An Artist’s View of Donatello at the V&A

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Rebecca Stevenson, artist-in-residence at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, reveals the enduring influence of Donatello’s work and its effect on contemporary art.

What inspires your work?

My work is inspired by the historical forms and meanings of sculpture, reimagined via feminist theories and personal experiences of the body. I use traditional techniques such as figurative modelling or lost wax casting to explore and subvert sculptural conventions. 

I’m attracted to qualities such as mutability and fluidity, and my completed sculptures are often subjected to a second process of ‘unmaking’ that includes cutting, opening and elaborate decoration.

What makes Donatello's work so special?

I’ve always admired Donatello but researching his work in more detail has given me a much deeper understanding of what makes it stand out. He was able to imbue his sculptures with a humanity and intensity of emotion that stands apart from his contemporaries. There’s a story in Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists” that describes Donatello, Pygmalion-like, begging his sculptures to come to life and speak to him, and it’s not hard to imagine.

What's your favourite sculpture of his and why?

It’s impossible to choose a favourite. Donatello’s range as a sculptor is one of the reasons he is so astonishing. I love the many tender, beautiful Madonnas he sculpted – the Pazzi Madonna, for example – and it’s hard not to be bowled over by the monumental horse’s head known as the Carafa Protome. But if I have to choose a current favourite, it’s a small angel known as the ‘winged boy with a fish’ that I’ve been working from in my studio – it’s a playful, charming but also strange figure that has elements of kitsch about it to contemporary eyes.

How many works are you creating for the V&A?

I’m making a series of new sculptures in bronze and wax. I’m working with imagery derived from some of Donatello’s most familiar and famous pieces – for example: the David, the Chellini roundel, the ‘Spiritelli’ – but also including references to other themes and objects in the Medieval and Renaissance collections. There will be both intimate and larger works on display, and visitors will get to see works in progress as they morph and transition through various materials and stages of making and unmaking.

How can Donatello’s continuing popularity be seen and felt in contemporary art and design?

I’ve been continually surprised by how modern many of Donatello’s works appear. His style can vary from naturalistic and refined to stylized and expressionistic. It’s evident that his influence pervaded many sculptors working in the 19th century and I also see it in more modern sculptors such as Epstein. 

In terms of contemporary culture, I think his influence is so omnipresent that we almost don’t see it. 

Think of the sensuous androgyny of his David – and of the current trends for androgynous models in fashion advertising. Think of Jeff Koons’ slick reworkings of the classical as kitsch, or even the multiple self-images created by Cindy Sherman – I think you can see his influence there, the continual reworking of a subject, the continual shifting of style and mood.

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