by Reed V. Horth, for RRFA
By Reed V. Horth, for ROBIN RILE FINE ART
On the surface, the sculpture of American Richard MacDonald and those of French Master Edgar Degas (1834-1917) could not be more different. Degas’ works were stream of consciousness appeals to his failing eyesight which allowed him a measure of creativity in his later years. MacDonald’s are precise and detail-oriented feats of balance and grace. One common thread which bound the two was an undying devotion to dance, and in particular, ballet.
Degas’ dancers were primarily completed in his waning years, having dabbled with wax modeling early on, only to stick with painting as a primary vocation. He only exhibited one completed work during his career, “La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” (Little Dancer, aged Fourteen) in 1881. Despite its prominent place in the lexicon of major sculpture since its release, the vitriolic reception it had upon its initial showing cooled Degas on exposing his sculptural works to the public, preferring instead to keep them private.
One observer commented “The terrible realism of this statuette makes the public distinctly uneasy, all its ideas about sculpture, about cold lifeless whiteness, about those memorable formulas copied again and again for centuries are demolished.” [Czestochowski, pg. 11]
He was not thought of as merely bucking a trend in academic sculpture, but of destroying the very fabric of sculpture altogether. His flat-footed figures playfully lumber with heavy legs and feet bound thickly to the ground as if saddled by tar. Many display a deliberate and clumsy balance which, in his chosen media of modeling wax, required elaborate inner skeletons and external buttressing to keep upright. However, their doughy innocence belied a classical sentiment which struck young, impressionable sculptors causing a fresh viewing of their roots in Greek and Roman origins (often resembling Pompeiian lava victims). In the intervening years, we have come to see how Degas’ simplicity and deconstruction of human form led to advances by arguably the 19th century’s greatest sculptor Auguste Rodin, whose further strides led to the minimalists of the 20th Century, Archipenko, Arp, Brancusi and others. In other words, Degas shook the tree just enough for a few apples to fall out and fundamentally alter the course of sculptural history itself.
By contrast, Richard MacDonald is a contemporary sculptor whose works have not had the opportunity to be viewed critically through the eyeglass of history. What is known is that his major innovations in texture, style and patina have given voice to some of the major talent in the renaissance of modern figural sculpture, including Americans Paige Bradley, Martin Eichinger and Vietnamese sculptor Tuan. One will obviously note that Degas’ figures have relatively primitive facial features. This was due in part to his poor eyesight, but also painted works. Degas completed only approximately 150 wax sculptures which remained in his studio at his death. Only about 72 became bronzes. MacDonald, by contrast is a prodigious sculptor with over 250 editioned works, many on variable scales. This proliferation of compositions has allowed MacDonald to experiment and refine minute details which might escape the routine viewer but would drive a perfectionist to madness. Further, MacDonald’s career as an illustrator prepared him to imbue his figures with emotive features not only in facial expression but also in posture, movement and narrative. One of the many aspects which separate MacDonald from his contemporaries is precision modeling and sinewy exactitude in muscular composition. Where Degas’ textures were milky and soft, MacDonald’s evince an intense understanding of skeletal and muscular anatomy beneath the surface of the skin. Compositionally, his controlled spirals lift and twist the torso into positions which make figures seem to float lighter than air on toes which barely connect with their stage.
While it is unclear how MacDonald’s commercial success will translate in the lexicon of history, Degas’ sculptures have continued to enchant audiences and debate since they were first unveiled in the years following his death in 1917. MacDonald seems poised to be on a similar plateau due to recent displays of his massive “Nureyev” at the Royal Ballet in London and the growing popularity of his “Cirque du Soleil” series, which utilizes dancers, acrobats and athletes from the many Cirque shows around the globe as models.
What is known is that MacDonald’s avid following and broad-based appeal is based upon the same attributes as those which draw viewers to the ballet in the first place…. A striving for perfection in all things beautiful. Where Degas found his voice in innovating and releasing his creative spirit late in life, MacDonald’s contemporary voice is only now revealing itself. The crescendo is building and, knowing him… It will be a precise and graceful symphony unto itself.
“One must have a high opinion of a work of art – not the work one is creating at the moment, but of that which one desires to achieve one day. Without this it is not worthwhile working.” – Edgar Degas
Reed V. Horth, is the president, curator and writer for ROBIN RILE FINE ART in Miami, FL. He has been a private dealer, gallerist and blogger since 1996, specializing in 20th century and contemporary masters. www.robinrile.com