Eduardo Paolozzi, Figure

Eduardo Paolozzi, Figure, circa 1957. Bronze, 36-1/4 × 12-3/8 × 10-1/2 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Margaret H. Cook, 1996 (1996.439). Photo by Ben Aqua.

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audio transcript

Valerie Fletcher: The British sculptor, Eduardo Paolozzi, was like so many of his generation deeply affected by the realities of World War II. In its aftermath, Paolozzi began to make sculpture. He had started out years earlier primarily as a collagist; that is, he cut out images from various published sources and combined them into compositions. Often he combined images of classical sculptures with images of modern machines as an expression of the turmoil and conflicts caused by the old European order colliding with the new technological world. Paolozzi was profoundly impressed by the ideas of this clash of the old and new and it is expressed in the sculpture simply called Figure from 1957. He applied the technique of collage to sculpture.

So he took ordinary objects, bits and pieces of old machinery, household objects, nuts and bolts, things no longer working. He took them and he pressed them into slabs of wax. Wax is a very traditional sculpture material; very malleable, it takes the form beautifully. He then took these to a bronze foundry, had these cast into bronze, brought them back to his studio, and combined them together, built literally from these fragments, the figure you see before you. And so this figure made up of cast-off, burnt-out, used-up technological parts and then put together to resemble a human, clearly has a resonance with the idea of robots and automata and cybernetics. Such ideas had merged in 1920s and indeed before that in literature and it was very widespread in movies, in popular culture in the 1950s. But this is probably more of a reference to the serious science of cybernetics.

Cybernetics came to the public knowledge in the late 1940s when a man named Norbert Wiener who had been doing research at MIT published how he and his colleagues had attempted to combine neurological human physiology with mechanical function. This is of course is the basis of experiments leading to the development of computers. But this is what disturbed many people, including Paolozzi. How mechanical do we want our world? How much should we take technology as our paradigm? Are we as humans becoming subservient to a world that is increasingly controlled, ruled, and structured along the lines suited to technology rather than to the more human, organic, physical, and spiritual domains?

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Eduardo Paolozzi, Figure, circa 1957.

British, 1924-2005

Like Bernard Meadows (1915–2005), Edward Paolozzi was deeply affected by the politics and realities of World War II. Before the war, he studied at the Slade School of Art and was much impressed by the ideas of surrealism. He worked primarily in collage—a favorite of Dada and surrealist artists because disparate images could be juxtaposed to provoke an intellectual or psychological reaction.

Shortly after the war, Paolozzi made a series of collages combining pictures of classical sculptures with images of modern machines. The works are an expression of the turmoil caused by the old European order colliding with the new technological world. Applying the methodology of collage to sculpture in the 1950s, he gathered old machine parts and cast-off technology components, which he pressed into slabs of wax. After casting them into bronze, Paolozzi welded the pieces together into semiabstract figures.

These sculptures relate to the emergence of cybernetics in the arts, literature, philosophy, and science. The idea of automata (humanlike machines) had appeared in science fiction, in tandem with the increasing use of machines during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. After World War II, scientists began publishing accounts of efforts to merge electronics with human capabilities, making the robots of science fiction seem feasible. In stories, robots were usually viewed as ominous: anthropomorphic yet inhuman, intelligent yet soulless, an uncontrollable threat to human supremacy. Unlike today, the robots of the 1950s and ‘60s were rarely portrayed as sympathetic machines.

Paolozzi’s robotoid sculptures have irregular contours and seemingly ravaged surfaces. They appear damaged, as if survivors of a holocaust. Figure lacks both arms and a head, and its clumsy legs and feet appear heavy and difficult to move. The suggestion of a small step forward may be an ironic art historical allusion to the damaged anatomy of Auguste Rodin’s (1840–1917) Walking Man of 1899–1905 and Alberto Giacometti’s (1901–1966) Walking Man sculptures of 1946–48. 

Eduardo Paolozzi, Figure, circa 1957. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Eduardo Paolozzi, Figure, circa 1957. Photo by Ben Aqua.

Location: Bass Concert Hall Lobby, Fifth Floor

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