The Cloak of Conscience
Anna Chromy has become one of a handful of sculptors in the world (including Richard Serra, Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley and Zhu Ming) who have access to the resources required to make and exhibit public sculpture on an epic and monumental scale. She has completed a number of high profile projects that have been exhibited internationally at such sites as the United Nations, Tiananmen Square Beijing, as well as a number of museum installations, and over 50 permanent placements in public parks and squares around Europe.
Many of Chromy’s works capture the animism and grace of the human body moving in space, such as Olympic Spirit (2004) and she cites one of her main influences as surrealism – apparent in her figures, which often have no face, are masked, and sometimes have missing limbs. Her figurative sculptures freeze movement in mid-flight but nevertheless capture dynamism and seem to be resisting gravity, trying to release themselves from its hold. Chromy often references Greco-Roman mythology such as Sisyphus (2002), Ulysses (2003) and the Song of Orpheus (2004). However what at first appears to be a sort of historicism in these references to European mythology and also to the idealised physical beauty of the sculpted bodies, actually turns out to be a means to access certain contemporary, non secular themes around conscience, compassion and piety.
Chromý’s major work entitled the Cloak of Conscience, also known as Piétà or Commendatore, builds on this play on history and faith and is a complex development from inception to execution that follows the path of the artist’s career and life journey. The work began in 1980 while Chromy was still making paintings, a practice she would abandon in 1992 following a serious accident. The painting To Be or Not to Be depicts the body of a woman, lying in the middle of a piazza, whose head is turned towards a crouched, seated figure covered by a cowl. In fact the cowl is empty, taking the form a figure who has somehow become dissociated from the cloak which Chromy describes as ‘an empty piece of clothing belonging to an old woman weighed down by suffering and the cares of a long life’.
The painting has some echoes of De Chirico who also conferred a certain animism upon statues, mannequins and disembodied busts and who repeatedly depicted the figure of Ariadne as a reclined figure on a plinth in various settings such as the Piazza D’Italia, Milan and Piazza Santa Croce in Florence.
The massive scale of Chromy’s Cloak of Conscience and the whiteness of the Carrara marble, with its connection to the Cave of Michelangelo, inevitably recalls what some writers have called an ‘excess’ in reference, for example, to the art of Bernini: flesh and cloth rendered as stone – the very opposite of its natural material qualities. This has also been referred to as the ‘art of petrifaction’, recalling Ovid’s story of how the animism and ‘diverse attitudes’ of some marble sculptures can be such that they could be mistaken for real persons, even in a situation of war, which is a reverse operation in addressing the traditional ambiguity of sculpture.
The avowed aim of sculptors such as Michelangelo and Bernini was to achieve the possibility of marble to appear as both solid and translucent and to imply a plasticity and weightlessness that is radically at odds with its material quality. However Chromy references this tradition with an inversion of the illusion of stone as flesh and cloth. First of all there is no positive analogue of the human body with which we can engage in the illusion of soft tissue, which almost always demands at least partial nudity. Instead the work is dominated by the folds of cloth and the absent volume of a body, which implies weight – so much weight in fact that we can call this a building (or an ‘archi-sculpture’ to use Chromy’s term) even a ‘chapel’, and as such it perhaps has more in common with the use of marble in architecture than in sculpture. In an inversion of Rachel Whiteread’s procedure of making positive volumes out of negative space, Chromy constructs a negative space out of a solid volume: the human body. The marble therefore becomes a material of strength, a structural material, rather than one that engages in the illusion of weightlessness – a very different approach to Chromy’s works in bronze, which appear to defy gravitational forces by capturing the dynamism of the human body.
All of this appears to serve very well Chromy’s intention of creating a post-humanist work whose very solidity grounds the sculpture in a relationship with earthbound, material concerns rather than the subjects of Greco Roman mythology or even the particular ethical positions that derive from the Judaic-Christian humanist traditions which place the body at the centre of the representation. Through such means the work is freed from the original gendered inspiration as representing ‘old woman weighed down by suffering’ – there is an illusion of a body (anybody) and the cloak envelops an empty space which spectators must fill with their own bodies and interpretations.
The Cloak of Conscience
To be or not to be (1980)