Burning up in Orbit

Waxing lyrical on candles.

Back in the Olden Days, about the year 200 BD (before Diptyque), there were two types of candle. Rich people candles were made from beeswax, or spermaceti – fluid from a sperm whale’s head; not a pasta shape that you’d give out at a hen do. If you were rolling around in the dirt with the other proles, you burned tallow candles made from animal fat, which were smokier and emitted less light, but probably smelled like Frazzles. Either way, the whole point of the candle was to be set alight, so that you could still see everyone’s terrible teeth after dark; with the secondary benefit of creating the vibe we now call ‘goth’ from all the half-melted wax and flames flickering in gloomy cathedrals.

In this decadent day and age, however, the humble candle has lost its power, save for those rare occasions where we lose our power. We are gods, creating light at the push of a button, with smart bulbs and leds and torches attached to our phones. No longer a necessity, the candle has traded power for pulchritude. Rather than existing to be burned, these waxy whatnots adopt a variety of curvaceous sculptural forms, displayed proudly in homes as objets d’art.

There’s the pretzel-like ‘Twist’ by Dutch designer Lex Potts, usually displayed on a glass coffee table alongside a vase shaped like an arse. There are clamshells, clouds, barley-sugar spirals straight out of a baroque architectural fantasy. There are bulbous-ended pillars by Carl Durkow that look like something discreetly removed in A&E after a particularly heavy night out, and – courtesy of Cire Trudon – bewicked wax busts of Marie Antoinette, represented, appropriately, as just her head. These are candles in name only, their ephemeral, light-giving properties ignored in favour of a static, T Magazine aesthetic that unintentionally calls back to 17th-century Dutch still-life paintings; worldly goods anxiously assembled to convey status. Rather than mere signifiers, we might understand these objects as part of a longstanding art historical tradition of wax sculpture, which miniaturised and replicated culturally significant objects for consumption by collectors.

When not otherwise preoccupied, the elite collectors and connoisseurs of 18th-century Britain acquired wax copies and curios in pursuit of the fashion for classical antiquity. Ancient Roman intaglios, or carved gemstones, were cast in wax by the entrepreneur James Tassie and sold as collectibles to the culturally aspirant. The truly wealthy and well-connected might own a preparatory wax model by a quote-unquote great artist; maybe one of Michelangelo’s figure studies or a panel relief by Giambologna. And of course, any collector worth their loot simply had to have their portrait painted, accompanied by items from their collection and maybe a nice Ionic column or two. Before being hung in the splendour of their private library or dining room, portraits of note would be hung for public display in the annual Royal Academy Exhibition in London (first held in 1769), which served as the 18th-century’s equivalent of some awful Instagram feed; sultry poses captured by Sir Joshua Reynolds, humblebrag Italian landscapes from rich kids on the Grand Tour. Plus ça change, as they say.

Wax sculpture wasn’t just the preserve of sexy aristos who liked to gallivant through the Papal States on their gap year. There’s something about the materiality of wax – its malleable nature, its liminal existence between liquid and solid, its fatty, fleshlike texture – that has given it a weird affinity with the perverse and uncanny. Death masks, which were usually cast in wax or in plaster, were a tangible connection between the living and the dead; having been in physical contact with the face of the deceased and retaining their impression thereafter. Such masks were frequently used as the reference point for posthumous marble busts or bronze statues, but occasionally a lifesize waxen effigy would be commissioned, complete with wig and dressed in the actual clothes of the deceased. The 18th century was a golden age for wax portraits and anatomical figures. Artists such as Samuel Percy produced exquisitely unsettling miniature profile portraits, the wax delicately tinted and moulded to capture the variations of skin, hair and clothing. Fortunately for Percy’s clients, it was not necessary to be dead in order to commission a portrait of this sort. If, on the other hand, you had the misfortune to get on the wrong side of the guillotine during the French Revolution, you might well have your head cast in wax by one Anna Maria Grosholtz, better known to history as Madame Tussaud.

While Tussaud and her peers dealt in death, wax was also associated with regeneration. A minor scandal occurred in 1786 when the collector and classical scholar Richard Payne Knight published An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus, which argued for the persistence of pagan phallic worship in contemporary Christian practice. Knight based his arguments on the use of wax penis ex votos, or devotional objects, which in his own time were still being offered up at Catholic shrines by Italian women praying for fertility. (Like so many other objects, Knight’s collection of waxes ended up in the British Museum, where it still lives today). The connections between wax, sex and death have continued to intrigue visual artists; and the candle in particular has been appropriated for its allegorical potential, invoking both power and fragility.

You can, for example, spend £50 on a limited-edition ‘Goddess Glow’ candle by the feminist artist Judy Chicago, resembling the ancient and extremely voluptuous Venus of Willendorf devotional figure that appears in her legendary 1979 installation The Dinner Party. Or consider the sculptor Robert Gober’s Untitled candle series from 1991, the plain beeswax pillars turned into erect phallic shafts by the addition of real human hair at the base. Gober’s work, a response to the aids crisis which shattered so many communities in the 1980s and ’90s, plays around with the power-fragility dichotomy embodied by the candle. It presents a shape associated with masculine power and penetration, but in a format that is easily broken, melted and burned away.

These artworks are imbued with significance because they have the potential to be burned, but remain intact, teetering on the edge of their own destruction. Others have gone a step further, creating candles which are deliberately burned as part of a performance or installation. Perhaps the best known of these is the Swiss artist Urs Fischer, whose Untitled (2011) installation presents a series of enormous candles which mimic: (1) Giambologna’s 1579 sculpture Abduction of a Sabine Woman, (2) the conceptual artist Rudolf Stingel, and (3) a selection of chairs, including a plastic garden chair and an aeroplane seat. While this sounds like three of the worst options to receive on Blind Date, it is in fact art. No, really – they burned them in galleries and everything.

The more commercial sculptural candles which populate social media tend to remain unburned, but that’s more a case of not wanting to literally set your money on fire after dropping £30 on a fancy stick of wax that looks good next to the pink velvet chair in your living room. Nevertheless, the choice to keep these candles intact still has significance, even if that significance isn’t intentional. It says something about how we present ourselves for public consumption, much like the connoisseurs of yore, surrounding ourselves with objects that project a sense of aesthetic awareness. The material quality of these candles is also important in this respect, and the changing nature of candlewax is its own cultural history in miniature: from animal-derived tallow, beeswax and spermaceti, through a period in the late 19th century dominated by the fossil fuel-derived paraffin wax, to our contemporary preference for plant-based soy wax. These objects are, in effect, small democratic artworks, offering us the chance to align ourselves with the prevailing taste for a relatively small sum of money – but not so small that we can afford to constantly burn and replace them. They’re akin to a coffee table book: beautifully designed and full of glossy photographs, strategically placed for guests to admire, their presence justified by their ostensible function, but never, ever used for their intended purpose. Leave that to the proles with the bad teeth.

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