Art

 

 

 

A review by James Buxton w for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

 

MODERN BRITISH SCULPTURE 

 

 

Gallery 9 - Adam

Installation view. Foreground: Jacob Epstein, 'Adam' (1938-39). Background: Henry Moore, 'Snake' (1924)

© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2011

Photo: John Bodkin/DawkinsColour

 

 
Royal Academy of Arts
 
22 Jan to 7 Apr  2011
             
Modern British Sculpture is the first exhibition in the UK for thirty years to examine British sculpture of the twentieth century. With the rise of installation art, expanding demand for public monuments and the perennial debate over what should go on the fourth plinth, it seems an appropriate time to re-examine what we define as British sculpture, through a series of provocative juxtapositions. Here, idols from ancient Egypt sit beside abstract forms from the twentieth century, in an unspoken dialogue between shapes.
Traditionally, sculpture in the public sphere is associated with memorials, but it is a provocative move to use Edwin Lutyens’ Cenotaph to begin the exhibition. Towering in the centre of the octagonal entrance room, like the monolithic slab from Kubrick's, 2001: A Space Odyssey, stands a reproduction of Lutyen’s WWI memorial. Situated in Whitehall, it was built in 1919 and designed in just two weeks as a catafalque for the peace celebrations. It is a challenging choice to begin the exhibition with such an abstract piece, which many would argue is a monument and not a sculpture. However, as Penelope Curtis, the Curator and Head of Tate Britain states, this is the purpose of the exhibition, to question our preconceived ideas of what sculpture is. Lutyens’ Cenotaph has a sombre, blank presence - it is a void in space that expresses an overpowering sense of silence. At the same time, anonymous and monumental, it is a fitting tribute to the unspeakable horrors of WWI.  
Lutyens’ Cenotaph is surrounded by eight, life size photographs of Jacob Epstein’s figurative statues made for the Headquarters of the British Medical Association. Carved forty feet high on the outside walls of the building, Epstein conceived the original eighteen sculptures as evocations of the cycle of life and death. Maternity, frailty, youth are all represented in a traditional, neo classical style. Yet during the early twentieth century, images of breasts, buttocks and genitals in a public thoroughfare were deemed offensive and in the 1930’s, they attempted to destroy them. On one occasion a passer-by was grazed by a chunk of one of the statues falling down. You can still glimpse the originals high up on the wall of 40 The Strand, where they stand staring down on the city, crumbling reminders of the passage of time.
The second gallery’s theme is “Theft by Finding” and it explores the influence of relics from ancient civilizations on British sculptors from the period 1910-1930. Artists flocked to London during the early twentieth century, keen on exploring the Empire’s mammoth collection of ancient artefacts. Amongst these artists were Epstein from New York and the French sculptor, Gaudier-Brzeska, both of whom were heavily influenced by the shapes and forms created in these antediluvian societies. This treasure trove of plundered artworks, exhibited in the British Museum, allowed sculptors to re-evaluate sculpture and move away from the traditional, Roman and Greek style towards a greater degree of abstraction. From totem poles to curvaceous torsos, these ancient sculptures have a mystically charged effect. These were objects that people bestowed divine powers upon and used in pagan rites; they were more than works of art.

 

Lecture Room - Theft by Finding

Installation view showing works from the British Museum alongside early twentieth century works

Photo: John Bodkin/Dawkins Colour

 

Large scale industry at the start of the twentieth century allowed the movement of significant amounts of foreign materials, such as Quartzite, Sandstone and Alabaster. This influenced artists to move away from traditional materials such as Bronze or Marble and start sculpting in these more exotic mediums. Direct carving became a British phenomenon, pioneered by Epstein and later, sculptors like Moore and Hepworth acknowledged their debt to him. Sculptors were able to relish the inconsistencies in the constitution of the stone, and the raw physicality in the texture of foreign materials.
In the adjoining room is Epstein's Adam. Hewn out of Alabaster, one is immediately struck by the visual similarities between it and the Easter Island head. Both statues have their faces staring up, yet Adam's face is completely horizontal, in contrast to the upward tilt of the Moia Hava head. Carved out of volcanic rock, Basalt, and over a thousand years old, this statue hasn't been viewed for almost a hundred years. Epstein captures a dense energy in the statue's squat, blocky build in contrast to the stoic calm of the Easter Island head. Though both figurative, they are incredibly stylized in their own distinct way. In Epstein's 1942 autobiography Let There Be Sculpture he wrote: “Instead of writing about it and people standing about talking, arguing, disrupting over the prone Son of Man with protesting palms upturned, there should be music, the solemn mass of Bach.” Bach's Crucifixus Mass in B minor to be exact. So if you plan to go, listen to Bach when you view this hulking figure of virility, as Epstein intended!
In the fourth room, Albert Gilbert's Jubilee Monument to Queen Victoria sits high on a pedestal on a bronze throne, averting her gaze from Epstein’s, saucy Adam. This room deals with the establishment figure and few sculptures can claim to have as great a sense of power and authority as Gilbert's work. Gilbert was a Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Academy and founded the “New” British Sculpture. However this monument definitely consolidates a strong sense of tradition, unlike the modernism of Epstein's Adam. One has to look up in order to see her “sneer of cold command” stare down in an overarching manner. Copies of Gilbert's bronze monarch were distributed throughout the empire and perhaps somewhere, this monument shared a fate similar to Shelley's Ozymandias.
As the exhibition progresses, one is able to formulate a sense of the development of modern British sculpture. The fusion between abstract and figurative work is exemplified by Henry Moore's Reclining Figure from 1951. First shown at the Festival of Britain and cast out of bronze, the figure's outline evokes the rolling hills of the British landscape, whilst its gaping mouth perhaps alludes to the suffering of the WWII. It almost looks as though it’s just woken up confused, in a bronze body of deformity, curiously asking the spectator: “How am I supposed to do anything with these useless limbs?”
During the ‘50’s and ’60’s, new kinds of public, leisure and corporate spaces began to exist, and contractors looked to large scale modern sculpture to fill them. Moore and Hepworth became key figures in this movement and work from them was commissioned from London to Tokyo. This demand for large scale, outdoor sculpture, meant that they would have to use durable material to survive the weather, so they returned to using bronze. Due to demand it was no longer possible to work on one’s own for years as Epstein had done earlier, so sculptors employed teams of craftsmen to construct their designs. This prefigured the art factories of Warhol, where for the first time the role of the artist began to change - they were now charged with the concept of the work and no longer responsible for the physical act of creation.
 

