Wood Carving History
When did wood carving become art? If you look at the fine arts you will see a category for sculpting. It is here where wood carving would fit.
Since men began to shape wood it has been used for ornamental purposes. The problem with wood is that it often cannot stand the test of time.
Metal and stone survive in the ground to tell their stories. Wood will rot and deteriorate quickly. There has been a great loss to archeology and history in regards to many cultures due to this.
Nevertheless there are places where we can still see its history and influences across time. It would require the sands of Egypt and the care taking of Medieval Churches to preserve much of what remains.
Common Practices Across Thousands Of Years
If you look at more ancient peoples and compare them to those of a mere few hundred years ago, there are similar practices. Indigenous cultures could be remote and cut off from the outside world yet still share these similarities.
Some will cite spear making as being among the most early of uses for wood carving. Yet I find this to be less accurate in its presumption. Rather the truth lay within tools for daily life.
Polynesian natives were known for decorative paddles just as the natives in places like North America. Decorative wood carving in pipes, hooks for fishing, boats, canoes, and earthworks were common among almost all peoples.
It is here that you begin to see the foundation of Chip Carving among many cultures. While its origin is not isolated to one people it is a method all used.
The items created by these peoples are a true tell tale sign of a culture, their belief system, and societal structure. To them the wood carving was more than art. The art was tied to their beliefs and way of life.
Here art is not used for mere decoration. Rather the wood art is a symbol which they associate with. These art symbols could be concepts such as their gods, hope, a good harvest, or a desire for peace.
Many symbols cross over between cultures. All resided under the same sun and moon. All relied upon water, rain, and cultivating from the ground, or hunting from forests.
It is for this reason that it becomes easy to understand how these art symbols came to be found among so many remote people.
Ancient Egyptian Wood Carving
Among the best ancient examples we have of wood carving becoming art can be found in Egyptian culture. These people were dedicated to the preservation of their dead while attempting to help them reach an afterlife.
The climate of this region also aided them in being optimal for the preservation of wood. A dry arid climate would allow for tombs to keep their secrets for future generations.
Housed in the Cairo museum, one of the more interesting wood carvings is what is called the “Statue of a Man”. Its detail is superb and unique to that time for its realism. Few other carvings from this era can match it.
Yet here with the Egyptian wood carving we find a similarity to more primitive cultures. Their tools, and even furniture, held symbolic carvings.
Stools would have carvings of animals, and beds who’s legs were carved as lions paws. In burials many boxes would be of wood with a face carved into its top.
Some mummy cases would have animals carved onto them. Others would have wooden statues resting on its top.
There is no doubt that other cultures from these same eras would have also held to similar practices. Using wood carving as art was ceremonial, religious, and a way to connect to a world which they could not see.
Wood Carving Of The Middle Ages
Within the Middle Ages is where we can find some of the best preserved wood art carvings of history. These can be found in the many churches across Europe.
Among the more unique pieces can be panel art such as found at the Basilica of St. Sabina. Many art carvings focus on Biblical scenes from the Old or New Testament.
What is interesting about this period is how multiple cultures clash, and then melt together becoming one. How is this possible?
With the Vikings came at first horror, but later an assimilation of culture. While little wood carving survives from the Vikings themselves, much can be seen in where they held influence.
Nordic art is a prime example of this. Also we can find further influence in Celtic art. This melding of cultures was not in one direction. They also imported culture from abroad.
It is interesting to note that through the Middle Ages nearly half of all sculptures were carved from wood. This is astonishing when considering older cultures such as the Greeks used a much wider source of media.
This reliance upon wood can be attributed to a world coming out of the Dark Ages. It would require time for the arts to recover and explore forgotten methods. With this exploration and with time wood would begin to lose its prominence.
12th Century Through The Renaissance
Wood carving as an art through this period of time did shift some. What was once in churches now went into cathedrals and in grander scale.
Westminster Abby is an example to this point. Yet it was within these centuries that we find the wood carver beginning to also shift towards woodworking.
In other words we find craftsmen who can also carve wood art. These grand structures required a giant leap forward in structural architecture as well as aesthetic beauty.
Due to this it is no surprise that the two world began to blend more together. It is a trend which would ultimately continue through time.
Nevertheless names such as Jacques de Baerze, Veit Stoss, and Peter Vischer come to be known. The Gothic alter created by Veit Stoss is unlike any other carving in the world. Its creation required many artisans to aid in its completion.
Why Did Wood Carving Art Disappear?
