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2017-10-11 / Columnists

Just Bill

Rock Art Not Set in Stone
Musings from the Mind of Bill Diem

About 25 years ago I bought a hammer and stone chisels and put them away for my retirement. Every once in a while I look at these tools a little enviously. Even though I am mostly retired now, I haven’t started my sculpture phase.

About a hundred years ago in Paris there was a revival of stone cutting, and I went to an exhibit at the Zadkine Museum in Paris that discusses that revival.

Ossip Zadkine was a Russian who came to Paris to work, and his workshop is now a museum owned by Paris. Until February 11 the museum has an exhibit called Etre Pierre (To Be Stone) that celebrates the 50th anniversary of Zadkine’s death.

Zadkine was one of the sculptors early in the 20th century to revive the practice of cutting statues directly out of blocks of raw stone. Stone sculpting had gone dormant against the competition of bronze and other materials for which you could use molds, or wood and other materials that you could shape more easily.

The return to direct stone cutting led to an artistic movement called “new primitivism.” A lot of the work looks rather simple compared to stone statues carved by Greeks and Romans a long, long time ago.

The exhibit made it clear that humans love rocks, stone and minerals. When I walk along certain beaches at Lake Superior, I can’t help looking down. Even though hundreds of people have stood at that same spot in Grand Marais, and even though I hardly know what they look like, I hope to find an agate.

I do find pretty rocks, and a few always come back home with me. There were some magnificent agates in the exhibit, collected by Roger Caillois, for whom the art is in the beauty of the stone.

Another artist, Marko Pogacnik, collects rocks that are not particularly pretty. The shapes and textures of his rocks then inspire him to envision the rock’s internal life, which he illustrates with black ink lines on white cardboard.

Another artist used a special camera to take 10,000 pictures of a rock in a minute, then plays them back as a movie that takes hours. The point is that rocks are not immutable things that never change. They were made by the Earth with massive heat and pressure, and they wear out into sand on beaches. Rocks live, too, but on a different time scale.

Artist Katie Paterson collected more than 160 fossils, turned them into beads and strung them into a necklace organized from oldest to newest to show how old the Earth is and how little of its life we have lived on it.

Some of the artists were anonymous people from the Paleolithic Age, who carried rocks shaped like the animals they hunted or the women they wanted. Others were Zadkine’s contemporaries, like Brancusi, Rodin, Picasso and Brassai.

It made me think. Maybe I’ll go to Gulliver next summer and get a chunk of limestone.

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