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Probably one of the most durable forms of art, sculptures have been captivating our imagination for thousands of years. Sculptures can be very intricate pieces and represent anything from human beings to abstract forms.
Being such a popular expressive form in art, we decided to dedicate this post to one of humanity’s favorite forms of artistic expression. Here are some of the world’s most captivating sculptural pieces of art and what makes them great.
The Angel of the North
The Angel of the North is a 1998 piece by Antony Gormley exhibited in England is currently the largest sculpture in the country. Although originally frowned upon by the locals when it was set up, nowadays it is considered as one of Britain’s most iconic pieces of public art.
The height of the sculptures is 20 meters, or 65.6 feet, and represents an angel made out of metal, hinting at the regions rich industrial history where mines were operational for centuries.
The Angel of the North also symbolizes a sort of change from this industrial age into an informational age. Interestingly, the sculpture of the Angel is based on a cast of the artist’s own body.
Venus of Willendorf
Venus of Willendorf is a figurine not taller than 12 centimeters. It is one of the oldest figurines found in existence and it is believed to be around 25,000 years old. It was discovered in lower Austria and was made of limestone.
The Venus figurine is kept in Vienna. While it’s exact origins or uses is unknown, it’s speculate that the figuring could represent an early European mother goddess or a fertility figurine since the female features on the sculpture are exaggerated.
While the Venus of Willendorf is the most famous, there are roughly 40 similar smaller figurines from that period that have been found up until the early 21st century.
The Bust of Nefertiti
The bust of Nefertiti was created in 1345 BCE by Thutmose. It was discovered in 1912 by the German Oriental Society, and its present location is in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. This is probably one of the world’s most famous sculptures because even the most delicate features of the sculpture have been preserved for thousands of years.
Nefertiti’s facial features are very detailed and her bust represents a stark portrait of one of the most revered figures in Egyptian history. The detail and the colors are stunningly clear, even though the bust is missing its left eye. There are many speculations as to why this is – perhaps Nefertiti may have lost her left eye due to an infection, or the quartz of the iris had fallen out due to damage over the years.
Although most of the Egyptian rulers also had similar busts, what separates this bust from others is that it is so naturalistic and realistic.
Venus de Milo
Venus de Milo is an ancient sculpture from the Hellenistic period of Greece and one of the most famous sculptures to come out of ancient Greece. The marble sculpture is currently located in the Louvre Museum, where it has been since 1820.
Historians and art experts believe that the statue represents Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. Venus de Milo is still admired for the attention to detail and the beauty of the marble, despite the fact that the statue is missing both its arms.
It is hard to imagine any other sculpture that has become such an important part of our culture and that has been so culturally referenced as Venus de Milo.
Pietà by Michelangelo, believed to have been sculpted in 1498, is a Renaissance masterpiece located in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. This marble sculpture is perhaps Michelangelo’s greatest sculptural work depicting the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, holding her son after the crucifixion.
The detail of the sculpture is stunning, as well as Michelangelo’s ability to create emotion out of marble. For example, notice the folds of Mary’s robe, which appears like folds of satin. Michelangelo was able to balance naturalism with the ideals of classical beauty, popular at the time.
In terms of the subject matter, Michelangelo had achieved something quite novel, as never before had Jesus and the Virgin Mary been depicted in such a manner. Another interesting detail that is often overlooked is that Michelangelo decided to portray a very youthful Virgin Mary, symbolizing her purity.
David by Michelangelo is one of the greatest Italian sculptural masterpieces. Sculpted between 1501 and 1504, this marble statue depicts the biblical figure, David, as he prepares to meet the giant Goliath in battle. This was the first time an artist had decided to portray David before the battle, rather than during or after.
Michelangelo managed to sway the Renaissance world of Florence with his depiction. The sculpture is perfectly detailed, down to David’s veins and tense muscles, something rarely seen on this level of perfection. The sculpture also captures David’s movements and muscular tension that was lauded for its anatomical correctness.
The Buddhas of Bamiyan
The Buddhas of Bamiyan were six-century statues of Gautama Buddha and Vairocana Buddha carved inside a massive cliff in Afghanistan, not far away from Kabul.
The Bamiyan Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but unfortunately it was heavily damaged after the Taliban militias declared the Buddhas to be idols and bombed them to rubble.
It is still unknown whether these sculptures will ever be rebuilt. Many art conservators consider that their absence should serve as a monument to the importance of preserving historical heritage against extremism.
