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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

The assemblage technique in the creation of modern wooden sculptures

Cheglakov Aleksandr Dmitrievich

Painter, Member of the Union of Russian Artists

117593, Russia, g. Moscow, bul. Litovskii, 13/12, kv. 507

Other publications by this author










Abstract: The article demonstrates how the assemblage technique manifests itself in modern wooden sculptures. The author shows what assemblage is and what is the essence of this method. In addition, close attention is paid to another innovation of avant-garde culture – organic art, according to the philosophy of which the world is represented as an organic whole, a single system with its own laws. By the example of M. Matyushin’s pedagogical system, the natural connection between man and nature in works of art is shown. On the basis of the developed creative method, it is presented how modern art can combine such avant-garde tendencies as, for example, organic art and assemblage. Another important methodology, close to the technique of assemblage, and at the same time bordering on the practices of kinetic art, is the creation of sculptures, the elements of which can be rotated. The synthesis of methods and materials allows us to expand the boundaries of art by introducing non-artistic materials into the creative circulation. The main idea of this approach is to enlarge the context in which the work of art we have created exists, to enrich its history. It is stated that the wooden sculpture provides the creator with ample opportunities for experimentation. The ideas and plots of wooden sculptures embody various ranges of artistic diversity of decorative and applied arts.


a wooden sculpture, an assemblage, a collage, organic art, artistic creation, Russian avant-garde, Matyushin’s pedagogical school, synthesis of materials, author’s method, decorative and applied arts

Even with a cursory glance at the history of sculpture and furniture, we see that “a variety of materials and technological methods are used in artistic woodwork, as well as genres and techniques of not only decorative and applied, but also the so-called “large” types of art. Painting on porcelain and lacquer, casting and embossing on metal, sculpture made of bone and wood, tapestry and embossed leather, precious stones, tortoise shell, mother of pearl – all these techniques are harmoniously combined in artwork made of wood, and the best art pieces decorate with dignity museum collections and galleries of the world” [6, p. 8]. This combination of materials was already used in the art of the ancient world, both in the field of sculpture and in the field of decorative and applied arts.

In the 20th century, the synthesis of materials takes on a new meaning, as the art of collage and assemblage appears as a result of avant-garde creative searches.

The collage can be considered one of the most important techniques in the art of the 20th and 21st centuries. Originating around 1910, the collage is one of the first alternatives to modernism, offering a new approach to understanding the history of art and the individual work. Although the collage did not become a leading artistic trend, it nevertheless had a strong influence on a wide variety of areas of culture. “Collage has a special place in the history of 20th century art. It belongs to those phenomena that, always remaining on the periphery, nevertheless participated in the formation of the main trends of culture. The collage demonstrates not the principle of progressive development, but the principle of decentralization, dispersal, which begins to operate in the culture of the last century. The collage phenomenon and its history question the traditional linear scheme of art development, offering instead a kaleidoscopic picture of constant interactions, reflections, flickers. A picture in which the boundaries between trends and stylistic tendencies are transparent. It is dominated by a plurality of positions of observation, each of its fragments is mobile and open for interaction with a variety of semantic, symbolic, stylistic, and other contexts” [1, p. 27].

One of the most important merits of collage is as follows: it emphatically declares that imitation of nature is not the basis of art. Art is free from the need for imitation and representation, it can play with different cultural languages, various materials and forms. The collage is a new technique that demonstratively emphasizes the joints, dissimilarities and diverse origins of the used materials. Here an image, a text, found objects, and familiar pictorial materials coexist, playing with textures and colors. The collage is like a kaleidoscope, in which contexts and languages shimmer, everything in it mixes and transforms due to this mixing. The collage space does not seek to imitate reality. On the contrary, the collage thinking blurs the boundaries between art and life and declares everything to be equally interesting and valuable.

The collage is a statement made up of material evidence of different ideas and contexts. It not only refers to reality, but this method is a collection of its immediate fragments – newspaper clippings, photographs, images, color spots, pieces of posters, packaging. The collage is as close as possible to reality, but at the same time does not copy it, like the art of realism. The collage works with ready-made images, snatches them out of reality, rearranges them, puts them together, and through installation creates sometimes unusual combinations.

The assemblage represents the development of the collage method and collage vision in three-dimensional space. The first objects made in this technique are considered to be the works of Umberto Boccioni and Vladimir Tatlin [4, p. 93, p. 126-127].

The assemblage goes even further in the process of destroying boundaries: it erases the distinctions between different types of art, uniting painting, sculpture, found objects, design elements. The assemblage shows items as they are. The elements of the assemblage represent themselves: wood, glass, metal, paper, canvas, and other materials. Art directly works with reality and creates three-dimensional images that reflect this actuality. Instead of imitating certain materials, artists take their real fragments. The assemblage “opens up an opportunity for the artist to create an objective and physically reliable reality. And nevertheless, the assemblage technique turns out to be more a poetic game with actuality than a prosaic erasure of the boundaries between art and everyday life. Rather, it reveals outlets into another dimension from within the gross objectivity, from within the physical, material world” [1, p. 84].

