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“Modern British Sculpture” at the Royal Academy of Arts, unanswered questions?

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Thursday, 24th February 2011 – David Franchi

Entering at the Royal Academy of Arts rapidly you have the feeling that something peculiar is going on. It’s because passing the arch that from Piccadilly leads into the Royal Academy Annenberg Courtyard, immediately hits you the dominant replica of “Merz Barn”, by German artist Kurt Schwitters built in Cumbria in 1948.

This is how “Modern British Sculpture” begins, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 7th April 2011. This exhibition is definitely unusual; the overlooking idea is to find an answer to the title questions: what is British? What is modern? What is sculpture?

It has been rather difficult to understand exactly, if an answer could be found in such an exhibition. But definitely “Modern British Sculpture” paves the way to a fresh new look about sculpture in the UK.

Firstly, through leaving the traditional disposition of works for a confrontational set of pieces placed in contrast, the exhibition dares the visitors to pull down the wall of the old ideas and making new connections. It is arranged in a chronological series of strongly themed galleries, each making its own visual argument.

Secondly, because it is the first exhibition for 30 years to look at the British sculpture of the twentieth century. It examines British sculpture within a broader international context, highlighting the connections between Britain, continental Europe and the United States. Until 1930s the British Empire was at its peak and London was the centre of the world, collecting materials coming from America, India and Africa. Therefore, the impact that these connections and non-western techniques, iconography and cultural sensibility had on the development of British sculpture at that time was strong.

Thirdly, this exhibition explores the choices constantly faced by the sculptor, between figuration and abstraction and between sculpture commemorative and political functions. Key juxtapositions of pieces should exemplify these choices.

But, the road to Hell is paved of good intentions. It is true that the exhibition raise questions but, it seems, it doesn’t really give answers. Many critics have condemned different aspects of “Modern British Sculpture”, together with the exclusion of famous artists eg. Kapoor and Gormely. However, it worth to pay a visit. Not only for the number of amazing artworks and famous artists present, but also because this exhibition gives somewhat to consider. It’s food for thoughts and despite some controversial choices, it is always positive to have something to elaborate. 

Another good point of this exhibition is that the space in the rooms is comfortable, there is not that crowding of pieces an of people typical of other shows.

The first room opens comparing abstraction and figuration. There is, in fact, the copy of Edwin Lutyens’s ’Cenotaph’ – without flags- the real one being unmovable. On the wall photographs of Jacob Epstein’s ‘Cycle of Life’, probably the nativity of modern British sculpture, that was made for the British Medical Association building (now Zimbabwe House) on the Strand (1907-08) and faced many troubles.

Genghis Khan, 1963 – Philip King

In the second room modern artworks – Epstein, again, and Underwood – are mixed with a series of significant ethnographic loans from the V&A and British Museum, a tribute to influences, tradition and materials coming from abroad. However, why this gallery is titled “Theft by finding” is difficult to understand as nothing is said about the exploitation of these countries.

The third gallery is dedicated to the notorious Jacob Epsteins’s ‘Adam’ (1939). This carved translucent alabaster is a superb hymn to corporal dynamism and virility, well represented by the gloriously “male attributes” of Adam wavered by the legs movement. What about that two wistful ladies watching “there”? Something to consider when carving… and when exposing too. Here there is also a Moore’s ‘Snake’ that alludes to sexuality as well. But Adam dominates the gallery.

Jubilee Memorial to Queen Victoria, 1887 – Alfred Gilbert

Charles Wheeler’s ‘Adam’ (1934-35) in the fourth room is, of course, the counterpart of the one met before, a classical style bronze statue, that goes together with another classical the plaster cast of Frederic Leighton’s famous ‘Athlete Struggling with a Python’ (1887). In the fourth room there are also two other works only: the conical ‘Genghis Khan’ (1963) by Phillip King and the ‘Jubilee Monument to Queen Victoria’ (1887) by Alfred Gilbert, the profligate master who created ‘Eros’ in Piccadilly Circus. The question is: why are all these works packed together? And why this room is titled “The Establishment Figure”? Where is the Establishment? Gilbert was a master of the bronze, his work is full of elaborated details and he represent the end of era when King’s work is made in a vivid plastic with a futuristic design.

