Not long ago, saying “Medardo Rosso” (1858–1928) on this side of the Atlantic would usually provoke vague looks and noncommittal noises. Rosso is still not the most familiar name in the history of Modernism, yet today, at least in museum-going circles, there’s a good chance that he’ll be identified as a pioneering Italian Modernist sculptor. In part, this is because of the wide-ranging 2015 show of his work at New York’s Center for Italian Modern Art (cima) and this past spring’s exhibition of bronzes at Peter Freeman Gallery, Soho. Or we might hear “Wasn’t there something of his towards the end of ‘Unfinished’ at Met Breuer?” But artists almost always know who Rosso is and, for anyone engaged by the course of Modernism, he looms large. His sculptures, with their ambiguous images and richly inflected, light-responsive surfaces, are unlike anything made by even the most adventurous of his contemporaries. It’s not an overstatement to describe Rosso’s self-imposed mission as a paradoxical effort to make light dematerialize sculptural form. His deceptively casual, suggestive heads and (occasional) figures seem to emerge from inchoate matter under the pressure of our gaze, as if coming into being only temporarily, before dissolving into something unidentifiable once again. These remarkable works posit ideas about what sculpture could be, conceptually, formally, and technically, that were radically new in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and remain compelling today. Yet while Rosso is increasingly acclaimed by initiates, he remains less familiar to the general art-loving public than his striking originality would seem to warrant.

Rosso has always been problematic.

It can be argued, of course, that Rosso has always been problematic. His singular approach made him controversial in his own day—so much so that he left his native Italy to spend three decades in Paris, in pursuit of a more sympathetic reception. He was admired by artists, including Auguste Rodin, yet he was also overshadowed by the French master, who was almost a generation older and already a public institution by the time the younger Italian arrived in Paris, in 1889. In our own day, seeing sculpture by this maverick Modernist has required determination and a willingness to travel. European museums, mostly in Italy, have had examples of his work for some time (although not always on view), but very few American institutions did. To make things more difficult, even when Rosso was represented in a collection, it was often by a single sculpture, and large exhibitions, especially in the United States, were extremely infrequent—which is why the 2015 show at cima remains so memorable. His first major museum showing in the United States, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was in 1963, and it was not until four decades later, in 2003, that a sharply focused study of five of Rosso’s major themes was seen at the Harvard University Museums, in St. Louis, and in Dallas.

Now, however, through May 13, 2017, “Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form,” at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis, offers a spectacular overview of the achievement of this elusive master.1 Organized by Sharon Hecker, a leading international expert on Rosso, and the Pulitzer’s Associate Curator, Tamara H. Schenkenberg, it’s the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work presented to date by an American museum. Twenty-six works made between 1882 and 1906, in various materials, drawn from public and private collections across Europe and the United States, many of them rarely exhibited and several mounted on Rosso’s own bases, make clear the evolution of the artist’s imagery, his use of repetition, and his inventive explorations of technical possibilities. It’s a more complete retrospective than these dates suggest; in the latter part of his working life, Rosso developed no new motifs, but instead tested the limits of variation by manipulating and sometimes subtly altering older images and casting them in different materials. The exhibition’s multiple versions of several motifs, in different materials, accentuate this aspect of Rosso’s process, during his most productive period.

The emphasis is on his decades in Paris, the most significant part of his career, but there are also important examples of works from his early years in Milano. There’s an ample, interesting group of drawings (as there was at cima), although few are direct preparations for sculptures. More revealing is the selection of Rosso’s photographs of his sculptures (again, as there was at cima). He was, like his friend and neighbor in Paris Edgar Degas, an early enthusiast of the medium. Unlike the cima show, which stressed Rosso’s photographs as independent compositions (he often used his sculptures as protagonists in views of interiors), the photos at the Pulitzer Foundation show him concentrating on the effects of light on form. These often eccentrically cropped images suggest how Rosso wanted his works to be approached and studied—which frequently turns out to be from unexpected, sometimes oblique viewpoints. These suggestions are honored by the installation at the Pulitzer; while just about all the pieces can be seen from all sides, our initial encounter is often from the angle dictated by the artist’s photographs.

The Pulitzer Foundation’s elegant Tadeo Ando building, with its beautifully proportioned galleries and floods of subtle light, sometimes reflected off the shallow pool outside, is an ideal setting for these modest-sized, expressively textured sculptures. The near-domestic scale of the galleries allows us to develop a close relationship with the works, at the same time that we are permitted occasional long views, while the exquisitely crafted, silken, pale concrete of Ando’s walls provides a sensuous contrast to the inflected surfaces of Rosso’s sculptures. The unstable daylight of the ground floor exhibition spaces seems to have been purposely devised for the installation, but even the works in the artificially lit lower level galleries look fine. And thanks to an interactive panel, we can even adjust the lighting on a bronze cast of the enigmatic Ecce Puer (Behold the Child) (1906), sharpening or blurring the minimally indicated face conjured up behind a transparent, pleated “veil,” now accentuating the delicate striations that obscure the child’s soft features, now heightening our awareness of mass and bulk. Rosso probably would have loved this, given his appetite for technological innovation and, as the informative catalogue reminds us, the fact that the start of his life as an artist coincided with the change from gaslight to electric light.

It’s this quality of elusiveness that distinguishes Rosso’s work.

