Could I See the Back, Please?

“Painters are lucky dogs,” say the sculptors. “If they can come up with a single good view of anything, they’ve got their picture. We have to find a figure that is pretty no matter where you stand to look at it. How many times have we had to throw out a good idea because, though it was wonderful seen from the front, it turned out to have an ugly or confusing or dead side when we worked it out in clay or wax!”

Painters usually concede this. But they should make the sculptors back down a little, at least as far as the “all sides” goes. Most theories even reduce them to seven or five or three. The truth is, all statues have good and better sides, and they are exhibited to show these off. Most stand up against the wall or so near it you can’t walk all around them to examine the back.

Laocoön and his sons.  Marble, copy after an Hellenistic original from ca. 200 BC. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506  Height 8′ (2.4 m.) A public domain photo by Marie-Lan Nguyeny , published here

With very few exceptions—Gianbologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women is one—statues are meant to be displayed almost like paintings,

Rape of the Sabine Women (1574-82), by Giambologna, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, Italy (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported photo by Ricardo André Frantz, published here)

against the wall or only slightly set forth to allow side views. That is, they are like high reliefs. And it could almost be said that all sculpture is relief, even if it is carved all around.

Sculpture was originally part of architecture. It adorned friezes and architraves.

It stood in niches along the walls. It hardly ever stood isolated from a building. A figure “in the round” was really an extension of a figure in high relief; and so it remained.

Nearly all of Michelangelo’s figures, like this Lorenzo de Medici, stand next to a wall. They were never meant to be seen from the back.


Here is his Night (Notte), lying on a Medici sepulchre:



What does she look like from the back?  Did he sculpt her all around?

This rare view is taken from Ludwig Goldscheider’s great book  Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculpture, Architecture, Phaidon Press, reprinted 1967.






This entry was posted in art, art history, Greek sculpture, Laocoön, Michelangelo, sculpture. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Could I See the Back, Please?

  1. erikatakacs says:

    Interesting. You mean you cannot walk around the Laokoon? That would be a shame because one would think that statue is perfect all around.
    Swallows, you make me wonder about Michelangelo. If most of his statues were meant to be seen from the front and sides, does that mean he put less work, detail into their back?

  2. 100swallows says:

    Erika: Here is a comment I wrote (to you and Kimiam) after a post about Laocoön (Why Didn’t Laocoön Shout). Not only can’t you walk around it, you can’t even get close.
    “I got news for you girls: you can’t get up there and put your mits on the Laocoön (though I did). It’s in a sort of chapel or recess 20 feet from a rope, which is as far as they let you get. At least a few years ago it wasn’t 20 feet away AND behind glass like the Pietà. I took a deep breath, jumped the rope, and walked right up to the statue, ignoring the alarms. I wanted to know if I could see the joints but the noise and the people at the rope yelling and waving to me to please come back, plus the guilt of doing what I was doing, made me so nervous I didn’t see a thing. I did touch the breast of the great Laocoön. An old guard simply came to tell me that crossing over the rope wasn’t allowed. I should have simply asked the Vatican boss (not the Pope I guess) to let me have a closer peek. He would have, I’m sure.”

    I just added the picture of Notte seen from the back. The Goldscheider has photos of the backs of most of Michelangelo’s statues. How he was able to get them, God only knows.

  3. fred says:

    That’s really fascinating. I will have to look for that Goldscheider book. I’ve never seen it before. I like the back view of La Notte – it’s mysterious. Seeing it is like seeing the far side of the moon.

    There are many casts and copies of Laocoon around the world, and some of them must be viewable from the back, but when I searched online for pictures of that view I couldn’t find any.

    • 100swallows says:

      Fred: Of course the far side of the moon is “sculpted”–a perfect hemisphere with complex relief. But the wall side of these figures isn’t really their “back” at all. As reliefs they are designed to show–and to be–only that front view. I suspect they are distorted too–compressed, as reliefs, even full reliefs, always are. I seem to remember seeing a photo of the back of the Laocoön group. It was unrecognizable.

  4. bellcurve says:

    That’s true, just like the moon! It would be most informative to see the back of all those statues.

    • 100swallows says:

      Bellcurve: The back of one of the “Captains” in the Medici chapel (I think the Giuliano) shows much more work (sculpting) than was necessary. You wonder why Michelangelo spent so much time there.

  5. Ken Januski says:

    I have to say that the criminal behavior involved in the rope jumping has to be the most memorable part of the post! Not that the post in itself isn’t interesting.

