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Inaugural Lectures

Sculpture and Language

Tony Cragg
Cet article est une traduction de :
Sculpture et langage

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Source: La lettre, no. 37, December 2013
Excerpts from the Inaugural Lecture
24 octobre 2013

Texte intégral

1Using material for thinking is not as unusual as one may imagine. We all have had the experience of wanting to write down an idea, a thought or an emotion but when we come to write it down we sit there with pencil and paper or, if you prefer, keyboard and screen, trying out words and phrases until we find the right sentences to express our thoughts, to then discover that what we have written is more expressive and meaningful than our original thought.

2This is poetry or what ancient Greeks called poesis – the process of creation using material to reflect our thoughts and give form to our ideas. Our ability to read material is so highly developed when we look at each other, in an instant we receive infor­mation that enables us to establish age, sex, health, mental state, mood, disposition, history and that provides a basis to speculate about our subject’s character and thoughts. We are receptive to the slightest change of form; a smile, a grimace, a nuance of muscular tension, especially on the face of someone we know, will instantaneously change what we are thinking about that person. Why else would we still be fascinated with a smile in a painting dating from 600 hundred years ago?

3When the material changes, our mind is changed. When I change material, the latter changes my mind and often enough I feel that it becomes unclear which one of us is ­leading. But then why should things be different in my studio than in the larger universe? We see things by being able to see the light that is reflected from their surfaces and our brains distinguish between things by giving them colours and textures. But there is an enormous psychological pressure to see beyond the surfaces of things, to penetrate them in order to find out what energies and forces cause the surface that we can see. We want to find out what is going on behind the scenery of the face, what is the figure beneath the garments, what are the powers and vital energies of the being or thing in front of us. Not just the figure but everything we see is the result of its internal structure and all forms have energetic causes, these internal causes are often more important than their external appearance and we have an urgent need to know the hidden structures of ­materials, their energies and properties.

4Sculpture is a discipline that occupies itself with the valence of surfaces and forms. There is a general impression that sculpture has developed slowly as a form of expression, perhaps due to all the talk about statues that gives a static impression of it and makes out of it a frozen reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the last hundred and fifty years there have been rapid and radical developments in terms of the materials, techniques, form, scope and content of sculpture.

5Before the beginning of the modern era, sculpture in Europe was mainly influenced by the Greco-Roman tradition. Sculptures looked realistic but the ideas were often abstract and never just a blank copy of nature. They transported the notions and ideals of physical prowess, fertility, beauty, intelligence, compassion, justice and morals. Baroque sculptures defined themselves through their vibrant energetic forms and the sense that all material manifes­t­ations are driven by waves of energy emu­lating from a supreme force. Influenced by Freud’s ideas, Auguste Rodin’s sculptures express the exterior forms of human beings not just as a result of their anatomy but of their mental states, passions and emotions. This heralded the decisive development that sculptors in Europe no longer felt it necessary to rely on the underlying anatomical structure of the figure as the sole cause and source of anthropomorphic forms. This development was encouraged and enhanced by the importation of sculptures from other cultures into Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. Abstract notions like evo­lution, movement, relativity and structural geometry took over the role of the underlying causality of form in the work of Picasso, Brancusi and Tatlin. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the forms, structures and functions of industrially produced objects had invaded the environment, playing an increasingly important role and having an ever greater effect on human lives.

6Such a major and violent material development could not be ignored and it inevitably became a resource for sculpture. Marcel Duchamp was among the artists that realised its import­ance and his work had a major impact on art and sculpture making. From Duchamps’ Fountain, to Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans, Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tubes, Joseph Beuys’ rabbit foot, and Damien Hirst’ pickled shark, artists have exploited the fact that there were strategies for changing the language associated with an object. In doing so, they have effectively transformed them without having to change them physically. In this way objects can become carriers of artistic meanings and content.

• Inaugural Lecture will be published by Éditions Fayard.

• The video of the Inaugural Lecture is available online at, on the professor's page.

• The Musée d’Art moderne de Saint-Étienne presented Tony Cragg’s work from 14 Septembre to 5 January 2014.Excerpts from the Inaugural Lecture 24 octobre 2013

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Tony Cragg, « Sculpture and Language », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 11 août 2015, consulté le 28 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Tony Cragg

Rector, Sculptor Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Visiting Professor for the Annual Chair of Artistic Creation 2013/2014.

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