The Non-Violence Sculpture
The Non-Violence Sculpture is exhibited in front of the headquarters of the United Nations in New York. The sculpture is also known as the Knotted Gun and was completed in 1985 by Swedish sculptor Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd. It represents an oversized Colt revolver tied in a knot, signifying the end of war. It was donated to the United Nations and became an iconic landmark at the Headquarters.
The Balloon Dog by Jeff Koons is a stainless-steel sculpture featuring a balloon dog. Koons is known for depicting objects, especially balloon animals, with a mirror-like surface. Koon has stated that he wanted to create a work that would represent the joys of celebration.
Koon’s sculptures, especially the balloon dog, are infamous for being outrageously expensive, but regardless of whether you consider his artist kitsch or self-merchandising, the Balloon Dog has definitely managed to secure its place among the ranks of some of the most interesting sculptures in the world. In 2013, his orange Balloon Dog sold for 58.4 million. The Balloon Dog is the world’s most expensive artwork sold by a living artist.
The Benin Bronzes
The Benin Bronzes are not one sculpture but a group of more than 1000 different sculptures from the Kingdom of Benin that existed in what we know today as Nigeria. The Benin sculptures are probably the most well-known examples of African sculpture, renowned for the attention to detail and meticulous artistic effort that has been developing since the 13th century. They inspired greater appreciation for African art in European circles.
Besides their aesthetic quality, the Benin Bronzes have become a symbol of British colonialism, given that they were taken from their homeland by British forces that came on expeditions and took hundreds of pieces. Many of the Benin Bronzes are still kept at the British Museum in London.
The Little Mermaid of Copenhagen
The Little Mermaid of Copenhagen is a statue by Edvard Eriksen depicting a mermaid transforming into a human. This sculpture is probably the most famous landmark in Denmark and despite being a rather small sculpture (it’s only 1.25 meters, or 4.1 ft. tall) it has become a symbol of Denmark and Copenhagen ever since it was unveiled in 1913.
The statue is based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote the famous tale about a little mermaid who falls in love with a human prince. Unfortunately, the Little Mermaid has been a target of vandalism, especially political vandalism and activism and has been restored many times.
The Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty is perhaps America’s most well-known and beloved landmark. Situated in New York City, the Statue of Liberty was a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States. It represents freedom and liberty.
The statue represents the Roman liberty goddess Libertas as she holds her arm above her head, clasping a torch in her right hand and a tablet with a date of the U.S. Declaration of Independence written on it in her left hand.
At the bottom of the sculpture is a set of broken shackles and chains, symbolizing the decision to end slavery in the United States. For decades, the Statue of Liberty has been greeting immigrants that arrived from afar to the land of opportunities and freedom.
Manneken Pis, which is the statue of a urinating boy, is Brussel’s most famous landmark. Although a very small statue, this popular bronze piece depicts a naked boy urinating into the fountain below.
Manneken Pis is quite an old statue and has been in its place since the early 17th century. It has been an important symbol for Belgium and the citizens of Brussels, symbolizing their openness to freedom, independence of ideas, and a very distinct sense of humor that can only be found amongst the residents of Brussels.
Manneken Pis is probably one of the most unique sculptures in the world, given that it is a tradition to dress the Manneken in costumes several times each week. His costumes are carefully chosen and there are even competitions to design a costume for Manneken Pis.
Despite its very naïve-sounding nature, Manneken Pis is an important diplomatic tool for Belgium and the European Union as it is often dressed up in national costumes of various countries on special occasions.
The Great Terracotta Army
The Great Terracotta Army is perhaps one of China’s greatest wonders and one of the most surprising archaeological discoveries ever found. The Army was discovered in 1974 and represents a vast body of sculptures displaying different soldiers, found in the tomb of Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.
It’s believed that the Terracotta Army was placed in the tomb of the emperor to protect him after his death. There’s speculated that over 8000 sculptures were commissioned for this purpose, including more than 600 horses and 130 chariots. The Terracotta Army is known for its great attention to detail. Most of the soldiers are life-sized and their costumes are very detailed and equipped with weapons.
It did not take too long to discover that the Terracotta Army was not handmade and that it is very likely that the craftsman used molds. Archaeologists noticed that ten repetitive distinct facial features keep reappearing throughout the collection. Although still very visually dominating, the Terracotta Army was one covered in vivid bright colors, which have been lost to time.
