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Friday 14 December 2012

Hyper realistic carving and realistic carving

I've just been looking at some hyper-realistic carvings (that mimic other objects) and thought I'd put some images on here. There is a long tradition of carving very realistic imitations of objects and in Western art these visual tricks are called Trompe l'oeil meaning 'deceive the eye'. However, it seems that most recent sculptors who produce a similar kind of work use casting and modelling techniques (e.g. Ron Mueck and Duane Hanson). Understandable, as reductive techniques like carving (where material is removed to get to the final form) can be pretty unforgiving of errors...

These carvings are by Randall Rosenthal, an American carver. They are carved over a period of months from a single block of wood and then hand painted.

These baseball caps were carved from a block of basswood by Fraser Smith of Natchez, Mississippi:

Fraser Smith, from Natchez, Mississippi, uses an art technique called trompe l'oeil to create his masterpieces

He also carved this leather jacket, a detail of which is shown below:

Close up: Mr Smith's leather jacket is looks real even when you look at it closely

The Icelandic carver Stefan Haukur Erlingsson also enjoys carving clothing studies:

Another carver whose realistic imitations of clothing have become well known is the Venetian Livio de Marchi. Sometimes, the carvings have practical functions, such as this chair with it's creator sat in it and the two chairs shown below it:


Some of de Marchi's projects are amazing in their ambition. He likes designing carved replicas of cars and then 'driving' them on Venice's waterways.

Another American woodworker, named Wendell Castle, made this piece in 1985. Entitled 'Ghost Clock', it is entirely made of carved Honduras mahogany, some of which has been carved and bleached to look like a tied cloth covering. Castle is more usually associated with functional furniture, but I think that the execution of the cloth covering is stunning. This piece is now kept in the Renwick collection of American crafts.

In the Meiji period in Japan, which lasted from 1868 to 1912, there was a fashion for carving very realistic-looking fruit in ivory. Many of the sculptures were produced for export to the West. Here's an example of one of these okimono sculptures:

(image copyright Kevin Page Oriental art)

Ricky Swallow is an Australian artist who is now based in Los Angeles. He carves realistic depictions of things such as backpacks or tyres in wood as part of his work. The piece below is called 'Sleeping range' and was carved in 2002.

I suppose these sculptures couldn't really be called 'hyper realistic', as they aren't coloured to look the same as the original items. Ricky Swallow's titles show that he also obviously intends more in his carved works than just reproductions of objects, although the same is perhaps true of all the carvers whose work is shown here.
Another sculptor who notably made very realistic-looking wooden carvings was, of course, Grinling Gibbons. Gibbons was born in Holland but worked in Britain. In about 1690, he carved this cravat from limewood. The influential politician and art collector Horace Walpole wore it and helped to revive interest in Gibbons' work and so help to make his name legendary.

Much as I love carvings like these and admire their technical virtuosity, I think that carving a very realistic portrayal of an object is not as inspiring to me at the moment as capturing a realistic likeness of emotion or movement in a human face. Many carvers seem to favour expressionless carvings of faces when their work features human figures and it is easy to understand why.
Inanimate objects used as models don't tend to move about much of course, so a likeness can be won by slow, careful observation. Maintaining the inspiration seems much trickier when carving emotions into materials such as wood, stone or ivory, which require relatively slow working processes over long periods of time. Emotions can pass by in a second. How difficult it must have been for carvers to produce expressive self-portraits before photography was invented!
Here is a self-portrait carved in alabaster in 1770 by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, which is now part of the Austrian State gallery in Vienna. It is one of a series, which are well worth looking up if you don't already know them.

(image copyright Austrian state museum)
According to a diarist who visited him, Messerschmidt (who thought he was possessed but is now thought to have perhaps suffered from Crohn's disease) would pull at one of his own ribs, then contort his face and carve his likeness. When he completed this particular carving, which is now called the 'beaked' head, he was apparently afraid of it and hid it out of sight. To him, it represented a spirit which came to torment him.  How did he carve such a contorted self portrait, with it's features scrunched up so tightly?

I don't know who owns the copyright to some of the images used here, so apologise for any breach of it. Unless otherwise stated, please infer that copyright is held by the producer of the work shown.

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