On Thursday I saw the Bronze exhibition at the RA. Far later than everyone else, I know, but in the relative peace and tranquillity that presides at 8am. In a pre-coffee state, I was quite prepared to ignore all the blurb and just look at the sculpture without trying to form any sort of art historical interpretation, or even a compare and contrast sort of attitude; if anything I returned to my childhood approach – ‘out of everything in THIS room, what would I take home?’ Well, of course what I would really like is to have the entire Royal Academy as my personal museum, on a deserted island a bit like the one in Bond where he first meets the villain. But failing that, here are some of my choices and rejections.
The Dancing Satyr, yes, as this was the only piece in the first room so no difficulties there. Only if I had some sort of circular entertaining space with spectacular lighting. Really, what better to set an example for a really Bacchanalian party than this figure totally absorbed in his ecstatic dance? The only really obvious example of influence the curators allowed was the (not quite) juxtaposed Etruscan votive figure with a small Giacometti. I found that very satisfying among the overwhelming variety elsewhere. The Etruscan version showed a smiling boy’s face with a sort of Tintin quiff aloft a very elongated body; Giacometti’s figures are more melancholy, haunted, a tortured aspect to their roughly modelled, skeletal features – maybe they feel their lack of votive purpose in this alienating modern world?
The animal rooms were always going to be a difficult choice. Who wouldn’t want a small elephant from Shang dynasty China from which to pour their wine? Or a pair of good-natured and well-groomed leopards from mid C16th Benin to guard one’s entrance? The Egyptian cat was perfect, sleek, mysterious, and utterly contemptuous of its neighbours – Picasso’s baboon (constructed from a vase and two of his son’s toy cars – can you imagine the distress of the small boy? Unlikely that he appreciated his father’s artistic Genius in this case) and Germaine Richier’s Praying Mantis, a towering but petrified threat. The monster pug was in a league of its own.
Too much to write about… Only I can’t resist mentioning Adrian de Vries’ Hercules, Nassus & Deianira (1622); oh, the drama of the rearing centaur and his hapless victim – totally ignored by the mongrel who is wearily trying to protect his flask of wine. And the Etruscan Chrysippos Cista – one of the few blurbs I did read, but which failed to inform me why there should be two soldiers carrying a naked woman horizontally on the lid (dead? drunk? fainting?) or why the claw feet of the vessel rested upon squashed toads. And nearby, the Aquamanile Lion from Hildesheim, who with downturned eyes seems to smile indulgently as a lizard-like creature with a fleur-de-lys tail whispers in his ear (helpfully forming a handle in the process). Or the Emaciated Buddha, a sad sight with his protruding ribs and veins in the company of so many well-fed brother buddhas (not one I would take home; he is not enjoying the party).
The contemporary additions were well chosen to show the diversity with which bronze could be employed; however, it was difficult not to notice a certain art-for-art’s-sake quality – in contrast to the functionality or decorative purpose of the sculpture of the past – which sometimes slipped into cynical subversiveness in the case of Jasper Johns or Jeff Koons. Hepworth and Kapoor provided positive examples of absolute abstraction that allowed an appreciation purely of material and form without distraction. And in the last room, Brancusi’s Danaide (1918) would be my final choice. Primitive and glowing, in symmetrical perfection, her ghost of a smile silently and hesitantly heralding peace and the modern age.