Hyperrealism in Sculpture

Moses by legendary sculptor Michelangelo pictured close up.

Sculpture is perhaps one of the most opportune forms of art to explore realism and hyperrealism. Three-dimensional artworks allow for the replication of the human body and its endless intricacies. Sculptors working in realism often study the human body and observe human models as they work, allowing them to capture the nuances of the subject’s skin and body. For example, many works of Renaissance sculptors feature realistic anatomy, such as Michelangelo’s Moses from the tomb of Pope Julius II. As a highly skilled creator, Michelangelo blended the world of anatomy and art by making the extensor digiti minimi muscle tissue pronounced in the sculpture’s forearm. This small muscle only becomes pronounced like this when the pinky finger is lifted, showing the artist’s knowledge of human anatomy and attention to detail and realism. This makes Michelangelo’s statue feel incredibly human, as if the nearly eight-foot-tall sculpture shares the same intricate muscular system as its viewers.

Another sculpture that demonstrates artistic realism and attention to detail is The Rape of Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Baroque sculpture depicts the Roman mythological story of the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto, who seizes the young goddess and takes her to the underworld. The sculpture is praised for Bernini’s skillful usage of the myth’s subject matter. Pluto’s fingers sink into Proserpina’s flesh as he violently takes her against her will. Bernini transforms the marble into the skin by portraying Proserpina’s skin as it is clutched by her attacker. Additionally, the sculpture features Proserpina’s tears as they stream down her face, displaying her despair.

Around the mid-20th century, a new artistic movement in sculpture began. Hyperrealist sculptors began creating sculptures that resemble high-resolution photographs or even actual people. The movement bridged together wax figurine art, scale modeling, and the realism in sculptures from centuries past to create a brand new era of sculpture. These sculptures are created using different materials, such as polyester and fiberglass, to simulate human skin and hair. Hyperrealist sculptures are breathtaking, as their heightened realism creates artwork that is highly detailed and lifelike.

The Rape of Proserpina
The Rape of Proserpina

One of the most prominent artists of hyperrealist sculpture is Ron Mueck. Mueck’s art, upon being featured in an exhibition organized by the Cartier Foundation in 2013, shed light on the astounding detail of hyperrealistic sculptures. Born in Australia in 1958, Mueck began his work at a young age, as his family’s business was in puppetry and doll-making. Mueck first gained public attention in the late 1990s with his debut sculpture Dead Dad. Dead Dad embodies the artist’s personal loss of his dad. Mueck created the sculpture of his nude late father using both his memory and imagination. The sculpture is simultaneously lifelike and lifeless, allowing Mueck to explore the parent-child bond and the realities of death. Conversely, Mueck explored birth and life with his trio of sculptures inspired by maternity and womanhood: Mother and Child, Pregnant Woman, and Woman with Shopping. Together, the collection tells a story of motherhood: the pregnant woman with her hands outstretched in exhaustion, the mother cradling a newborn on her bare stomach after birth, and a sleep-deprived new mother weighed down by duty and responsibility.

Hyperrealist sculpture, contemporarily mastered by Ron Mueck.
Hyperrealist sculptures, contemporarily mastered by Ron Mueck.

American artist Duane Hanson (1925-1996) created figures that appear lethargic and disengaged from their backgrounds. Hanson radically challenged social issues of his time through his artistic portrayal of the human condition. The realism of Hanson’s work was created using his “lifecasting” technique, in which the artist applied strips of plaster directly onto live models’ bodies. From there, the body parts were filled with resin, assembled, and expertly painted with oil or acrylic. The sculptures were then clothed, wigged, and surrounded by mundane objects of the everyday. His hyperrealist technique allowed him to tackle issues like the Vietnam War and American consumerism through his work. For example, Supermarket Shopper features a woman grocery shopping, her cart piled high with TV dinners, and her hair still in rollers. Supermarket Shopper reflects the loneliness and mundaneness of American life in the 20th century.

Duane Hanson, Almost Alive. Image courtesy of Gagosian website.
Duane Hanson, Almost Alive. Image courtesy of Gagosian website.
John De Andrea hyperrealistic nude sculpture.
John De Andrea hyperrealistic nude sculpture.

Another American sculptor, John De Andrea, specializes in hyperrealistic romantic nudes. Born in Denver in 1941, De Andrea creates both female and multifigural sculptures. De Andrea works with fiberglass, polyester resin, polyvinyl acetate, as well as human hair, accentuating the realism of his pieces. His figures are not involved in aspects of mundane life, but rather delicately posed and draped, evoking classical sculpture of centuries past.

Hyperrealistic sculpture is a breathtaking glance into the human condition. By perfecting each detail of human anatomy with striking realism, these artists can execute social commentary about the state of the world and our lives. Each pore, each hair, and each muscle are depicted accurately and precisely, creating a breathtaking work with unique skill, charm, and emotion.

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