Monumental Art

Monumental Art


a branch of the plastic arts embracing a broad range of works created to harmonize with a specific architectural environment both in theme and in structural and chromatic design. Monumental art includes monuments, architectural ornamentation (sculpture, painting, and mosaics), stained glass, public sculpture, and fountains. (Some writers also consider architecture to be a form of monumental art.)

Representational compositions created for the facade or interior of a building, as well as monuments erected in public squares, are usually intended to embody and to acquaint the broad masses with the most general social and philosophical ideas of the time or to perpetuate the memory of an eminent person or important event. Forming a synthesis with architecture, works of monumental art give expression to the idea contained in a building, ensemble, or architecturally organized space. Often they are relatively self-contained and are the dominant part of an ensemble. A striving to express lofty ideas dictates the majestic language of their artistic forms and their scalar relationship to man, to surrounding objects and space, and to the natural environment.

A number of works of monumental art are not particularly ideological and usually play a complementary role in architecture, decoratively organizing the surfaces of walls, ceilings, and facades. Two series of frescoes by Raphael in the Vatican—those in the Stanze and those in the loggias—exemplify the two types of monumental art. In the Stanze frescoes, which are marked by philosophical reflection upon the world and upon the greatness of humanity, the representational element predominates. The frescoes in the loggias are ornamental, bordering on the decorative (a tendency that is sometimes called monumental decorative art). There exists no sharp boundary between these two types of monumental works.

Throughout the history of art various techniques have been used to achieve a relationship between monumental art and architecture, ranging from the repetition in a painting or sculpture of the articulations and rhythms of a building to the use of devices that contrast with a building’s structure. For example, the wall painting in the Roman houses of Pompeii include those that are flat and ornamental and those that create spatial illusions and visually disguise the flatness of the wall. Along with “inscribing “monumental compositions inside architectural members (for example, the pediments, friezes, and metopes of ancient Greek temples), architectural surfaces are often embellished with ornamental facings (for example, medieval Middle Asian buildings, with facades covered with glazed tiles; 17th-century wall and ceiling paintings in Russian churches). The selection of one or the other type of decoration depends on the artist’s outlook and on the general character of the prevailing art style.

The development of monumental art is particularly active when the artistic culture of an era is imbued with a strong affirmation of positive social values.

The sources of monumental art go back to primitive society. Menhirs, cultic statues, and cave paintings embodied primitive man’s concepts of the power of natural forces and recorded him at work. With the appearance of social classes, social relationships became the determining factor in monumental art. The principles of monumentality and permanence that prevailed in ancient Egyptian art were, under the conditions of a slaveholding society, supposed to reinforce the immobility of the social order and the deification of the ruler’s personality (for example, the Great Sphinx of Giza); but in a historically conditioned form these principles also symbolized concepts concerning the power of human reason and the triumph of the human collective over the forces of nature.

Works of monumental art imbued with faith in human beauty and dignity were produced during the height of ancient Greek slaveholding democracy (for example, the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon in Athens). In realistic forms these works embodied the humanistic ideals of the ancient Greek city-state.

The Gothic cathedral, with its pictorial and sculptural ornamentation, expressed not only the medieval religious-dogmatic view of the world and ideas of a social and church hierarchy engendered by the feudal system but also the growing self-awareness of the cities and the enthusiasm for labor possessed by the members of the urban commune (for example, the sculptural ornamentation of the cathedrals at Rheims, Chartres, and Naumburg).

The nationwide spiritual upsurge in Italy during the High Renaissance (late 15th through the first third of the 16th century) was fully expressed in works of monumental art. These works are marked by their breadth of social commentary and are filled with titanic power and intense drama (for example, Michelangelo’s statue David and frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel).

From the late 16th to the mid-18th century the political and intellectual life of a number of countries of Europe and South America was graphically reflected in baroque monumental art. Although closely tied to the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the church, and intended to glorify their power and awaken religious feelings, baroque monumental art also reflected the era’s progressive concepts about the world’s changeability and unceasing development (for example, the sculptures and frescoes in mid-18th-century Italian palaces and churches or the sculptures of L. Bernini).

The upsurge in national self-consciousness and the increasing influence of the ideas of the Enlightenment in France and Russia were reflected in Russian neoclassical monumental art of the second half of the 18th and first third of the 19th century. For example, the works by the sculptors F. F. Shchedrin, I. P. Martos, and V. I. Demut-Malinovskii were imbued with patriotic fervor and humanism and marked by simplicity and clarity of purpose and artistic language.

By the mid-19th century, with the development of bourgeois society, the gulf increased between universally significant ideas and concepts, on the one hand, and actual capitalist reality, on the other. This gulf led to the decline of monumental art and destroyed the synthesis and ideological-artistic unity between architecture and monumental art. Stylistic eclecticism and the use of past stylistic forms—characteristic features of the architecture of the period—appeared in monumental art as well.

Monumental art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries developed along complex, contradictory paths. The monumental paintings of M. A. Vrubel’, F. Hodler, and M. Denis were closely related in style to art nouveau architecture. In the early 20th century, tectonically conceived monumental sculpture reappeared (A. Maillol and E. A. Bourdelle).

On the whole, monumental art has undergone profound changes in the 20th century. It reflects the contradictions accompanying the decline of bourgeois civilization, as well as revolutionary turmoil and the affirmation of the new socialistic social order. Purely formal experimentation and the intensification of aesthetic subjectivism, leading to the separation of art from reality, proved scarcely favorable for the development of monumental art; the rapid progress of technology and the dehumanization of art in capitalist countries set in motion the decline of monumental art in the industrialized, materialistic environment (leading to the exclusion of monumental art from the sphere of everyday social life). At the same time, the struggle against fascism, imperialism, and colonial oppression, as well as the growth of social and national liberation movements, led to a revival of monumental art and lent it passion and conviction.

Twentieth-century monumental art is characterized by its sharp topical orientation and its personal, emotional approach to the development of themes, which often becomes a class-based evaluation of the event being depicted (for example, the works of the Mexican monumentalist artists; the frescoes in buildings in Communist municipalities in Italy and France).

In socialist society, monumental art is continuing the traditions of the great masters of the past who affirmed the ideas of humanism. It is called upon to participate in the active transformation of reality. Under socialism, monumental art, liberated from the need to serve the interests of the exploiting classes, fully reveals its democratic social element. Socialist society has given monumental art new content and has expanded its sphere of action to the scale of whole cities and major social and industrial complexes.

As early as 1918 the Lenin plan for monument propaganda was implemented. High ideological and artistic quality distinguishes the monumental sculpture of N. A. Andreev, V. I. Mukhina, I. D. Shadr, S. D. Merkurov, and M. G. Manizer, as well as the monumental painting of E. E. Lansere, V. A. Favorskii, P. D. Korin, and A. A. Deineka. In the 1960’s monumental art became an essential element of memorial architecture (in Salaspils, 1961–67, sculptors L. V. Bukovskii, J. Zarinš, and others; at the Mamaev Burial Mound in Volgograd, 1963–67, sculptors E. V. Vuchetin and others; and in Khatyn’, 1968–69). In socialist society, prerequisites have been established so that monumental art may become an important component in an ideologically permeated, artistically organized environment for the daily work and social activities of the people.


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