Sculpture

Beguiling: Yinka Shonibare, at the Serpentine Galleries, reviewed

More than seven centuries ago, the medieval cartographer Richard of Haldingham created Hereford Cathedral’s Mappa Mundi; I say ‘created’ because when he drew his map it was largely a work of the imagination. Its terra incognita is populated with bizarre creatures born of the fever dreams of early travel writers: his Africa is inhabited by Monocules, one-eyed, one-legged men who use their single foot as a parasol, and his Asia is roamed by the Bonnacon, a bull-like creature with inward-curling horns whose only defence is his projectile faeces. As a Londoner who grew up in Lagos he felt kinship with the hybrid creatures of the Mappa Mundi Five years ago,

The latest Venice Biennale is ideologically and aesthetically bankrupt 

Last week’s opening of the 60th edition of the Venice Biennale marks a watershed for the art world. In much of the festival’s gigantic central exhibition, curated by the Brazilian museum director Adriano Pedrosa, as well as in many of the dozens of independently organised national pavilions and countless collateral events, it more obviously than ever before didn’t so much matter what was on show, but why. The politics of visibility and representation has been eating away at the arts for at least a decade, most recently under the banner of ‘decolonisation’. The now nearly complete abdication of aesthetic criteria in favour of a decolonial organising principle is here finally

Winning: When Forms Come Alive, at the Hayward, reviewed

In case you didn’t know, we live in a ‘post-minimalist’ age, sculpturally speaking. Not a maximalist age, though some of the works in the Hayward’s new sculpture show are huge – an age of revolution against neatness. Who’s to blame for this call to disorder? Women. The two prime movers of this movement, if you can call it that, could not be more different, but both rebelled against minimalist geometry. As a student at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s, Ruth Asawa travelled to Toluca, Mexico, and saw villagers looping wire to make baskets for eggs. It struck her as a way of drawing in three dimensions and later,

The spare, graceful, revelatory sculptures of Kim Lim

In 1989, the sculptor Lorna Green circulated a questionnaire among 320 of her female peers about their experiences as women in a male-dominated field; three years ago she sent a follow-up survey. The work of 29 respondents to both is currently on show in an instructive exhibition, If Not Now, When? Generations of Women in Sculpture in Britain 1960-2023 at the Saatchi Gallery (until 22 January). They include Kim Lim (1936-97), who is the subject of an overdue retrospective at the Hepworth Wakefield.  Lim’s stone carvings were a revelation to me when I first saw them at Camden Arts Centre in 1999, but it’s only now, with this first full

How Philip Guston became a hero to a new generation of figurative painters

Why do painters represent things? There was a time when the answers seemed obvious. Art glorified power, earthly and divine, and provided moral exemplars of how to behave – in the case of sacred paintings – or how not to in the case of profane ones. When modernism threw all that into doubt, the picture frame remained. The question for modern artists was, what to put in it? Fifteen years of non-representational painting prompted Guston to question its usefulness For the first decade of his career, Philip Guston had an old-fashioned answer: the murals he painted in the style of Italian Renaissance frescoes in the US and Mexico during the

Biomorphic forms that tempt the viewer to cop a feel: Maria Bartuszova, at Tate Modern, reviewed

Art is a fundamentally childish activity: painters dream up images and sculptors play with stuff. It was while playing with an inflatable ball with her young daughter in the early 1960s that Maria Bartuszova had the idea of filling balloons with liquid plaster instead of air. The inspiration fed her muse for 30 years, seeding the mixed crop of biomorphic forms currently filling five rooms at Tate Modern. Trained in ceramics at Prague Academy of Arts under communism, Bartuszova turned to plaster after moving with her sculptor husband Juraj Bartusz to the industrial city of Kosice, now in Slovakia, in 1963. Plaster was cheap and plentiful: a 1987 photo in

The uncomfortable lessons of the new Fourth Plinth statues

The Revd John Chilembwe – whose statue now adorns Trafalgar Square – is notorious for the church service he conducted beneath the severed head of William Jervis Livingstone, a Scottish plantation manager with a reputation for mistreating his workers. The night before, Chilembwe’s followers had broken into his house and chased him from room to room as he tried to fend them off with an unloaded rifle. Eventually, they pinned him down and decapitated him in front of his wife and children. It was the most significant action in the 1915 Chilembwe rebellion, a small, short-lived affair in an obscure corner of the British Empire today known as Malawi. It

