Learning to cast molten bronze in sand or clay moulds was a transformative moment in prehistoric technology. The lost-wax method later made it possible to cast large objects like statues.
Bronze’s high tensile strength meant that figures could stand unsupported; the outstretched pose of the Zeus or Poseidon from Cape Artemision would be impossible in stone. Virgil commented that such statues ‘seem to breathe’.
Poseidon, God of the Sea,. Bronze. © The Art Archive/Alamy
Yoruba sculptors of the 11th through 15th centuries used lost-wax casting to produce royal effigies. Life-size brass heads from Ife, Nigeria, have a naturalism beyond the reach of Western European bronze sculpture before Donatello.
The Ife Head, 14th–15th century. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum
In modern bronze sculpture, hefty permanence is often balanced by a sense of the contingent. Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space (below) feels both rooted and weightless. Louise Bourgeois’s gargantuan spiders (see main image) stalk the viewer like dreams that refuse to dissolve.
Brancusi, Bird In Space, 1928. Bronze (unique cast). 54 x 8 1/2 x 6 1/2 ins. (137.2 x 21.6 x 16.5 cm). Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2014.
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