Contemporary artists and sculptors continue to develop the method of assemblage, which is especially noticeable in the example of installations. “Today’s sculpture very often finds expression in the form of an ephemeral, elevated to the rank of high art: for example, some random object of the early XX century briefly regains life in the art of modern installation” [5, p. 15].

We also continue this tradition in our creative practice, applying the collage technique to wooden sculpture. The basis of our works is made up of fragments of dry fallen trees – parts of the trunk, roots, branches. As art historians note, “wood is characterized by a somewhat awkward mass and, at the same time, an exceptionally rich, dynamic, expressive “texture” and surface, a contrast between raw, inert matter and organic strength” [3, p. 54]. In our creation, we strive to preserve this natural beauty of the material as much as possible: its shape, texture and color.

This approach largely inherits from the organic movement in art. The organic direction was one of the offshoots of the Russian avant-garde. The key figures of this movement were the poet and artist Elena Guro and Mikhail Matyushin, a composer, an artist and an art theorist. E. Guro and M. Matyushin are joined by Matyushin’s students at the Academy of Arts.

The essence of the organic flow is philosophy, according to which the world is represented as an organic whole, a single system with its own laws. “There is no distinction between small and large, between micro and macrocosm, between organic and inorganic parts of nature in the integrated whole. Stones and crystals grow, movement occurs in them, as in all nature. Growth, decay, death, transformation – continuous becoming occurs in creative sphere. The phenomenal world, reality, is constantly in flux. They are the prerequisites for an organic worldview, in which an essential quality is its integrity, harmony. … The organic direction offers a synthesis of man and Nature, his indivisibility with it” [8, p. 10].

The role of an artist in such a holistic world is similar to that of a scientist: their purpose is to reveal the inner nature of things, their deeply hidden essence, which is accessible to observation, experience and intuition. An artistic genius is able to reveal these deep interconnections and demonstrate natural harmony through art.

Artists of the organic direction sought to restore the lost connection between man and nature, they carefully looked into the natural world, exploring the structure, movement, consistency, logic of development, color, light, sounds in it. Representatives of organic art strove to become co-creators of nature, subjecting their creativity to its laws. M. Matyushin wrote: “Nature tells us: do not imitate me, portraying me. Create yourself the same way. Learn My Creativity. Look at me differently than you did. Observing, you will see the former form disappearing” [7, p. 73].

M. Matyushin was the first to see the artistic merit in such natural objects as the roots and twigs of trees. Matyushin’s passion for tree roots and the creation of root sculptures began in Finland in 1910, where low winding trees grew, the roots of which the artist brought to his workshop. “The processing was minimal and had the character of construction, something was cut off, lopped or, conversely, overlaid. Wood attracted the sculptor as an object of living nature, in which form and function are extremely close” [9]. Engaged in root sculpture, M. Matyushin studied how the growth of trees is the laws of organic morphogenesis. M. Matyushin consistently left the natural form almost intact, preserving the natural volumes, the beauty and elegance of which put natural root sculptures on a par with the author’s man-made works.

Based on this organic approach, we also use the assemblage techniques. Taking as a basis a minimally processed piece of dry felled tree, we add various materials to it, including dried wood, Californian corals, colored fragments of old Italian stained glass windows, shards of glass processed by the Mediterranean Sea, rock crystal, bronze animal figurines and candles emitting an atmosphere of warmth and comfort. This synthesis of materials allows us to expand the boundaries of art by introducing non-artistic materials into the creative circulation.

The main idea of this author’s approach is to enlarge the context in which the work of art created by us exists, to enrich its history. So, the age of the trees used to create sculptures is about two hundred years. During this time, there have been many historical events that these trees could have witnessed, including the Patriotic and Great Patriotic Wars, the battles of which took place in those areas where we most often find materials for creating sculptures, as evidenced by the numerous artifacts left in the forests since those times. Ancient trees, albeit metaphorically, but retain memories of historical facts, global political and economic changes. Historical events are layered on a tree in the same way as annual rings are formed. Having become a sculpture, a tree is an object that a viewer associates with something ancient, stable and eternal. Turning a tree into an object of art, the artist fixes the historical layers, presents them in a subject form, provoking the viewer to imagine the fate of the tree: where and how long did it grow, what events could it witness?

Other materials that we use in our work have their own history. So, corals lived by their individual, unknown to us fate, gilded fragments of which often become elements of our wooden sculptures. The complex texture of the surface of the corals, as well as the unique plasticity of their forms, add beauty and a sense of jewel to the sculpture. The same effect is achieved by adding pearls and shells to the sculptural compositions.

The fragments of glass used in sculptures found on the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea symbolize fragments of other people’s lives and destinies: we can only guess how they got to the shore and how long the sea washed them with its waves. Separately, it is worth mentioning that fragments of old Italian stained-glass windows, which were replaced with new ones during the restoration of Catholic churches, also serve as the material for the sculptures. By the time of restoration, these stained-glass windows were already several centuries old, and these periods of time are concentrated in every shard of glass. Fragments of colored windows add an additional context to the sculptures related to the symbolic and metaphysical role of stained glass in art and architecture.

