Sculptor’s P.O.V. ____________ “Zidane’s head-butt” vs. “Samson Slaying a Philistine”


This is a Guest Post by Neil Ferber, a British sculptor working in Pietrasanta.

One of my pleasures in life is to sit with a glass of wine in the beautiful old Piazza in Pietrasanta. The other day I took a seat in my favourite bar, looked up and found that a gigantic 16 foot bronze statue was obscuring my view of church of  Sant’ Agostino. I breathed a sigh of resignation and thought “What now?”

It turned out to be a monumental bronze sculpture of the moment when French footballer Zidane head-butted an Italian opponent because he was taunting him. The sculptor is Adel Abdessemed, an artist who lives and works in Paris.

The subject of violence is certainly not new in art.

There is a large marble sculpture by Giambologna (John from Bologna) called Samson Slaying a Philistine. Samson apparently was taunted by the  philistines so he set about slaying a few thousand of them with an ass’s jawbone.

It was commissioned in about 1562, by Francesco de Medici for a fountain in Florence, and later it was gifted to Spain. Then in 1623 it was given to the  Prince of Wales, later to become King Charles I, while he was in Spain negotiating a marriage contract, and it soon became the most famous Italian sculpture in England and is now  the centre piece of the sculpture collection in the V&A Museum in London.

The sculpture is a perfect example of three dimensional spiral form that offers no front and back views, but continually shifting array of line and form that change as you circle it. View it as many times as you like – it will always surprise you.


I could bore you for ages comparing the sculptural merits of the Samson with the lack of them in the Zidane sculpture, but I think putting photos of each sculpture side by side speaks for itself. The control of the sculptural language in the Giambolgna is in the sphere of genius while it’s questionable that there is even a smattering of mediocre talent in the Abdessemed sculpture.

I looked up Adel Abdessmed on the internet and his gallery states that he is a conceptual artist. Conceptual art as I understand it is not about the aesthetic value of a sculpture but about the ideas that a sculpture generates in the mind of the viewer. So, fair enough, the lack of aesthetic qualities is to be expected, but the question arises in my mind. “Why is it here?”  Pietrasanta is a town that has for centuries been famous for executing aesthetically pleasing objects in traditional materials such as bronze and marble. I have been told there is a marble version of the same sculpture being carved in Carrara.

It is not uncommon for an artist who becomes famous in the world of conceptual art to then turn their hand to more traditional art. As though they don’t quite feel they are proper artists if they can’t draw, paint or sculpt in the traditional manner. Tracey Emin’s drawings are just one example.The whole thing reminds me of pop music world when rock stars who after a couple of hit singles start composing rock operas or pop oratorios without realising that the musical language is far far larger than the handful of guitar chords they are familiar with.

It might seem unfair to compare the Zidane work with a masterpiece from the Renaissance, like comparing a television script for a soap opera with a Shakespeare play. One is from the world of modern culture and the other from the world of high art of the past, and both exist side by side so everyone can choose what they want to engage with.  I have no objection to people enjoying Adel Abdessemed’s work in a gallery,  I can choose not to go,  but this large monument to ego is impossible not to see and is blocking my view of Sant’ Agostino.

Where is the Samson and his  jaw bone today, when you need him?


A version of this post originally appeared on Neil Ferber’s informative and interesting blog “A Sculptor’s Diary” which we link to here.

Previously on Art is Life:

“Zidane’s Headbutt” sculpture will play in Pietrasanta’s “Italy-France” Exhibition

Zidane’s headbutt – Adel Abdessemed’s ode to defeat looms large at the Centre Pompidou in Paris

The Museo dei Bozzetti home of a great collection of artists’ models takes part in “Italy-France” Exhibition in Pietrasanta


6 thoughts on “Sculptor’s P.O.V. ____________ “Zidane’s head-butt” vs. “Samson Slaying a Philistine”

  1. It’s odd how a post can stand out from thousands of others but for some reason this nicely crafted article did just that, hence a good 12 hours after initially stumbling across it I find myself pulling it back up for another look – and you know what? It reads even better the second time around!
    Well done Neil Ferber for capturing the frustration many of us feel these days about public works of art. In the never ending rush to doll the world with tributes to this that and the other it would seem the actual aesthetics of the piece come somewhere near the bottom when the various panels and committees bestow their money. But if anyone has nailed the subject quite so succinctly as the author of this piece I would dearly like to read their work.
    The thing is… I really think people (your ordinary average run-of-the-mill folks) DO distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art. They may not give the matter too much thought, but perhaps that comes from being served up so much drivel masquerading as ‘public sculpture’ that to some degree they have simply given up, and in a lot of cases simply write off all public displays of art at so much elitist “junk”. But if we take a look at our fellow museum-goers it’s abundantly clear that the rank-and-file members of the public (ordinary folks, in other words) definitely DO take an interest in the arts … though you’d never know it by comparing them to the generally upper middle-class denizens of the world’s art galleries!
    So well done Neil, I really think this article deserves a wider audience and suggest you consider perhaps presenting it for publication where the defenders of the Zidane sculpture may be prompted to reflect on the atrocity they have (unwittingly) perpetrated on the beautiful old Piazza in Pietrasanta.
    Thanks for taking the time to examine a subject that we less gifted writers can only mull over in our heads – and sigh.

  2. Hah! I missed this post before. My goodness, this sculpture is ugly. When I saw a photo of it earlier, I thought, “ugly, but so is the moment it captures, so why not? but let me not look at it any longer.” How brilliant of this writer to compare it to a great work like the Samson, where an ugly moment is rendered magnificent in its spiraling rage and power. He could have extended the idea to examine the way sport has become a simulacrum of brutal battle (what happened to “the beautiful game’?) for an increasingly tribalized populace…or looked at how so many of today’s Philistines call themselves artists. Perhaps sparking those ideas do make this successful as conceptual art, but as an object in the world, it fails. I don’t know about melting it down, but I hope it will be deported soon!

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