Entering the fifth room the first encounter is with a display cabinet of ceramics for which Ikea designers very much thank for the inspiration. However, there is also the remarkably Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Pelagos’ (1946).

Room number six, the title is “Hepworth and Moore”. There are, of course, works of the two masters, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, both working in public sculpture, but in such different style. Moore favoured the horizontal and figurative, Hepworth the vertical and abstract. Unfortunately, there are two works only in this room. Besides, a bit difficult is to understand the juxtaposition made with the Schwitters’s ‘Merz Barn’ placed in the Annenberg Courtyard.

The seventh room contains only the re- creation of ‘an Exhibit’ the masterpiece by Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton. Thirty years later “installation art” was fathered by these sort of works. Now lost, it was originally shown at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle-upon Tyne (1957). Here is the importance of the viewer who is placed inside the work, looking through it, instead of to be positioned outside and looking inside. Again the title “Environmental Construction” is difficult to be interpreted.

The eighth gallery “Early one morning” contains the almost 50 years old homonymous work of Anthony Caro which seem to be juxtaposed to the work of the previous room. Caro’s work with its amazing framed steel and colours, is still a topical. Though the presence of Caro was criticised because it seems he has given the inspiration for this exhibition.

Gallery number nine, “The persistence of British Landscape”, presents amazing masterpieces like William Turnbull’s ‘Parallels’ (1967) and Richard Long’s ‘Chalk line’ (1984). Here it is highlighted the proximity of British and American art production and the differences between the two countries tradition, mostly relating to intimacy.

The upsettingly gallery is the tenth “Towards sculpture as image”. There are two lovely works, Jeff Koons ‘One ball’ (1985) a showcase half full of water with a basketball floating inside, and Urs Fischer ‘Untitled’ (2000), half pear and half apple screwed together hanging from the ceiling. But the shocking work is ‘Let’s eat outdoors today’ (1990-91) by Damien Hirst, a huge hermetic closed glass cube, divided in two sides, containing an abandoned barbeque. According to the guide, it’s made of “glass, steel, cow’s head, flies, maggots, sugar, water, insect-o -cutor, resin, table and chairs, tableware, condiment and food”. Everything is real. And food means real uncooked steaks, a cooked chicken. The cow’s head dripped blood and it coagulated, and thousands of flies flying around those rests. The stench is in the air coming out through the ventilation grids. This work is like a punch in visitor’s stomachs: people stare at it, speechless. Only a evil genius like Hirst could conceive it. It involves people not only with sight but also with other senses and shaking up the audience.

The following room is focused on the attempts to make sculpture look like real life. Here notably the works of Stuart Brisley, Richard Wentworth and Len Lye and ‘Electric fire with yellow fish’ by Bill Woodrow (1981).

The last gallery “Value systems” brings together the private world of artists and the public world of received opinion. Here ‘Page 3’ by Gustav Metzger goes together with a huge “in progress” board full of reviews criticising the pornography of journalism. However, ‘Portable smoking area’ by Sarah Lucas (1996) comparing the smoking rule restrictions to the life of artist sounds slightly unrealistic.

The exhibition does not answer to the questions posed, but maybe was not the intention of curators Penelope Curtis, now Director of the Tate Britain, and sculptor Keith Wilson, together with Adrian Locke. Nevertheless, it is very interesting and gives new ideas to visitor’s brains.

“Modern British Sculpture” is supported by The Henry Moore Foundation and the American Express Foundation is the Preservation Partner. Along with the exhibition are available lectures, courses, workshops and talks.

Published for: www.italoeuropeo.com

Direct link: http://www.italoeuropeo.com/entertaiment/arts/-%e2%80%9cmodern-british-sculpture%e2%80%9d-at-the-royal-academy-of-arts,-unanswered-questions?/

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Written by davidfranchi

February 25, 2011 at 1:25 am

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