What you won’t learn here about British sculpture

Original text by Lunettes Rouges, translation by Miss XS

Until the 7th of April, Modern British sculpture, -just that- is the subject of exhibition at the Royal Academy. It is sometimes said that England dominated sculpture in the 20th century (versus the American domination in painting): yet I am not sure this exhibition will convince you about this. The first historical rooms are organised by blurry themes: the choice of figuration and abstraction are incarnated in a model of Whitehall’s cenotaph (an immense, overwhelming geometric structure) and photos of the statues for the British Medical Association by Jacob Epstein (just try to imagine what the allegory of Clinical Research looks like). Moving along, the second room is devoted to the inspiration by/imitation of antiques; a juxtaposition of Greek, Rapa Nuian, Amerindian sculptures amongst many more, together with modern sculptures that could have been inspired by these – but they remain very sober, without the madness of Picasso or Rodin. The next room becomes more interesting, as we face an alabaster Adam by Jacob Epstein: a pinkish sensual, and even a sexual devil, our primal, savage ancestor (this is the best picture I found, and what is this beautiful blonde woman half-smiling about in this picture?). But moving from Adam to The Establishment Figure, with Queen Victoria on her  majestic throne, is a first-class deturgescent anti-climax. Then, there are a few boring ceramics before coming to three rooms where the immense wingspan of British sculpture can really be appreciated.

We are firstly subjected to a magnificent encounter between Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. By him, in the background, is Reclining Figure- a rounded, sensual horizontal, anthropoid filled with voids and torsions. By her, in the foreground, is Single Form (Memorial)– vertical, massive, imposing flat and concave, pierced with a tragic gaping hole. The first is a symbol of the reconstruction of the country after the war, the second, an homage to Mr.H.

In the following room, the amazement when facing Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton’s installation An Exhibit (a reconstruction, as the original one had disappeared) made of more or less transparent, coloured plastic rectangular forms suspended at different heights, (and sometimes ornamented with an elementary sign such as a red circle or blue rectangle), comes from the date mentioned for this artwork: 1957. It’s without a doubt, one of the first ‘sculptural’ artworks that the public could interact with- where one is invited to walk around and penetrate within the installation itself: another example of British advancement in this field, at the very start of Installation art, and if we can call it that -relational aesthetics (or rather, participatory art).

Early One Morning by Anthony Caro (1962) is the following stage, an assembly of industrial forms in bright red stainless steel, without pedestal, but here we cannot approach it or experiment with it. We can only look at it, like the final point of a sculptural history.

The following rooms are dedicated to contemporary sculpture: there’s nothing from Anthony Gormley or Anish Kapoor. Rather, there’s a simple Stack of planks and bricks by Tony Cragg, many pieces by American sculptors (Carl Andre, Jeff Koons), and newspaper cuttings (the 3rd page of the Sun, with all teats out)- which is in fact a sculpture Gustav Metzger. The poor visitor, suffering from a somewhat confusing historio-aesthetic orientation, will only manage to remember the ‘Déjeuner sur l’Herbe’ (what’s the title of Manet’s painting in English ?lunch in the grass ?) aka Damien Hirts’s Let’s Eat Outdoors Today and his concerto of meat-flies being electrocuted, and perhaps the jubilant photography of Rose Finn-Kelcey titled The Restless Image – A Discrepancy between the Felt Position and the Seen Position – Self-portrait (no other images are available except for the one featured on the brochure), where the then thirty-year-old artist is doing a handstand on the beach: her creased skirt flies off, her face is invisible, her slender legs set against the sky seduce us, but she remind us that what we see is not what we feel…

In the courtyard of Burlington House (residence to the Royal Academy), there is a reconstructed flagstone house titled Merz Barn by Kurt Schwitters. The original Merzbarn, who can be visited in Cylinders, Elterwater, Cumbria, was an English continuation of his Merzbauten.

Perhaps, if you just want to have a beautiful sculptural experience on the day of your visit, it is enough to see Merz Barn (for free); walk around it, measure it, feel its roughness and finesse (but you may not enter it, and the wall is not here), and you won’t need to buy a ticket to this exhibition, which is too limited, too partial and deceiving (lots of controversy about it in the British press).

en français

Photo of Hirst courtesy of the Royal Academy’s press service; photos of Hepworth-Moore, Pasmore-Hamilton and Caro from the Royal Academy’s website; photo of Kurt Schwitters artwork by the author.

– Damien Hirst, Let’s Eat Outdoors Today, 1990-91 Glass, steel, cow’s head, flies, maggots, sugar, water, insect-o-cutor, resin, table and chairs, tableware, condiments and food. 221 x 411.5 x 216 cm. Photo Prudence Cuming Associates.  © Hirst Holdings Limited and Damien Hirst. All rights reserved, DACS 2010.
– 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.
– Epstein Photo by Christopher Furlong / Getty Images Europe, November 9, 2010.
– Pasmore-Hamilton Installation view showing Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton’s ‘an Exhibit’ (1957). Photo: John Bodkin/DawkinsColour.
– Anthony Caro, ‘Early One Morning’, 1962. Painted steel and aluminium, 289.6 x 619.8 x 335.5 cm. Tate: Presented by the Contemporary Art Society, 1965. © Barford Sculptures Ltd/The artist Photo: John Bodkin/DawkinsColour.

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One response to “What you won’t learn here about British sculpture

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention What you won’t learn here about British sculpture | Lunettes Rouges -- Topsy.com

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