Laocoön and His Sons
Laocoön and His Sons is a statue by several sculptors, all from the island of Rhodes in Greece. It was discovered in Rome in 1506 where it is still on display in the Vatican Museums, Vatican City.
The statue is famous for its life-like size and depiction of human characters, portraying the royal priest Laocoön and his two sons as they are being attacked by sea snakes.
It is very unusual for that period of Greek art to display such an abundance of raw emotion, fear, and shock on faces. The sculpture depicts emotion on the faces of the priest and his sons as their bodies move in agony, giving it a lifelike appeal.
The sculpture has been also depicted as probably one of the earliest and most well-captured Western depictions of human agony, done even before crucified Christ started to become represented in painting and sculpture.
The Little 14-Year-Old Dancer
The Little 14-Year-Old Dancer by Edgar Degas is a well-known sculptural masterpiece. Edgar Degas was originally a painter, but he was also skilled at his sculptural work and caused quite a radical transformation in the sculpture world.
The Little 14-Year-Old Dancer was sculpted out of wax and then bronze copies of the figure were made by the artist. What truly separated this piece from anything done up until that point is that Degas chose to dress the girl in a costume for ballet and gave it a wig. Obviously, this raised a lot of eyebrows in the world of sculpture and the Parisian artistic scenes in 1881.
Still, this is not where the story of Degas’s sculptural skills end. Degas mysteriously chose not to display his sculptural pieces, so it was not and until after his death that the world found out that more than 150 of his sculptures were left behind. These sculptures depict various objects but follow his radical style. Until his death, Degas only ever displayed The Little 14-Year-Old Dancer.
The Guitar by Pablo Picasso is a 1912 piece that depicts a guitar. The piece was initially developed with carboard and then reworked with sheet metal pieces. When assembled, the result was a guitar depicted in a very unusual way.
Picasso made sure that the whole sculpture looks like it’s shifting from 2D to 3D. It’s an exceptional example of his work in Cubism where he used very flat shapes to depict different depths in volume. In addition, he ushered in a new era of radical sculpture, by deciding to fashion his piece not out of a solid mass but instead by assembling different parts into a structure.
The Discus Thrower – Discobolus
The Discus Thrower is another famous statue from the classical Greek period. The statue depicts a young, male athlete throwing a disc. Sadly, the original sculpture was never preserved, and it was likely lost. The current depictions of the discus thrower probably came from Roman copies of the original.
As is the case with Greek sculpture, the Discus Thrower is a lifelike depiction of determination, human movement, and emotion. The disc thrower is depicted at the peak of his athletic energy, in a dramatic movement. There has been much debate over whether his stature is anatomically correct for this type of movement.
The Charging Bull
The Charging Bull, also known as the Bull of Wall Street, is a famous sculpture that stands in the bustling financial district in Manhattan, New York. This heavy sculpture depicts a huge, intimidating bull in movement, symbolizes the aggressiveness with which the financial world governs everything. The sculpture also represents a sense of optimism and prosperity.
The Charging Bull is perhaps one of the most popular landmarks of New York, with thousands of people visiting it daily. Interestingly, the sculpture was not always a permanent installation. It was first installed in 1989 illegally by sculptor Arturo di Modica, and after several attempts by the New York Police to remove the sculpture, it was allowed to remain where it stands today.
Yayoi Kusama is a famous Japanese artist and sculptor, considered one of the most influential artists living today. She has completely redefined and shaken the foundations of art as we know it.
Kusama spent many years in New York where she was introduced to the avant-garde scene of the city in the 1960s however, her work was not really recognized in the United States. It was not until she started experimenting with her famous pumpkin sculptures that she truly achieved artistic greatness.
Kusama is known for the use of bright, repetitive polka dot patterns. She covers her gigantic pumpkins with polka dots to try to eliminate intrusive thoughts. Her pumpkin sculptures are highly conceptual but tackle topics like abstract expressionism, pop art, sex, feminism, and so on. These pumpkins are an invitation to the viewer to sympathize with the artist’s internal struggles, making them one of the most vulnerable and honest sculptural installations of the late 20th century.
Sculptures are one of the earliest and most popular forms of artistic expression, that reflects that context of its time. The above list is by no means an exhaustive one, but it highlights some of the most popular and appreciated sculptural artworks from around the world.