Art Term Tuesday: Relief Sculpture

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

Relief sculpture, one of the oldest forms of art, appears to be straightforward but there are actually multiple processes to achieve this technique. The name for this ancient art form comes from the Latin verb relevo, which means “to raise” – not “to reveal”, as I’d initially assumed, as the artist does reveal the sculpture as they cut away from the rock. In general, this technique involves creating 3D motifs that are raised but still attached to their 2D background of the same material. This makes it different from an assembled sculpture or collage, as those mediums involve attaching, or building up, from an initial structure.

When most people think of relief sculpture, they likely think about a work of art that is mostly flat, and likely on the side of an old building – like statues on the side of cathedrals. There are, however, three different types of relief sculpture: low relief, high relief, and incised relief.

Low relief, also known as bas-relief, describes sculptural motifs that are only slightly raised above the surface. One of the best examples of an early low relief is the Warka Vase. The Warka Vase is a 3-foot high alabaster vase from Uruk (modern-day Warka), Iraq, and dates from 3,200 – 3,000 BCE. One of the earliest examples of narrative relief sculpture, we can see people presenting offerings to the Sumerian goddess Inanna. We can tell that this is low relief as the figures are barely raised from their background.

Four alabaster vases show cutouts of people and the gifts they bring, of food and animals, to the Sumerian goddess Inanna.
Warka Vase. Uruk, Iraq, ca. 3200-3000BCE. Alabaster. Currently found in the National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad, Iraq.

Next there is high relief, or alto-relief, where the sculpted figures project at least half or more of their natural circumference from the background. This means that the sculptural scene itself literally extends into the viewer’s space, resulting in a much more dynamic work of art. As we can see in our example, below, the higher the relief, the more likely that it will not survive the dangers of history. In this sculpture, Lapith Versus Centaur, a 4-foot high metope from the south side of the Parthenon, Acropolis in Athens, Greece, dating to 447-438 BCE, we can see how high relief sculpture is at the mercy of time and its detriments, like war and weather. While we can still feel the dynamism of the scene as a centaur defeats a Greek soldier, his arm and legs, which once extended into the air, are almost completely broken off. Despite this, we can still see the exciting scene that was once portrayed in the facial expressions and movement of the remaining parts.

A centaur rests his fist atop a kneeling man, as the kneeling man's fist makes contact with the centaurs muscled stomach. Due to time, the centaurs stone arms and legs, which would have come off the background, have fallen off.
Lapith Versus Centaur. Metope from the south side of the Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens, Greece, ca. 447-438 BCE. Marble. Currently found in the British Museum, London, England.

The third and final form of relief sculpture, sunken or incised relief, is historically found almost exclusively in ancient Egypt, as it was the preferred method for adding hieroglyphs to structures and sculptures. In his current exhibition at FWMoA, Static Energy: Sculpture by Dale Enochs, the artist takes contemporary incised relief to new heights (or depths). Enochs works primarily in limestone, which he covers in hand-carved designs, images, and script. While traditional sunken relief leaves the higher level smooth and untouched, Enochs adds texture to every surface of his sculptures. In Alchemical Study, below, Enochs has large areas of seemingly smooth surface, but upon closer inspection we see that these too were etched and scratched. This results in a highly textured and intriguing surface for the eye to travel over, winding down all of the peaks and valleys. This sculpture also toes the line of having high relief elements where large sections of the sculpture were removed. But, as there isn’t an obvious sculptural element to these sections, is it more of simple subtraction?

We can see Enochs’ mastery of this traditional skill, showing us that, even though it’s been around for centuries, there are still ways to reinterpret its application. If you’d like to see more of Dale Enochs’ work, in addition to his two works on permanent display in the FWMoA atrium, his exhibition Static Energy will be open from September 5, 2020 – March 12, 2021.

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