As time continued forward it is not that wood carving art disappeared, but rather it lost focus. By the time we arrive at names such as Monet, Da Vinci, or Picaso, the world had changed.
Greater focus was given to painting, music, dance, and theater. Wood carving itself while still a form of sculpting became more driven towards woodworking.
The difference here is that while wood carving is an art, woodworking is building for function or purpose. Nevertheless many artistic qualities still remained within the woodworking.
The Victorian Era holds many examples of beautiful homes to display this point. Here hand cut trim work and staircases that are masterpieces stand out within our minds. Yet these are not truly art of a sculpted form.
Likewise the Art Nouveau and Art Deco eras would also show much the same influence when it comes to wood carving. As an art, wood carving began to take a back seat being seen as something from an older time.
An Alternative View Of Wood Carving From China
The Chinese though held an altogether different view of wood carving. Despite their expansion within the fine arts such as within the Western world, they held more true to the past.
Wood panel art, as well as decorative carvings within furniture, remained through the early 20th century. The older practices were still desired among many people due to the diversity of culture and religion.
Much of this can also be attributed to how their culture evolved through time. There has been a consistent reliance upon traditional ways up until the more modern 20th century.
Wood Carving As An Art In The 20th Century
As manufacturing allowed for synthetics, plastics, and other materials to be mass produced, wood carving began to further decline. With this came a rise for things involving woodworking.
Cabinetry, flooring, trim, doors, and other items became the greater focus. Items of function rather than art ruled the day.
By the late 1900s to find a traditional wood carver one would need to visit a tourist area focused on historical relevance. Places such as Gatlinburg and Charleston come to mind.
Other places to find traditional works could be found in craft shows along with the blacksmiths and basket weavers. It seemed like wood carving as an art had died.
Woodworkers and craftsmen were now called artists. The distinction between the two became blurred. In the place of the artisan came a flood of mass produced and machined products for decor.
Wood artists prefer to work with pieces that many builders would otherwise avoid. Knotted wood for example can provide an exotic beauty that would be missed by others.
By the late 1990s a shift began to take place which would alter this landscape. There came a desire to return to more natural ways of life.
Influence of the 21st Century On Wood Carving Art
It would seem that each individual that sought to move away from advanced society held their own reasons. Some hated how the world became digital. For others it was more simple in only wanting a healthier life.
Yet by the 21st century a shift in thinking caused many to focus on natural living. With this came more gardens, a desire for land, and in some cases a determination to be off the grid for living.
With this shift in thinking came a desire for the older arts. Wood carving once again came back into focus.
While it has never disappeared, it seemed as if it had been put on the back shelf. While temporarily forgotten its resurgence would return with force.
Many carvings found today still reside much like what was found in older times. Ornamental pieces which are in panels, walls, or within furnishings.
Sculptures certainly have returned and its popularity is once again steadily growing. Yet there is a difference in how these items are made today compared to the past.
With this difference a new argument or debate has emerged. Who is really a wood artist, and who is a maker of product.
How Technology Changed Wood Carving Art
While wood carving was sleeping the world grew up. What was once only able to be accomplished by wood shaping tools like chisels could now be machined.
In the early 2000’s it was possible for home shops to build numeric controlled machines, a cnc mill. With this technology a computer could produce the carving rather than being done by hand.
The irony is that part of what drives this desire to use machines is more about the market than the maker or artist. Few today are willing to spend the amount of money that would be required for an authentic hand carving.
Many artists will use a combination of techniques. A machine to rough in the piece for speed, then hand carve the details.
In this way they can add the touch, markings, and clean details that a machine cannot match. All this is for trying to remain competitive in price to makers.
This issue has created a barrier within older guild systems. Those who refuse to allow any machined work will rarely ever see truly hand carved pieces. If they do it is displayed more for nostalgia rather than to market.
In place of carved pieces you will see trinkets, boxes, or items like tables and chests. The focus becomes more about catering to furnishing and decor rather than art.
Is Wood Carving Still An Art?
If one were to ask if wood carving is an art within todays world, I would say that it is a legitimate question. Overall what you find is more about makers who push product than art.
There still are wood artists who exist. Nearly all are forced to use some kind of machinery to try and maintain an edge. To what extent this machinery is used will vary from artist to artist.
If you were to compare those who draw or paint within art to those who practice traditional wood carving, the traditional wood artist is near extinct.
Sculpting with wood still exists. More often than not it is practiced as a hobby. It is not a place to make money nor become known by name.
Those who participate within this art do so for the love of it. When it is time to pay the bills nearly all must turn to our machinery.
What is wood art remains your decision in what you choose to see.