Watch a Masterpiece Emerge from a Solid Block of Stone

As a younger per­son, I became enthralled with the art-his­tor­i­cal nov­els of Irv­ing Stone, espe­cial­ly The Agony and the Ecsta­sy, his fic­tion­al­ized biog­ra­phy of Michelan­ge­lo. Few books live up to their title so well — Stone’s Michelan­ge­lo is a tumult of pas­sion and pain, a Roman­tic hero tai­lor-made for those who believe artis­tic cre­ation tran­scends almost any oth­er act. Stone describes Michelangelo’s sculp­ture emerg­ing from the mar­ble ful­ly-formed in a cre­ation imbued with so much sex­u­al ener­gy, some pas­sages may need adult super­vi­sion:

It was like pen­e­trat­ing deep into white mar­ble with the pound­ing live thrust of his chis­el beat­ing upward through the warm liv­ing mar­ble with one ”Go!”, his whole body behind the heavy ham­mer, pen­e­trat­ing through ever deep­er and deep­er fur­rows of soft yield­ing liv­ing sub­stance until he had reached the explo­sive cli­max, and all of his flu­id strength, love, pas­sion, desire had been poured into the nascent form, and the mar­ble block, made to love the hand of the true sculp­tor, and respond­ed, giv­ing of its inner heat and sub­stance and flu­id form, until at last the sculp­tor and the mar­ble had total­ly coa­lesced, so deeply pen­e­trat­ing and infus­ing each oth­er that they had become one, mar­ble and man and organ­ic uni­ty, each ful­fill­ing the oth­er in the great­est act of art and love known to the human species. 

Whether or not you’re moved by Stone’s prose, you have to admit, it does make sculpt­ing sound enor­mous­ly appeal­ing. For a much less mas­cu­line take on what it’s like to carve a fig­ure from a sol­id block of stone, see the Nation­al Geo­graph­ic short film above, in which a three-dimen­sion­al por­trait comes alive in the hands of stone carv­er Anna Rubin­cam.

This is a labor of love, but it is also one of care­ful prepa­ra­tion. Rubin­cam “begins her process by mea­sur­ing and sketch­ing the fea­tures of a live mod­el,” the film’s YouTube page notes. “From there, she cre­ates a clay ver­sion before mov­ing on to care­ful­ly chis­el the piece out of stone.” The entire process took three weeks.

Is there room for agony and ecsta­sy amidst the mea­sure­ments? Indeed. “I always feel that you have to be a bit mad to become a stone carv­er,” says Rubin­cam, acknowl­edg­ing that “this isn’t the Renais­sance any­more. Stone isn’t a pri­ma­ry build­ing mate­r­i­al any­more. Why would any­one go into a pro­fes­sion” like this one? Rubincam’s answer — “there just wasn’t any oth­er option” — can­not help but bring to mind the most pop­u­lar quote from Stone’s nov­el: “One should not become an artist because he can, but because he must. It is only for those who would be mis­er­able with­out it.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Brân­cuși Cap­tures His Sculp­ture & Life on Film: Watch Rare Footage Shot Between 1923–1939

Alexan­der Calder’s Archive Goes Online: Explore 1400 Works of Art by the Mod­ernist Sculp­tor

3D Print 18,000 Famous Sculp­tures, Stat­ues & Art­works: Rodin’s Thinker, Michelangelo’s David & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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