Gallery 6 - Hepworth and Moore

Installation view showing Barbara Hepworth's 'Single Form (Memorial)' (1961-62) in the foreground and Henry Moore's 'Reclining Figure' (1951) in the background

 

Photo: John Bodkin/DawkinsColour

 

This evolution in the role of the artist, and emphasis on collaborative productions began to inspire a whole new generation of sculptors, no longer restricted by individual limitations. In Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton's an Exhibit (1957), one is confronted by flat, intersecting, vertical and horizontal panes of solid colours, resembling an explosion in a Mondrian painting. The spectator is invited to enter into an abstract painting. Hamilton worked in art education and was inspired by Bauhaus ideas of a “Total” environment, achieved by breaking down the conventional boundaries of art, to incorporate engineering, architecture and design.
Anthony Caro was an assistant to Henry Moore, and in 1962, he produced what is widely considered as his finest work, Early One Morning. Caro went to New York in the 1960’s and when he came back, he borrowed a welding iron from his friend and began work on found pieces of steel welded together. The ensuing result was an abstract sculpture of flat planes and linear intersections of poles that drew on the characteristics of abstract paintings. Its bucolic title, Early One Morning, suggests the British landscape that inspired Moore and Hepworth's abstractions, but Caro subverts our assumptions of a traditional pastoral landscape, replacing it with an industrial one.
Sculpture has always been crucially related to the landscape and landscape materials, such as stone and metal. Yet during the 1960s-80s, artists used different mediums such as photography and film to document their interventions in the landscape.  A movement known as 'Land Art ' was formed that transformed the actual, physical landscape into a work of art.  Richard Long's Turf Circle questions the impermanence of art and suggests that an intervention in the landscape can also be considered sculpture. Artists began to combine rubbish and junk into geometric organization, emphasising sculptures relation to everyday objects and matter. William Tucker in 1969 wrote in An Essay on Sculpture: “Sculpture is real, part of the physical world, in a manner not shared by the other arts, and it suffers the advantages and disadvantages of its position in reality.”
Damien Hirst in the 1990s took this emphasis on reality to its’ extreme in his piece Let's Eat Outdoors Today. At the beginning of each week, maggots are placed into two vitrines, which hatch into flies who feast on the remains of a barbeque. This exhibit is sickeningly fascinating, appealing to our atavistic delight in putrefaction, chaos and decay.  Strangely enough the flies in this exhibit at the Royal Academy have been frighteningly successful and around 200,000 flies are born into this scene each week. The floor is peppered in a crawling, buzzing swarm of flies, while an execrable odour wafts from the air vents. Hirst's work can be considered a commentary on the transience of life and what waits for us after death. Some may argue it belongs in the zoo, but the fact that it is not, indicates how influential context is on the sculptures themselves.
Since the 1970’s there has been an increasing focus on making sculpture look like real life. In Julian Opie's W, an empty cabinet sits on the wall, slightly reflecting the spectators’ bemusement. Opie brings into question what we consider sculpture to be, can we describe a cabinet which wouldn't look out of place in a hospital as art, due to the conceptualising that lies behind its existence and its context within an art gallery. It is interesting to note Epstein's own contradictory beliefs on the subject from his autobiography, Let There be Sculpture: “Imitation is no aim of sculpture proper and a true piece of sculpture will always be the material worked into a shape. The shape is the important thing, not whether the eye is fooled by representation as at Mademoiselle Tussauds’ wax works.”
Should sculpture be more concerned with shape or concept? Should it serve a public function or is it the product of a private world of the artist? Does meaning lie solely in the mind of the beholder? These are just a few of the questions that Modern British Sculpture at the Royal Academy suggests. Granted, this is not an absolutely definitive retrospective on all of British sculpture from the twentieth century, after all there is no Antony Gormley or Anish Kapoor. But it is an insightful exhibition, as it allows one to explore the development of abstract, figurative and conceptual sculpture, as we question how we define sculpture today. Above all, this exhibition encourages us to re-evaluate our daily encounters with objects, to look beyond their function or physical form and increase our awareness of the solid, external world, man has fabricated around him.
 

Gallery 3 - The Persistence of British Landscape

 

Installation view. Foreground: Richard Long, 'Chalk Line' (1984) Courtesy the artist and Haunch of Venison, London. Background: the Boyle Family, 'Olaf Street Study' (1966) © Boyle Family.

All rights reserved, DACS 2011.

 

Photo: John Bodkin/DawkinsColour

 

MODERN BRITISH SCULPTURE
22 Jan to 7 Apr 2011
The Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Piccadilly
Admission: £12 Concessions £10 Children £8
Tickets: 0844 209 0051
www.royalacademy,org.uk

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