Want to see bad relief sculpture? You needn’t look far. Take a euro out of your pocket.
What do you think of that map on the back? The leaders in Brussels gave their approval to the muddled, ugly design and no one said a word when the coin was presented to the world. Well, right away there were jokes: people pointed to the Scandinavian peninsula, which looked like a limp male organ, and said the euro was weak. But about the general design no one complained. A map is a map, isn’t it? Everyone just looked to see if his country was where it was supposed to be.
But the map was so crude and sort of crossed out with lines that it was best not to spend any time looking at it.
Well, what do you want, trouble-maker? It’s just a damn coin. As long as you can see the big number on it and the baker takes it for a loaf of bread, who cares what it looks like. Any old piece of metal would do. You must be some sort of art geek.
Art geek? Even the Neanderthal of Germany carved a horse-head on his cane. And did you ever see ancient coins? Some of them are beautiful.
The Greeks and Romans were the great masters of this kind of art, mainly because they used coins for propaganda as well as for exchange.
After them, coin and medal art went into hibernation for centuries. It woke up again in the reveille of the Renaissance with men like Matteo de Pasti of Verona (died 1451) and Vittore Pisano. They were real geniuses at the art. They made coins and medals like these:
The obverse of the euro isn’t the only offender. In our time coin and medal art has gone way down. Partly this is the result of the regularity imposed on coins: the relief has to be kept down so they can be stacked. But partly too, it is what happens when you let machines have their way. The coins are usually modelled three or four times the size of the coin and then reduced mechanically. This results in commonplace, unaccented sculpture and can never make a powerful impression.
Effective coin relief is concentrated, laconic. To make his “point” on such a small surface an artist must decide what is essential, indispensible to his figures and make that stand out. Which means that on the small coin their arms and legs, for example, or a girl’s shock of hair, might be twice their “real” thickness. If they are the same size as in the big model, they will necessarily look too thin and unimportant.
Actually, some euro anverses are very good. Here are two memorable designs for the new Latvian coins.