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Want to learn how wood carving emerged and evolved during the course of the human history? You landed on the right spot my fellow crafters. Let's travel in time together and observe the birth, evolution and manifestation of this fascinating art.
Across the millennia the craft of wood carving has served as a medium to facilitate our daily activities, narrate our folklore, express our feelings and create art that moves the human soul. It is one of the oldest arts of humankind with its beginnings going way back in prehistoric times.
Throughout history wood was used by humans for fuel, sheltering and technology advancement through the creation of tools. Wooden spears from the Middle Paleolithic, such as the Clacton Spear, reveal how humans have engaged in woodwork for millennia to create utilitarian objects.
Clacton Spear at the Natural History Museum, London. Image via wikipedia.org
It was only natural that somewhere down the road, wood would become the medium for artistry as well... wood carving in art was born! Being abundant, beautiful, relatively light and easy to carve (compared to other harder materials such as metal and stone), wood attracted the interest of people who started using it for decoration, ritual objects and religious sculptures.
Wood was one of the primary materials of many creatives coming from Africa, Oceania, Americas, Indochina and Far East. Many of the most important sculptures of China and Japan, in particular, are in wood, and so are the great majority of African sculpture and that of Oceania and other regions.
Mask from Gabon. Image via wikipedia.org
However, its vulnerability to water, fire, insects and decay, has limited the number of wooden artefacts which have survived from the Ancient period. Outdoor wood sculptures have not lasted in most parts of the world so we still have no clue of how the totem pole tradition developed for example.
Lucky for us that Egypt has a very dry climate that preserved a substantial amount of woodcarvings to this day. Regarding wood works from Assyria, Greece and Rome, little is actually known except from history or inference.
Ancient Egyptian servant statuettes. Image via wikipedia.org
Nonetheless, wood carvings have survived from more recent eras demonstrating both great craftsmanship and artistry. During the Middle Ages wood works of art were created for religious purposes such as crosses, figures of saints, altarpieces and choir stalls for Cathedrals, Abbeys and other Church related sites.
Among the pieces that stand out from that period are the carved panels of the main doors of St Sabina on the Aventine Hill in Rome. During the end of the Gothic Period (end of Middle Ages) wood caving reached its pinnacle leaving behind masterpieces such as the Holy Blood Altar from Tilman Riemenschneider in Germany.
Entrance doors of St Sabina, Rome. Image via Wikipedia.org
Holy Blood Altar by Tilman Riemenschneider. Image via wikipedia.org
Woodcarving continued to develop during the Renaissance however with the idea of the Universal Man as the centre of the Universe, the focus shifted towards the representation of the human with portraits. Great examples are Michelangelo's Crucifix from the Basilica de Santo Spirito and Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene.
Wooden crucifix at the Santo Spirito basilica in Florence by Michelangelo. Image via Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
During Classicism wood was relegated to decoration and design. Grinling Gibbons in England was the most famous school of woodcarving. Many would name Grinling Gibbons as England's finest woodcarver. His carvings focus in portrayal of still life such as foliage and can be found in Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace, St. Paul's Cathedral, Petworth House, Trinity College Oxford and Trinity College Cambridge.
Detail from Carved Room, Petworth House by Grinling Gibbons. Image via wikipedia.org
At the beginning of the 19th century woodcarving became formalized in several European countries since entering the curriculum of art schools. Modern artists turned to wood after the democratization of the art genres and materials. Brilliant examples of wood in contemporary art are Nina Bruun's Nest Chair, the Porcupine Cabinet by Sebastián Errázuriz, Ai Weiwei's assemblage Grapes, and Kcho's R.E.C. (Rectifying the Course).
Louise Nevelson – Royal Tide IV. Image via pintrest.com
Kcho – R.E.C. (Rectifying the Course ). Image via artsobserver.com
There is no doubt on the high value of wood as a material and the special place the art of wood carving holds in our lives. It is an exciting craft with many subniches open for exploration such as the relief and chip carving and whittling.
Wood carving grants opportunities to craft objects that move the human soul, awake the spirit and improve our well-being. But more on that on our next blog article...