The exhibition begins with Portinaia (Concierge) (1883–84), the downward-turned head of a notably ordinary woman, the lower part of her face almost buried by the hints of her chest and hunched shoulders. Made while Rosso was still in Milan, before he left for Paris, the piece reads at once as both notably lifelike and extremely free. We are in the presence of someone we would recognize, despite the absence of conventional details. The translucency of the wax implies the character of flesh, but the modeling of the woman’s blunt features is so relaxed and broad that the vivid characterization of a familiar urban figure seems ephemeral. It’s this quality of elusiveness—a sense of disembodiment that we would expect impossible for figurative sculpture in the round to achieve—that distinguishes Rosso’s work. There’s nothing comparable until Alberto Giacometti’s attenuated figures appear to make the space around them as significant as the sculptures themselves. The sensation is rather like seeing things in the dark; if we look directly at an object, absent light, it becomes unintelligible, but if we look slightly away, we gain a sense of what is there, at the edge of our sensory capabilities. Rosso appears to present us with momentary glimpses of his subjects, fragments of perception temporarily stilled, but not entirely clarified.

A group of the sculptor’s sometimes irregularly shaped photographs of Portinaia, made under different kinds of lighting and from different angles, intensifies our impressions, so that when we approach the next works on view, three versions of the mysterious, early Carne altrui (Flesh of Others) (all 1883–84), in different materials, we are sensitized to the various ways bronze, plaster, and wax react to light, as well as to the differences in cropping and the angle of presentation of each version. The close-up head of a young, sleeping prostitute, surrounded by forms that suggest both an embrace and bedding, changes dramatically, depending on the properties of the material in which it is cast. We will see this repeatedly. Rosso continually recycled images, casting them himself in different materials (and inviting his admirers to witness these “performances”). He often altered the original motif in some way each time, changing, for example, the proportions of the elements supporting a head or bust, and reveling in the unplanned variations created by “imperfections” in the resulting casts: rough edges, mold-marks, interruptions in the flow of molten bronze, fluid wax, or liquid plaster, all of which conventional foundries would have carefully eliminated. As the catalogue points out, it is this visible memory of a complex, imperfect method that creates the nervous surfaces of Rosso’s sculptures, not, as in the work of Rodin, the action of the hand. Rosso’s emphasis on materiality and process (which he shared with both Rodin and Degas) is part of his modernity. His use of wax and plaster for finished works is, in itself, a refutation of established assumptions about sculpture and a declaration for the modern. Both wax and plaster, traditionally, are materials used in preparing works to be cast in bronze, not adopted for their own qualities. Rosso was thoroughly familiar with foundry procedures; the bronzes he made in Milan were cast by professionals there, from whom he learned enough to do his own casting later on. But he rejected traditional methods, just as he did traditional standards of finish.

Rosso’s sculptures’ often startling lack of full three-dimensionality is another challenge to the expected. Some of his most apparently volumetric works seem, on longer acquaintance, to have only two and a half dimensions. In the nearly abstract bronze version of the Paris-period Enfant au sein (Child at the Breast) (late 1889–90), the child is a rounded, head-like mass, pressed against the mother’s swelling breast. (A photograph of a plaster version shows the mother complete with head and shoulders; the dramatic alteration in the sculpture’s focus subverts the literal and heightens emotion.) From a frontal view, the image, while fragmentary, appears relatively solid, but we soon discover that Enfant au sein, like many of Rosso’s most eloquent works, is hollow and relief-like—a revelation of the history of its making and of the artifice of representation, in general, that intensifies the effect of transience. Rosso sometimes subverts this sense of the insubstantial by filling the hollow backs of his relief-like sculptures with masses of plaster, emphasizing three-dimensional presence but doing little to increase naturalism.

Some works, such as Enfant au sein, are so elusive that it’s difficult to imagine how they were seen at the time they were made. Others, such as the head Bambino ebreo (Jewish Boy) (1892–94), are fairly explicit. We learn that Rosso thought particularly highly of Bambino ebreo, selling more casts of the work than any of his other Parisian sculptures and giving examples to friends, critics, and collectors. Knowing this should make us value Rosso’s more naturalistic images more highly, but to present-day eyes, other works dominate. Witness Une Conversation (A Conversation) (1892–99), a fully three-dimensional group of three barely suggested figures, two seated women and a standing man. This extraordinary plaster verges on abstractness, yet somehow the proportions and rhythms of the rough-hewn elements, pulled out of a connecting horizontal mass, allow us to interpret them as rapid, soft-focus allusions to particular characters at a particular moment in time. The small, intense Malato al ospedale (Sick Man in the Hospital) (1889), with its slumped figure merged into single, tense, expressive form with the chair, is another standout. So is the astonishing portrait Madame Noblet (ca. 1897–98), a roughly shaped plaster block in which we, almost unwillingly, read an improbably specific face, hair, and a suggestion of clothing; a lump becomes a shoulder. Equally extreme is another head of a child, Enfant à la bouchée de pain (Child in the Soup Kitchen) (1892–97), a bronze, in which Rosso has deliberately retained traces of the plaster used in casting, turning the pale, loose patches on the surround from which the child’s face emerges into a near-painterly evocation of steam-filled air. Leonardo da Vinci, comparing painting and sculpture, claimed sculpture to be the inferior art, since it could show only the shapes of things, not effects of transparency and atmosphere. Unlike the sculptor, Leonardo wrote, the painter “can depict mists through which the shapes of things can only be discerned with difficulty.” The best of Rosso’s fascinating, visually hard-to-grasp, compelling sculptures can read as having been designed to prove his distinguished compatriot and predecessor wrong.

“Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form” will not be seen anywhere but the Pulitzer Arts Foundation. While other shows (and collections) have relied on authorized posthumously cast bronzes, made under the supervision of the artist’s son, this exhibition includes only works made in Rosso’s lifetime, usually entirely by himself. The extreme fragility of many sculptures on view makes it remarkable that they were able to travel in the first place. For anyone who cares about modern sculpture—or about good art, in general—the exhibition is not to be missed. Book a trip to St. Louis before mid-May.

1 “Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form” opened at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis, on November 11, 2016 and remains on view through May 13, 2017.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 6, on page 44
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