From the time we first picked up tools, mankind has carved both functional and non-functional items from wood. While wood carving is generally more humble than other techniques, at times it breaks out into high art. In the Middle Ages, for example, wooden narrative sculpture was used extensively in churches, and the great Renaissance sculptor Donatello worked in wood as well as in stone and bronze.
Most wooden sculpture made before the 16th century was painted in color (or polychromed). These statues were prepped in the same way as wooden painting panels: an absorbent ground was applied, and then the colors were added in painstaking detail. Sadly, many of these sculptures were destroyed in the iconoclastic fury of the Protestant Reformation. Those that survived were often stripped in the 19th and 20th centuries, when there was a mistaken belief that originally they had been left plain.
We identify polychrome wooden sculpture with the medieval mindset because that was the period in which it flourished. Where we see ourselves (accurately or not) as rational, we perceive of medieval man as mystical, fervent, and sacramental. And generally we do so condescendingly, calling our ancestors things like illiterate, uneducated, or superstitious.
The polychrome sculpture form has quietly continued into the modern era, with techniques handed down through families. Italian sculptor Bruno Walpoth is from such a family, with a grandfather and uncle who were both professional carvers. Walpoth carves life-sized human figures from blocks of limewood, nut, birch or walnut, and paints them in polychrome, using acrylics instead of oils.
By working in a traditional way in a traditional medium, Walpoth can keep us completely focused on his message. But what does his work say? How does he reconcile woodcarving’s antiquity to our modern times?
His figures are haggard, their body language tense, and their eyes averted. Despite their contemporary couture (or lack of it), these people are not the final culmination of enlightenment ideals. In fact, they’re almost the embodiment of ennui and deep pessimism. Above all, they are inward-directed.
As portraits of our times, they tell us something profound: we’re not nearly as rational as we pretend. And for all the strictures, limitations and discomforts of the Middle Ages, setting Walpoth’s work against medieval masters makes me think we’re not as happy as our ancestors were, either. Walpoth’s figures have the intensity of the medieval mindset, without its joy.