There are nearly 160 bronze sculptures ranged throughout the Royal Academy’s main galleries in Bronze, a glorious exhibition (until 9 December) covering a period of 5,000 years — effectively the entire history of the medium. The progression of this durable and universal art form is laid out at a relaxed pace in an exhibition that spans both grandeur and intimacy. Some people have complained about the installation, finding it difficult to follow or too competitively arranged, but I enjoyed it tremendously. This is a remarkable survey of a fascinating subject and the Academy must be congratulated on entrusting it to the capable hands of David Ekserdjian, Professor of History of Art and Film at the University of Leicester. Attentive readers will know Professor Ekserdjian’s name as he regularly reviews books for this magazine. His skills as a curator may be less familiar but they are amply demonstrated by this spectacular exhibition. It’s one of the best shows I’ve seen for a long while.
The only thing that worries me slightly — and in retrospect, not as I wandered enthralled through the galleries — is the dimness of the lighting. Exhibitions of paintings, and particularly watercolours and drawings, are usually held in a reverential atmosphere of gloom, for the simple reason that paper and pigment is often light-sensitive, and some colours are so fugitive that they fade horribly quickly in direct sunlight. But the same cannot be said of bronze. Metal sculptures, even when patinated, are tough enough to withstand the seasons in the open air, so there is no question of physical deterioration (except perhaps with the most ancient and fragile objects) being accelerated by natural light. No, the issue is not one of conservation but of interpretation. Undoubtedly the low lighting is intended to increase the visitor’s sense of awe, and the churchy atmosphere designed to lead us towards admiration and respect. There’s nothing wrong with this — all exhibitions are to a greater or lesser extent stage-managed — though it’s as well to be aware of the manipulation; then we have the choice of accepting it or not.
Magnificence hits home at once with ‘Dancing Satyr’, a fragmentary Greek bronze from the second half of the 4th century BC, stilled in wild movement in the middle of the Academy’s Central Hall. Only part of him survives, and the twisting figure has to be supported on a pole to convey its full beauty and drama. Interesting that one should write of the ‘full’ beauty of an incomplete statue, damaged and fractured at some point in its turbulent history, but such is the contemporary taste for the fragmentary — the lure of the study or unfinished sketch as against the fully realised exhibition piece. Anyway, the partial lines of the satyr’s nude form, the proud and exultant posture, the greenish-bronze surface and white alabaster eyes, all combine to make this an unforgettable opening image.
The exhibition has been subdivided into very broad themes and begins with what most people are most interested in — the human figure. Cunning to start with our obsession with ourselves, for we are at once drawn in, whether to the floor-hugging tomb slab of Fra Leonardo Dati, by Ghiberti, from 1425–6, or the unexpected ‘Portrait of a Painter’ by David Smith, all attenuated limbs and palette head, or the superb realism of Rodin’s ‘Age of Bronze’. These, together with de Kooning’s antic ‘Clam Digger’ and a remarkable Chinese gilt bronze from the early 15th century, are on the left side of the room, with another Ghiberti, a sad-eyed St Stephen, towering over all. This latter is listed as actually being in brass with a silver laminate, but the definition of bronze has been a fluid one through the ages, and for the purpose of this exhibition is taken to mean all forms of copper alloy, whatever the constituent proportions of tin or zinc.
On the right of the room comes Giacometti, with ‘The Cage’ from 1950, Boccioni’s stalking figure ‘Unique Forms of Continuity in Space’ (1913) and a marvellous Nigerian ‘Bowman’, fabulously textured and striated. In the central reservation is a group of smaller pieces in cabinets including a mesmerising Etruscan votive figure from the second century BC called ‘Evening Shadow’, slim as a tent pole, and a prototype for so many of Giacometti’s disappearing twiglet men. Next to it is a marvellous Sardinian Tribal Chief, with cape and staff of authority, dating from somewhere between the eighth and fourth centuries BC. With such marvels to beguile the eye I found myself less interested in the small-scale Greek or Roman or even Renaissance works, though the ‘Putto with Tambourine’ by Donatello, traces of gilding still on his chubby limbs, was surprisingly endearing. Yet all these little exhibits inevitably paled before the vast and impressive height of Benvenuto Cellini’s ‘Perseus and Medusa’.
The fact that this is a fine 19th-century copy doesn’t alter the sheer physical massiveness of this formidable sculpture, and the exquisite skill of its moulding. A modello for it from Cellini’s own hand is in a cabinet nearby, but it is the big version that strikes awe into the beholder. In Room 2, the techniques of bronze casting are elucidated in a pair of films — one devoted to the magical lost wax process, the other to contemporary foundry practices. Rooms 3 and 4 are given over to animal sculptures, from Picasso’s wonderful Baboon (its head made from a toy car) to the supreme elegance of an ancient Egyptian cat. There’s a lifelike Roman ram, an early Hellenistic horse head placed up high and an Etruscan Chimaera, a monstrous combination of lion, goat and serpent. A Chinese elephant vessel looks positively benign by comparison. Arachnophobics beware Louise Bourgeois’ ‘Spider IV’, given its own isolating wall; I much preferred Giambologna’s ‘Turkey’ or even Germaine Richier’s all-too-human ‘Praying Mantis’. Here, too, is a moment of great calm: Brancusi’s soaring yet solid bird form, the ‘Maiastra’ (1911). Opposite, note the lucky wild boar of Florence, its snout burnished by centuries of petting.
Room 5 is devoted to groups. Mostly I found the smaller figure groups too fussy or too intricate, though the 16th-century coupling of satyr and satyress injects a more light-hearted note. One of the most impressive things here is the ‘Chariot of the Sun’, 14th century BC from Trundholm in Denmark, but I did wonder what percentage of its appeal derived from its distressed state, and the partial gold on the sun disc. Would much of its poignance evaporate if it were in perfect condition?
There are so many things to marvel at in this superb exhibition that I haven’t the space to list them all, room by room. Suffice it to say that everyone will find favourites among the broad choice on offer. Look out for the sanctuary ring from Durham Cathedral; Room 8, which juxtaposes Matisse’s famous Back sculptures with a Roman Egyptian relief, Donatello’s urgent ‘Lamentation’ and Cellini’s affectionate Saluki; Bacchus and Mercury in the room of the gods; and the final room, which concentrates on heads, bringing us back neatly to the human focus. This is a room to linger in, with the Thracian King, the Crosby Garrett Helmet, Catherine de Medici, Henry Moore, Brancusi again and Gustavus Adolphus raising his eyes to Heaven, perhaps in general comment. A tremendous show.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 September 2012