A mess: British Museum’s Feminine Power – the Divine to the Demonic reviewed

The point at which the heart sinks in this exhibition is, unfortunately, right at the outset. That’s where we meet the five commentators that the British Museum has invited to respond to the objects and ideas in the exhibition. But only Mary Beard knows her subject. There’s Bonnie Greer, playwright and critic; Elizabeth Day, podcaster and novelist; Rabia Siddique, humanitarian (that’s a calling, it seems) and barrister; and Deborah Frances-White, podcaster and stand-up comedian. Each presides over part of the exhibition, which is ordered by categories such as Passion and Desire and Magic and Malice. It’s an odd exercise. I’m not entirely sure whether Frances-White, for instance, brings much to

The jewel-bright, mesmerisingly detailed pictures by Raqib Shaw are a revelation

Describing the Venice Biennale, like pinning down the city itself, is a practical impossibility. There is just too much of it, tucked away, scattered throughout the maze of alleyways and canals. And the art is no longer confined to the Biennale’s national pavilions in the gardens. It has spread, via dozens of tagalong shows cashing in on the presence of the global art world, to a motley array of disused palaces, warehouses, churches, at least one shop and a hidden garden loggia. A good way to sample it is just to follow your fancy: step through an ancient doorway and find out what is on the other side. That’s how

Valuable reassessment of British art: Barbican’s Postwar Modern reviewed

Notoriously, the past is another country: what’s more, it’s a terrain for which the guidebooks need constantly to be rewritten. That’s one attraction of the new exhibition Postwar Modern at the Barbican. It’s a survey of what might seem all-too-familiar territory: British art in the two decades that followed VE day. Yet it succeeds in revealing numerous half-forgotten or undervalued movements and people, the good, the bad and – most intriguingly – candidates for reassessment. The decades that followed the second world war were marked by dreary austerity, perhaps explaining the tendency for the art to be coloured oatmeal, beige, grey and brown. But this was also a time of

Beautiful and revealing: The Three Pietàs of Michelangelo, at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, reviewed

The room is immersed in semi-darkness. Light filters down from above, glistening on polished marble as if it were flesh. This is the installation for Le Tre Pietà, a remarkable micro-exhibition that has just opened at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence. It is low in quantity, containing just three works. But stratospherically high in quality, since it comprises Michelangelo’s three versions of the Pietà – that is, the Madonna mourning the dead Christ. He carved these over almost 70 years: one in his early twenties, the next in his seventies, the last in his eighties. Admittedly, the first and the last are present only in a rather old-fashioned

Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning art scene

A little more than a century ago, a charismatic British army captain called T.E. Lawrence and fearsome Bedouin warriors swept through the sublime canyons around the desert city of Al-’Ula where I stroll today. They blew up the Hejaz railway, built to transport hajjis from Damascus towards Mecca but repurposed during the first world war by Turks to ferry munitions and troops. Such was the 1916-18 Arab Revolt that threw off Arabia’s Ottoman yoke. Today a very different kind of Arab uprising is sweeping through Al-’Ula. The canyons resonate not with bombs but with art. Dubai-based Zeinab Alhashemi has constructed boulders made from camel hides for a piece called ‘Camouflage

Part-gothic horror, part-Acorn Antiques: Louise Bourgeois, at the Hayward Gallery, reviewed

Louise Bourgeois was 62 and recently widowed when she first used soft materials in her installation ‘The Destruction of the Father’ (1974). The father in question was not her American late husband Robert Goldwater, the father of her children, but her own French father Louis Bourgeois, long deceased. Set in a space evoking the interior of a digestive tract, the installation’s centrepiece was a table bearing the remains of an imagined feast at which Louise and her brother had eaten their dominating father after dismembering him and cutting off his penis. You have been warned. There is nothing soft about Bourgeois’s soft sculptures, though — on the evidence of the

