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Video transcript

sculpture presented a real problem in the 19th century when one thinks about the developments and the changes in painting reinventing painting for a new world we think of the rise of its industrial culture and painting as a subject we think of the landscape it was made accessible because of industrialization we think of cropping perhaps because of the rise of photography or the painting of modern life and modern subject matter and going against the academic traditions but in sculpture there's a real problem because instead of creating an illusion of a thing we're creating color on a surface you're actually creating a physical rendering in the world that we take as equivalent to the real yea sculpture has a immediacy to it and a presence to it so what's allowable and feels comfortable in painting can sometimes be very difficult in sculpture especially in the representation of the human body we might think for instance of the work of Auguste Rodin who is reinventing sculpture rethinking what sculpture can be if you think about for instance a sculpture like the walking man you can see the fragmentary there's no head there are no arms there's a displaced leg you can see the implements of the artist tools in the surface of the bronze that are still left available to us visually in England people like Frederic Leighton also try to rethink sculpture try to reinvent sculpture we're looking at the most important sculpture of this new movement called the new sculpture by Frederic Leighton called athlete wrestling with a Python and this was seen as a turn in English sculpture because of its classicism its extreme idealization of the body the physicality of the figure the idealization of the musculature of the body and re-engagement with the male nude all of which also had the added benefit of still having a moral dimension in the - was both nature and evil that could be wrestled it could be vanquished this is a sculpture that is both wildly new and also very much rooted as you said in history and so clearly the artist has looked back - Michael Angelo clearly the artist has looked back perhaps even to the Belvedere torso which we know Michelangelo was also looking at in turn but here is trying to create a sculpture that is valid now in the 19th century and we know that in the Victorian England ideas about physical health about masculinity about the athletic body were connected to ideas of moral rectitude of the health of the nation and so there is a symbolic dimension to this sculpture but all of that is subjugated at least as I look at it - the voracity that he's rendered in other words there's something so clear about the articulation of the muscles even of the scales of the serpent that make this almost zoological make this almost a kind of study of the anatomy of these forms as opposed to allowing for the varnish of the ideal but then there are these aspects of hyper realism that I think feel a little bit at odds with that well look for instance at where he grasps the neck of the Python there's a kind of elasticity to that flesh of the animal as its punctured as it's being suffocated and it really does feel as if he has studied what pythons skin would look like as it's pressed and so there's some things it's almost too vivid about that to also allow for all the moral implications that he's also trying to imbue the sculpture with and if you look at the face of the figure and the seriousness with Ricci engages that Python there's something odd that part just doesn't work for me I have to say that it looks like that they are staring at each other as if the Python is a sentient being but this is not a rendering of the devil in a renaissance painting this is 2zu logically accurate and so there is something absurd about the face-off between these two figures it elevates the animal it elevates nature in a way that seems curious given the specificity and the exactitude with which that animals rendered if you look at the pose of the athlete there's something graceful about his movements especially if you look down at his legs that doesn't seem to really match the physical strength that we see him calling on in his upper body as he strangles the Python his left leg comes forward and it's a little bit off the ground his heel doesn't touch the ground I'm not really sure how the bottom part of his body is gathering the strength that we see in the upper part of his body although these are issues that are clear to us in the 21st century in 1877 when the sculpture was made reviewers loved it and it was purchased by the government for the country and that's why we see it in Tate Britain today