Moreover, bronze sculptures, for example, figurines of animals or people, which attach an element of narrative to wooden sculptures, can be a frequent addition to these materials. With the connection of figures, the sculptures have a plot, the composition becomes more complicated, mise-en-scenes are formed. Most often, these figures are found in jumble markets, which adds another level of historical context to the sculptures.

We use candles in almost all sculptures made using the assemblage technique. Both tea candles and oil candles can be added to wooden sculptures, which are glass cups of various shapes and diameters, in which special oil and a wick are placed. Candles add a sense of warmth and mystery to the sculptures. It is what Pavel Florensky calls “the art of fire” [10, p.298]. Considering primarily the ecclesiastical, but also other types of art, he writes about the role of lighting in their perception. P. Florensky describes a candle or an icon lamp as a source of light “crushing, uneven, as if pulsating, rich in warm prismatic rays – light that is perceived by everyone as living, warming the soul, as emitting a warm fragrance” [10, p. 297]. In contrast to the natural light of fire, “electric light kills paint and upsets the balance of color masses ... electric light, like a burn, also destroys psychic susceptibility” [10, p. 299].

The use of candles, even outside of a religious context, we associate with comfort and warmth. The fire of a candle adjusts to a calm mood, promotes reflection and a confidential atmosphere. In addition, such lighting gives wooden sculptures new aesthetic properties: they are filled with movement, fluctuations in shadows and halftones, and colors acquire depth and inner glow. The sculpture with lit candles attracts the attention of the audience and bewitches.

The use of candles in wooden sculpture requires special technological methods that would make it possible to protect the sculpture from fire. For safety, it is necessary to fix the candles on a horizontal surface as accurately and stably as possible. Typically, for these lights, metal holders can be used in which the tea candle is immersed. The holders can be dipped in grooves in the tree (into recesses of the required diameter pre-drilled with a cutter), or candles can be fixed on special supports made of metal rods, which allow us to evenly attach the candle on an uneven surface of the work. Glass cones for oil candles are installed in the same way. The number of candles depends on the author’s idea: they can be one or several.

In order to place the candlesticks as evenly as possible, we suggest using a laser: its beams allow us to achieve an ideal horizontal position, as a result of which the object will be not only harmonious, but also safe.

Another important methodology, close to the technique of assemblage, and at the same time bordering on the practices of kinetic art, is the creation of sculptures, the elements of which can be rotated. This technique allows the viewer to rotate the sculpture 360 degrees, observing it from different angles and choosing the most interesting one. It is especially true in cases where the work is exhibited against the wall, and the viewer does not have the opportunity to walk around the sculpture in order to see it from different sides.

The creation of rotating wooden sculptures is a fairly simple, but exacting technique. The main composition of the sculpture rotates on a metal base connected to a stand. In order to perfectly build such a structure, a laser is used, the guiding beams of which allow us to accurately enter the cutter into the thickness of the wood material. To preserve the stability of the sculpture, it is necessary to first verify the weight balance of the future work. To do this, the process of trying fixation of the objects is applied: the sculpture is gradually pushed onto a metal rod, in the process of which a balance point is found. At this position, a mark is made, from which a guide line is drawn with the help of a laser, along which a hole is then drilled into the thickness of the tree. Depending on the task, size and weight of the future composition, the required diameter of the bar is selected and, accordingly, the diameter of the cutter for the hole.

If a rigid stable fixation is required, perpendicular or cross-shaped notches are applied at the ends of the pre-measured parts of the rod with a metal cutting disc. Such notches provide a stronger adhesion of the rod and wood, since the glue firmly fills all the recesses. Such a secure fixation allows us to maintain the intended form of the work and prevent the detachment of parts.

If the author’s intention requires the object to rotate, then the lower part of the bar is rigidly fixed with glue, and the upper part of the bar, which goes into the previously prepared hole, is polished so that its end part resembles a cone in shape – it allows easy rotation for the upper part of the work. To achieve the best effect, the tunnel of the hole in the thickness of the tree is additionally grinded from the inside with a metal cylindrical brush installed in a screwdriver or drill, which is turned on at low speed. Then it remains to carefully “plant” the upper part of the composition on a stand with a fixed metal support rod. After that, the top object of the composition can be easily rotated.

It is important to note that in our works we use different types of wood. Sculptural pieces are most often made from oak, as it is a beautiful and durable material. For the stands, larch is used, which is characterized as follows: “strong, well-bending wood, withstands drop well” [2, p. 25]. The heavy larch base ensures the stability of the entire composition, the total weight of which can reach about 50 kilograms.

Combining different types of wood, rotating elements, adding candles, coral, shells, glass, metal and found objects are just a few examples of how the technique of assemblage can manifest itself in the art of modern sculpture. Wood sculpture, being one of the most traditional forms of sculpture, today may be a field for experimentation. The combination of wood with non-artistic materials makes it possible to erase the boundaries of art and reality and thereby bring it closer to the viewer, which is especially important in the 21st century, when the democratic demands of society have become so aggravated [11].

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