Research point: Bad hair day? How sculptors treated the tricky subject of hair

Greek funerary statue of a woman. Archaeological Museum, Athens: Parva Herculanensis. c. 300 BC. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto

Each time I do a head in sculpture I am a bit hesitant about the hair. Unless you look at some 60s reincarnation of the big hairdo with plenty of hairspray, chances are that hair is somewhat flimsy, moving thin strings. Not exactly a solid mass that translates easily into sculpture.

So what did sculptors do to make it work? Here are some examples from different cultures spanning more than  2000 years. I don’t think this is an easy subject as I found a whole lot of bad hair sculptures as well, but I tried to pick the ones I feel that have mastered the tricky subject beautifully. There is a large degree of abstraction in all of these attempts to render the hair.

The Greek statue of a woman above is an interesting mix of highly abstracted symmetrical looking grooves, while at the same time adding varied detail of curly defined strands of hair to each groove/hair sausage. Weird but interesting.

Chinese Tang dynasty woman, pottery, Shanghai Museum, should be around 800 AD, photo by Andrew Lih

The ceramic funerary figure of a Tang Dynasty woman above shows a sensational solidity of hair mass. It’s the 60s hairdo of its time. The chignon sits asymmetrically on the woman’s left, and is balanced by a bigger shape of hair on her right, that seems to be painted in a different colour, so maybe refers to a bow or a second chignon. Note that the sculptor really only focused on the distinctions of very clearly separated shapes and treated the rest as a rather washed over bubble shape: The hair above her forehead does not come as a big jump from the forehead, and neither is your hair if you look at it… it’s a smooth transition, a slight wobble but not more. But the chignon on the other hand is much more dramatically curved and distinct from the adjacent shape of the hair tied up. Gorgeous.

German figures of Saints on a reading podest (Lesepult), mid 12th century, willow wood with tempera on chalk ground, 120cm high, Stadtkirche Freudenstadt (city church)

Ok, I cannot quite conceal my love for Gothic shapes.  Above once again the 12th century German reading podest shown in an earlier post. The hair – highly stylised grooves and even some knobbly symmetric curl net pattern. Intriguing, albeit almost on the edge of too symmetric and hence quite stiff for me.

Nicolaus von Leyden (Nikolaus Gerhaert).Man Meditating (Buste d’homme accoudé), an apparent self-portrait, c. 1467. Strasbourg: Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame. Photo by Cancre

Nicolaus Gerhaert was an influential Northern European sculptors of his day. Of Dutch origin, he worked largely in the German speaking regions. He masterly rendered the human figure with very natural facial expressions (look at the eye-lids and the veins on the hand!) and elaborate and vivid folds in his subjects’ garments. The hair here is somewhat abstracted compared to the skin. It falls asymmetrically and Gerhaert tried to express the strand-yness of hair by adding fine lines to the surface. It looks quite modern to me.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck. Head of a Youth. 1913. Source: All-Art

Ah, and Lehmbruck. I just can’t get over him. In his Head of a Youth of 1913 he fleetingly captures the hair with what looks like some roughly applied masses of clay, left unfinished, i.e. not trying to detail anything in the hair that would distract from the furrowed brow of his man. Although it still looks dramatic in its piled up state, if you focus on it. Lehmbruck also doesn’t create a big jump between forehead and hair in his bust but rather a washed out transition with some tiny variation.


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