To Polish or Not to Polish

You must distinguish between polish and smoothness. Smoothness—smoothing your surface—is the last (the zero) of various degrees of roughness, and it has its place in all figures, representational and abstract. You might say that all sculpture is a variation of smooth and rough surfaces.

Another thing altogether is polish. Marble figures have usually but not always been polished, though that is a very unsculptural thing to do to them. Why?
Sculpture is a thing of shadows; shadows define the figure. The eye uses them to understand it. Ultimately it isn’t the shapes themselves that the sculptor must “get right” but the shadows they cast. For, remember: sculpture is not simply a copied thing—a head, a torso—but an illusion, a suggestion of that thing—that thing with life. If the shape is “right” (the eyelid, say, has the proper curve of an eyelid) but the shadow it casts is unclear or conflicts with the general expression the sculptor wanted, the bust fails.

Now, polish eliminates shadows. It throws back the light and levels the sculpted forms. It produces not just glare but a general confusion of the surface.

Then why did all the great sculptors polish?
Mostly they were following a convention. People want their statue to be not just a sort of three-dimensional picture but also a “feelie”. There’s nothing quite like shiny marble to run your hand over. And a shiny statue is a more cheerful and decorative thing to have around than a dull one.

Not all sculptors polish every one of their statues, or the whole surface of any single one. The young Michelangelo polished his Pietà completely, but as he matured he used polish selectively and to better effect in, for example, the big figures in the Medici tomb. Look at the Slaves in the Louvre and decide whether it isn’t a pity that all their sensitive anatomy is partially erased by the light that slides around their surface. Who would say that the unpolished Giants in the Accademia are not more successful, more memorable (though less cuddly, it’s true)? Ultimately, the sculptor, just like the painter, must decide in each case, with each work, in each part of the work, whether a shine will enhance it, and how much shine. His polish can be compared to the varnish, high gloss, low gloss,
a painter might apply to his oil painting for the same reason.

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2 Responses to To Polish or Not to Polish

  1. iondanu – I am a visual artist of Romanian origin (a draughtsman, painter, photographer and digital artist) living now in Canada.
    Ion Danu says:

    Brancusi polished a lot of his sculptures but I don’t think he did it only to follow convention (he was quite unconventional. by the way: there is an anecdote with a very important – very rich collector(ess) – Peggy Guggenheim if I remember well – who asked him, while visitiong his workshop, what she could do for him? and Brancusi reflected a bit and then he showd her the broom and said “What aboum sweeping my workshop?” ) I think, in his case, he desired the absolute concision, the absolute purity of the form and polished bronze or marbles were better that way… And, by the way, you can apply gloss and varnish of all kind to acrylics also… even to watercolor you can do that (there is here at Sherbrooke an artist, Josée Perreault which does very beautiful “aqurelles vernis” – varnished watercolors…

  2. 100swallows says:

    Yes, Brancusi certainly polished for the reasons you say, Danu. He had very simple shapes and the shine even enhanced their “purity”. King Cheops had his Great Pyramid polished, remember. No; I meant sculptured human or animal figures with details that get lost because of the shine.
    I don’t think I’ve ever seen shiny watercolors! And why didn’t I ever think of shining acrylics?

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