    Here’s the other side of the coin though, from a ‘lucky dog’ painter. ‘Those sculptors have is so unbelievably easy! They don’t have to create any three dimensional illuision at all. For gosh sakes they’re already working in three dimensions. What a poor painter wouldn’t give for that luxury!!’

    Said in jest of course. I appreciate them both and would be happy to do sculpture if I just had the time.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: I’m still surprised that I did that. And I have to say that crime doesn’t pay: I got nothing out of it.
      As for the three dimensional illusion, didn’t many of the twentieth century painters give it up? When I imagine a Picasso or a Matisse or a Miró or a Chagall (not to say a Jasper John or a Pollack), I see a flat (two-dimensional) picture, or one with only a suggestion of depth. So I wouldn’t think they envied a sculptor for that reason.
      See my post Sculpture vs. Painting

      • Ken Januski says:

        Ah Swallows, you have opened up the Mother of Melons: does art progress?

        Just because the early Modernists got rid of spatial illusion was it correct? Should it be banished from art forever? Oddly enough, and I think I might have mentioned this previously, one of the more contemporary flat painters, Frank Stella, wrote a book called ‘Working Space’, in which he talked about wanting to compete against the masters, e.g. the Renaissance masters and Rubens! I actually interviewed him about this book and if you can dig up a copy of the magazine ‘Bouelvard’ from around 1985 you might be able to read it. The thing that really struck me though was that underneath the treatise of the book I think he just missed the challenge of pictorial space! Around the same time his flat painting/sculptures took on the Rubenesque three-dimensionality that as far as I know they still have.

        A very long paragraph just to say that I’m not sure that illusion is gone for good from painting. It’s just too much of the human experience and also too much of the magic of art, whether it be on the walls of caves or in some contemporary gallery.

        • 100swallows says:

          Ken: I agree with you that spatial illusion won’t be permanently shelved. It was interesting to see how those twentieth artists painted without it. How strange to hear that Stella had Rubens and the Renaissance masters on his mind! Did you see his studio?

          • Ken Januski says:

            No studio visit, Swallows. Just a phone interview. I must say I would have been thrilled to have actually met him and visited his studio!

            I haven’t kept up with Stella or really with contemporary art since about the time of that interview. I’ll have to do some exploring and see what he’s doing now. After of course I’ve read biographies of Goya, Velazquez, Constable and all the others that are on the growing list……………..

  6. soundtrack says:

    Interesting, but what’s the explanation? No pay to do the back.

    • 100swallows says:

      Soundtrack: The figures were conceived as high reliefs. Had they been meant for display in the middle of a room Michelangelo would have finished them all round.

  7. wrjones says:

    It seems obvious that sculpting is very much more demanding than painting. Carving stone so that it does not just turn out to be a smaller rock seems impossible to me.

  8. kimiam says:

    Hi swallows. Long time. I realy enjoyed this post.

    and bill, I think sculpting and painting are just different things. Painters have to be illusionists, creating depth and space where there is none. Sculptors have to attend to more points of light and more views.

  9. kimiam says:

    Swallows, I am now, but I’ve been going through a bit of a dry spell. One thing is for sure. If I don’t sculpt, I sink.

  10. cantueso says:

    Wrjones is right, and those Swallows had better admit it.

    And not just the hard work. The space. I could start to paint right here at my office, but what if I wanted to sculpt granite?

    What about the neighbours?

    • 100swallows says:

      Cantueso: I think Bill meant only the difficulty of carving. The swallows will readily admit that sculpture is hard work. But thanks for one more of the disadvantages of sculpture when compared to painting, which I will add to my list: The sculptor needs a hard-to-find workshop (at least in the city) that he can fill with dust and where he can make loud noise. Here are ten. Can you think of any more?

      1. There are fewer suitable subjects.

      2. It is dirty and hard work.

      3. It takes longer to make because you have to treat all sides.

      4. You have to learn to handle and become good at handling many different materials (wax, stone, plaster, bronze, glues, etc.). You are thus more of the artisan than the painter, more bound to the material world, constantly at war with objects.

      5. It mostly can´t be photographed to advantage and so can´t be appreciated except in situ.

      7. It is expensive—to make and to move.

      8. It is unwieldy: heavy and hard to move.

      9. It can´t be exhibited just anywhere. It needs a big room to be seen from many angles.

      10. There are fewer aficionados, fewer buyers, fewer knowledgeable people.

  11. erikatakacs says:

    I was reading recently about the lack of bronze statues from antiquity due to their use as material for weapons in war. A great disadvantage!

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: That’s another disadvantage, all right. They used to grind down marble statues to make mortar too. Michelangelo’s biggest bronze figure—the work of more than a year—was melted down for a cannon already while he was alive.

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