made?
As artisans and metalworkers began to explore the possibilities offered by bronze, various methods were developed in order to cast molten metal into refined works of sculpture. Here are some of the most successful methods:
Sand Casting TechniqueSand casting is a simplified method for casting bronze. The artist creates a mold or pattern in compacted fine sand, into which they would pour molten bronze through a series of gates to funnel it into the necessary mold. As the metal cools, it will revert from its extremely hot liquid state back to a solid. Once cooled, the object can be removed from the mold.
While sand casting is a common and widely used technique, it does not allow for the utmost in precision or scale. Further, the molds are not reusable, which means that a new mold must be created every time in order to sand cast an item.
Lost Wax Technique
One method for making bronze sculptures is known as the lost wax casting process, sometimes called cire perdue. This technique was common in the ancient world, used almost exclusively in Greece by the Late Archaic period (c. 500-480 BCE). Ancient Rome and China also used lost wax casting for the production of bronze objects.
Solid CastingWith solid lost wax casting, casts are made from models of the final sculpture — typically comprised of wax. The artist then creates a mold of the wax model, surrounding it with clay or other materials and melting the wax down to create negative space into which molten metal — in this case, bronze — can be poured. Once the metal cools and solidifies, the mold can be broken away for the new bronze object to be cleaned and polished. Though this method is the most simple and direct, it tends to result in small statuary due to the limitations of the materials used for the mold.
Hollow CastingIn response to these size limitations, the Ancient Greeks also pioneered the hollow lost wax method which allowed artists and bronze-makers to create larger sculptures. These statues often had to be cast piecemeal — a leg, a head, a torso. Instead of a wax replica where the wax melts, in the indirect hollow cast method, the model was typically made of clay and covered in wax before an outer layer of clay encircled the inner layer. When the wax was heated and removed, it opened up a matrix where the bronze alloy could be cast around the inner clay model. This meant that bronze sculptors could reuse models, making the recasting and reproduction of a given sculpture possible and relatively simple. This method, also called cire perdue, remains the most popular method among modern sculptors.
History of Bronze Sculptures
Now in the collection of the National Museum of New Delhi in India, the oldest known bronze sculpture is known as the Dancing girl of Mohenjodaro. Standing nearly 5 inches tall and striking a casual and confident pose, the girl wears twenty-five bangles on her left arm, four bangles on her right and a necklace. British archaeologist John Marshall uncovered the original sculpture in 1926, later commenting on the girl’s seemingly modern air: “When I first saw them I found it difficult to believe that they were prehistoric.”
Ancient Greek bronze casters discovered that bronze was a far more preferable material for sculptures and statues than other metals like copper. By the Hellenistic Period (323 BCE- 31 AD), Greek artists had mastered the art form, producing many of today's most well-known Greek sculptures, including Laocoön and His Sons, which inspired generations of artists that followed. Prolific numbers of bronze sculptures were created by the Greeks, though few survive due to the value of the metal; many were melted down by later societies and reused for their precious bronze. Thankfully, ancient Roman sculptures, particularly marble copies, provide extensive records of the Grecian bronze casting traditions.
Ancient civilizations in Rome, China and India also appreciated the sturdy metal. Ancient Roman craftsmen pioneered the concept of portrait busts, and these early portraits of Roman emperors and other politicians continue to shape the way modern societies depict their statesmen.
Renaissance & Baroque Bronze SculptureWhile European cities continued to operate bronze foundries during the Middle Ages for casting weaponry and other necessities, the Italian Renaissance ushered in a new age of bronze sculpture. Increasing adoration of Classical antiquity led to a reinvigorated interest in sculpture and classical proportions. Particularly in Florence, called the “New Athens” by ambitious humanists, the Medici family’s patronage allowed artistic production to flourish, and artists from Donatello to Michelangelo created masterpieces in bronze.
The transition to the Baroque period brought bronze sculpture to even further heights. Moving from a humanistic naturalism, the Baroque period embraced dramatic grandeur and deep emotion. Artists of the period, including Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francois Girardon, created impassioned and gripping compositions — subjects with emotive expressions, writhing bodies and theatrical posing. Though the material would once again fall out of favor following the end of the Baroque era, the Industrial Revolution would bring a bronze resurgence once more.
Modern Directions of Bronze Sculpture
As the 19th century ushered in a new era of technology and innovation, bronze sculpture was taken in new and modern directions. The early 19th century saw a remarkable rise in the popularity of the bronze statue for public sculpture, as it had become customary to commemorate political and military figures through monuments. Residing in parks and civic buildings, or even lining boulevards, these sculptural works benefited from the inherent strength and durability of the metal, which offers it a greater degree of protection from the elements.
Some famous sculptors from the 19th-century, like Auguste Rodin, continued to rely on classical proportions and the foundations laid during earlier periods. His sculptures strayed, however, from the traditional biblical or classical subjects that formed the cornerstone of Renaissance and Baroque sculpture. One of his most iconic bronzes, called Le Baiser (“The Kiss”), was originally designed to be included in Rodin’s The Gates of Hell—a monumental bronze sculptural group work depicting figures from Dante’s Inferno. Rodin was ultimately taken with the overwhelming sensuality of his creation and deemed it too special to put on the Gates of Hell. The result is one of the most iconic portrayals of rapturous love and uninhibited intimacy ever created.
Other artists, like Edgar Degas, found ways to bring the subjects they already loved to paint and draw into three dimensions. Throughout his career, Degas became obsessed with capturing the dancer in motion, both on stage and in the dressing room; he painted dancing compositions quite often, but also found bronze an excellent medium for capturing the graceful movement and forms of ballerinas.
Amedeo Modigliani, a 20th-century great beloved for his painting, created monumental bronze sculptures with his quintessential exaggerated yet elegant elongation of his subject’s faces. His interest in African and other non-Western art is well-documented, and this bronze is reminiscent of a tribal mask or ancient deity, both due to its exaggerated features and the totemic appearance achieved by the work’s texture, meditative presence and sheer size. Yet the work also alludes to the artist’s Italian heritage and training. A caryatid is a staple of classical architecture, an ornate column typically found on the façade of a temple that takes the form of a female figure, with the most famous examples being on the Acropolis of Athens. The present large sculpture exudes the same totemic, memorable quality, taking the legacy of ancient Greek and Roman bronze sculptors and injecting Modigliani’s signature style.
Moving further into the 20th century, postmodernism continued its march, impacting everything from photography, painting and filmmaking to sculpture itself. The introduction of abstraction to the medium is particularly important, as it represented a break from the nearly unbroken history of Classical influence on bronze sculpture. Artists like Constantin Brâncuși, Umberto Boccione and Agustin Cárdenas experimented with subject, form and even color by way of new patinas for the metal.
Draper, James David. “Bronze Sculpture in the Renaissance.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.
Hemingway, Colette, and Seán Hemingway. “The Technique of Bronze Statuary in Ancient Greece.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/grbr/hd_grbr.htm (October 2003)