Sheffield seems to be in a constant state of redevelopment. Last time I went, the Millennium Galleries had just opened; now they’re already history, overtaken by newer developments that have turned the walk from the station into a rat maze of roadworks. But the maze is worth negotiating for the reward of Art at the Rockface, the Millennium Galleries’ latest exhibition.
A joint venture with Norwich Castle Museum, Art at the Rockface is a literal blockbuster — an exhibition exploring art’s fascination with stone. Its scope is extraordinarily ambitious: its 200 ‘rock samples’ range in scale from the Crown Jewels in a Beaton photograph of The Queen to Mount Fuji in a print by Hokusai, and in time from a Montastruc caveman’s 12,500-year-old sketch of horses to a Richard Long Cornish slate spiral dated 1981 (the slate itself is 350 million years old). If the show succeeds, it must be because John Ruskin — whose lifelong passions for art and geology it unites — is smiling down on it. The Museum of St George he founded for Sheffield workers now shares the same building, and has contributed several items to the display. In fact, the whole idea of the show is based on Ruskin’s belief that a stone is ‘a mountain in miniature’, a belief that, in his case, was practical as well as philosophical — one way of teaching urban workers to draw mountains was to bring the mountains to them, in miniature.
To knock this random rock pile into some sort of shape, the display has been arranged under six themes — Travel and Exploration, Metamorphosis, Prayer and Meditation, etc. — that cut across historical timelines. The effect could be disorientating but it works, partly because the constant shift of focus from near to far resembles the visual experience of a mountain walk. Taking the long view, the organisers have put together a veritable diorama of rockfaces, starting with the miniature outcrop behind Dürer’s ‘Saint Jerome’ and Leonardo’s ‘Mountains rising suddenly from the Plain’, before cutting to Salvator Rosa’s ‘Empedocles leaping into Etna’. It was Rosa’s proto-Romantic vision that first set the rockface rocking, leading to Joseph Wright of Derby’s ‘Vesuvius in Eruption, with a view over the Islands in the Bay of Naples’ (Wright mixed sulphur into the paint to add authenticity) and ‘The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons’ (1810) by Turner; the first artist, claimed Ruskin, to have ‘conceived of a stone in flight’. Ruskin obviously wasn’t counting the sculptor Thomas Banks, whose ‘Falling Titan’ (1784), about to be crushed by flying boulders, is also in the show.
With the dawn of modernity, the focus starts to shift to the abstract forms of the rock itself. In the vanguard is William Dyce with ‘Pegwell Bay, Kent — A Recollection of October 5th 1858’, showing the artist tracking the path of Donati’s comet over minutely observed cliffs while his womenfolk poke about in the foreground rock pools. (Geology’s best shots, the picture suggests, fly over women’s heads.) Twentieth-century artists bring the rockface closer. Peter Coker zooms in on a ‘Cliff at Etretat’ and Julian Cooper on the ‘Eiger Face’, while Richard Eurich’s matter-of-fact perspective on a ‘Watercourse, Gordale’ cuts James Ward’s sublime vision quietly down to size. Meanwhile, photographers Ansel Adams, Thomas Joshua Cooper and Sebastiao Salgado train their lenses on natural and unnatural views of the earth’s crust: Salgado’s ‘Full View of the Serra Pelada Gold Mine, Brazil’ (1986) is a frightening image of a mountain being skinned alive by ant-like prospectors.
Historically, the show takes a long view of sculpture, going back to British Bronze Age slabs with cup and ring motifs and a sandstone statue of Khaemwaset, son of Rameses II, which strikes an early blow for truth to materials with its vein of pebbly conglomerate standing in for internal organs. The Classical era is represented by a marble bust of Marcus Aurelius and an ingenious capriccio by Zoffany showing the British Museum’s benefactor Charles Townley squeezed into his library with his entire collection of marbles, three fellow connoisseurs and a collie. Otherwise there’s not much stone parading as flesh, although Burne-Jones explores the possible implications in a painting from his ‘Pygmalion’ series. Modernism prefers its stone to look like stone. The menhir makes a comeback in Hepworth’s ‘Two Figures (Menhirs)’ of 1964, Moore’s 1973 lithograph ‘Sentinel’ and a very strange Paul Nash, ‘Circle of the Monoliths’ (1937–8), far more surreal than the Surrealist Magritte’s ‘The Human Condition’ (1935) hanging alongside. An early Epstein carving of a ‘Crouching Sun Goddess’ may have been destined for the 20th-century Stonehenge he planned with Eric Gill for the Sussex Downs.
Megaliths aside, there’s no room for architecture in this chocka-blockbuster, though a potted history is provided in C.R. Cockerell’s massed gathering of the world’s great buildings, ‘The Professor’s Dream’ (1848). Art at the Rockface is a geology-led show, keen to remind us that ‘our palettes and our paintings are still only available to us by the grace of geological history’, and proving the point by uniting pots of pigments with their constituent minerals. It’s a show that ticks all the right educational boxes, yet still manages to be interesting. Did you know, for instance, that coral contains carotene, that jet is the fossilised wood of the Monkey Puzzle tree, or that our prehistoric ancestors redeveloped Stonehenge — not once, but twice?