Only time will tell if there’ll be a Great Pandemic Novel

We had been dreading it like (forgive me) the plague: the inevitable onslaught of corona-lit. Fortunately, the first few titles out of the gate have been in capable hands. Zadie Smith reflected on lockdown in Intimations, a slim volume of personal essays; the virus featured in Ali Smith’s Orwell Prize-winning Summer; and Sarah Moss imagines a lockdown hike gone awry in her forthcoming novel The Fell. The twice Booker-nominated novelist and short story writer Sarah Hall also felt compelled to address the calamity, rising in the dark to write before home schooling her daughter during lockdown. ‘I’m not saying I was particularly equipped,’ Hall explained in a press release. ‘But

Glorious: Bernardo Bellotto at the National Gallery reviewed

What is the National Gallery playing at? Why, in this summer of stop-start tropical storms, is the NG making visitors — visitors with prebooked, time-slotted tickets, mind — queue outside and in the rain? Why are its cloakrooms still closed and umbrellas forbidden? My husband had to stash his behind a balustrade on Orange Street. Why, with a 1:45 ticket, were we not through the doors until 2:05? Why make your harassed marshals, doing the best they can, shout ticket times and field questions from furious picture-fanciers? Lousy sort of freedom this. The V&A, by the way, is just as bad. I used to roll my eyes at the ‘it’s

Rodin was as modern as Magritte and Dali, but more touching and troubling than either

Rodin’s studio at Meudon in the suburbs of Paris is huge and filled with light — a sort of combined warehouse, factory and conservatory. It’s crammed with white plaster figures: battered, writhing and fragmentary. This strange, almost surreal effect has been recreated in The Making of Rodin at Tate Modern. The result is more interesting than beautiful. Few exhibits would normally be classified as finished pieces. Most are plaster casts of clay studies, ranging in scale from miniature to gigantic. Quite a lot aren’t even works in progress, more ingredients for art, bits and pieces he could play around with. Rodin called these ‘giblets’ (‘abats’). Their effect can be macabre:

Why Thomas Becket still divides opinion

Visitors to the British Museum’s new exhibition will become acquainted with one of the most gloriously bizarre stories in the history of English Christianity: the tale of Eilward, a 12th-century Bedfordshire peasant. One day Eilward is in the pub when he has the misfortune to run into his neighbour Fulk, to whom he owes a small debt. An angry confrontation follows; eventually Eilward storms off drunkenly — in the direction of his creditor’s house, where he breaks in and starts trashing the place. Fulk catches him red-handed, beats him up and then hands him over to the authorities. One account suggests Eilward was framed; but whatever the truth of the

How St Ives became Barbara Hepworth’s spiritual home

‘To see a world in a grain of sand’, to attain the mystical perception that Blake advocated, requires a concentrated, fertile imagination. Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), one of the leading and most popular British sculptors of the 20th century, fervently imagined that her works expressed cosmic grandeur and her own spiritual aspirations. In the foreword to this thoughtful and enjoyable biography, Ali Smith testifies that Hepworth was ‘fiercely intelligent’, while its author, Eleanor Clayton, candidly declares: ‘I write as a curator who loves the artist she presents, a fan writing of her hero.’ Her research shows how frequently the sculptures convey ‘concepts [Hepworth] considered universal and eternal’. Clayton, eminently qualified as

The art of storing and unveiling

‘Put beauty first and what you get will be used forever,’ said Roger Scruton in his BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters. The philosopher’s neat elision of beauty and utility is perfectly embodied by Étienne Maurice Falconet’s nymph, who is to be the star of a forthcoming lecture by Waddesdon Manor curator Juliet Carey. This small marble figure would be far less remarkable were it not for the elegance of the 19th-century wooden box in which she is housed. Exquisite, flesh-like pillows of chamois fill the space around the nymph’s form: the box and the sculpture seem at one, as though locked in a dance. The nymph has been stored this way

Maggi Hambling’s Wollstonecraft statue is hideous but fitting

Frankly, it is rather hideous — but also quite wonderful, shimmering against the weak blue of a late November sky. The new statue ‘for’ Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), the radical writer, journalist, teacher and novelist, had drawn quite a crowd to Newington Green in north London when I went to see it. They were gathered round it, puzzled and questioning, trying to work out what to think of the tiny figure on top, the garish silvery finish, the heaving bulbous mass below. The memorial, designed by the sculptor Maggi Hambling, has been vilified since its unveiling a few weeks ago by critics who have focused on the nude female figure, bothered