One of the most charged moments in producing many carvings, particularly when whittling a shape from a piece of rough timber, is the moment when the sculpture is cut away from the piece of wood from which it has been carved. Sometimes I have been really torn as to whether I should take that step, as the sculpted piece looks so right against the uncarved timber that it emerges from.
Perhaps some of the most famous examples are the unfinished marble sculptures by Michelangelo known as the 'Prisoners'. These were carved between 1525 and 1530. The one below is sometimes called the 'Awakening Prisoner', sometimes the 'Awakening Slave':
It's not certain whether Michelangelo stopped working on them because the building project that they were intended for was reduced in scale (the tomb of Pope Julius II, which was never completed to the original designs). That is the the usual interpretation, but I wonder if he just decided that the sculptures expressed what he was looking for and left them at that. Michelangelo saw himself as freeing the image created in a sculpture from within the confines of the uncarved block and that is certainly the feeling that these marble sculptures get across.
According to Rick Steves (mentioned in http://thosecrazyschuberts.com);
'Michelangelo believed the sculptor was a tool of God, not creating but simply revealing the powerful and beautiful figures he put in the marble. Michelangelo’s job was to chip away the excess, to reveal. He needed to be in tune with God’s will, and whenever the spirit came upon him, Michelangelo worked in a frenzy, often for days on end without sleep.'
Another sculptor who used the shape of the rough, unfinished block in their final sculptures was Auguste Rodin. This sculpture, produced in 1898, is 'The Hand of God', sometimes known as 'Creation' or as 'The Hand of the Devil':
Whilst chatting to Joachim Seitfudem (who carved the sculptures below), he noted that many traditional Bavarian limewood sculptures use the unworked surface of the log (with bark removed) to frame the carvings emerging from within. Jo's father is a master carver in Bavaria.
Giuseppe Penone is not specifically a woodcarver, but was one of the leading figures in the influential 'Arte Povera' movement that developed in Italy in about 1967. Artists associated with Arte Povera used inexpensive, often found, materials to make artworks. Penone was very interested in making sculptures that reconnected people to the natural environment and since the 1970's he has been making these sculptures, in which a growth ring inside a wooden beam is revealed by carefully cutting away the wood around it.
This reveals an echo of the tree at one point in its growth. In 'The 20th Century Art Book' published by Phaidon, each of these works is identified as 'an act of reclamation, an attempt to discover the natural shape of the tree within the man-made form.'
One piece of sculpture that really made an impression on me when I first saw it is 'Hinewai Calling from the Mist' by the New Zealand sculptor Paul Deans. The piece is carved from an old, found gatepost and illustrates a Maori legend about 'Uenuku and the Mist Girl', which you can read by clicking on this link to a previous post on this blog.