Whaddaya lookin’ at? Medardo Rosso’s Ecce Puer!

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Ecce Puer, Rosso (1906)

Before enrolling at the Accademia di Belle Arte di Brera (where he took basic drawing classes for 11 months), Medardo Rosso, (1858-1928, Turin), was already taking part in local art exhibitions, showing some of his early works. However, this unusual career start was unstable and unprofessional for the time and he thus thought it better to associate himself with an official institution to further his career. (Hecker, S., Ambivalent Bodies: Medardo Rosso’s Brera Petition, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 142, No. 1173, The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd., (2000). Enrolling in such an institution would allow the pioneering artist to exhibit at the Academy’s Salone, an annual event where budding artists would show their works to potential buyers and critics. But the courses and formations of this Academy were strict and constrained and it is rather his expulsion from such a place that led to his artistic freedom and innovative style.

Brought up in an artistic environment where the richness of the past and the poverty of the present were alike oppressive, Rosso’s sculptures are elusive and mysterious, often conveying a subjective sense of melancholy and displacement. Rosso was known during his time as a sad man, whose reflective works often depicted the sickness found in old age, or the fragility of youth. His sculptural work portrays the artist’s withdrawal from social gaiety to a morose and nostalgic world, reminiscing of a previous Golden Age. (Smith, B., Medardo Rosso 1858-1928, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 92, No. 571., The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd. (1950). For example, Ecce Puer remains in Classical bust form but instead of conveying an expected air of confidence and stability, this small sculpture appears delicate and fragile, much like its creator’s character. Rosso conveys his own personal fears and insecurities, pouring into his little wax bust emotions of apprehension and vulnerability. The feelings evoked in this piece pinpoint Rosso as a ‘Romantic’, and perhaps justify the categorisation of his work as “Impressionistic.”

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Medardo Rosso

Rosso only met his model briefly when the timid boy peeped out from behind a curtain in his father’s apartment in London. Emphasising these fleeting moments of life, Ecce Puer references modern technological developments resembling a camera snapshot, capturing a brief glimpse of the boy. Rosso furthers this notion using the unconventional material of wax. Unlike fixed materials such as marble and bronze, wax is malleable and subject to change depending on environmental climates. Rosso plays with this idea, bringing to his work a sense of real life degradation through time. This is revolutionary as Ecce Puer incorporates the concept of movement in an indirect way and realistically expresses the boy’s growth and development over time.

Unlike many of his contemporaries who use deep carving to create shadows and highlights to convey their subject’s features, Rosso models his sculpture here in light, using the wax as an absorbent material offering ethereal and elusive qualities to the work. Referencing the curtain to which the boy hid behind, Ecce Puer in its seemingly incomplete glory radiates a veiled spirituality through its softly blurred textures and shallow contours. (Cardinal, R., Medardo Rosso, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 136, No. 1094, The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd., (1994). The wax appears yellow and muddied as if the child’s skin is bruised, and will continue to discolour unpredictably over the years, adopting an element of chance and uncertainty. This inevitably captures the model’s fragility and transience, implying Rosso’s own inherent vulnerability when faced with changeability through time.

Intended to be viewed from a single point of focus instead of in the round, Ecce Puer emerges from a synthesis of memory and emotion. Along with it’s painterly qualities, this calls for a new mode of audience involvement that steps away from previous traditional sculptural practices. This singular and simple viewpoint suggests the naturalistic sense of purity one finds within this piece but contrasts to the complicated and tortured feelings it evokes. This culminates in a conflicted piece which initially appears simplistic in its traditional form and subject, but whose execution renders it a revolutionary vessel of expression.

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