Wednesday 17 October 2012

Not just an also-ran

Bronze, Royal Academy, London

Popular perceptions - which are not always to be trusted - have it that, in the arts, metals are like the performers in traditional rock bands. There are the big shots, strutting their stuff at the front of the stage with mike or guitar and getting fame and fortune, followed by the honest plodders who do their bit onstage too but, somehow, never get the hype. In this view gold and silver, chosen for top statues, vessels and decoration, are the star turns whilst bronze is the respectable but sad runner-up. This exhibition is a chance for us to re-evaluate its place in the artistic pecking order. What is there among the exhibits here that shows this metal on its mettle?

The early part of the exhibition may lead us to think that bronze is a material cut-out for solemn statues and not much else. But we see ‘St John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee’ (1506-1511), comprising three figures by Giovan Francesco Rustici, a close associate of Leonardo. Designed to go above the north door of the Florence Baptistry, it looks like a knock-off of traditional solemn Roman statuary, complete with the didactic raised arm of the Baptist — until we spot the ragged clothes hugging his emaciated body which contrast with the well-dressed, sleek look of his listeners. We’re suddenly aware of the difference between the lifestyles — and beliefs - of the preacher and his audience. Staying with spiritual subjects. Alfred Gilbert’s ‘St Elizabeth of Hungary’ (1899) looks, at first. on the verge of supermodel-like campness (as we might expect from the creator of Eros,) but the expression on her face leaves us puzzled. is she devoted or exasperated and, if so, why?

Mythology makes its mark with the Etruscan ’Chimera of Arezzo’ (c.400 BC), showing this mythical, hybrid animal with lion’s head, goat’s body and serpent’s tail, at bay with its back arched and its scaly neck raised to scare off attackers (perhaps Bellerophon, at whose hands this fire-breathing monster would eventually meet its doom). And we can feel the heat of ‘Vulcan’s Forge’ (1611) by Adriaen de Vries, as every muscle is strained by its stripped toilers (Vulcan was the Roman god of fire, and smith to the gods). But any arachnaphobes seeing this and sweltering in spirit will find their flesh turn cold when they encounter ‘Spider lV’ (1996), by Louise Bourgeois, insinuating its way up a wall as_ it looks for cover from which it can spin its web and devour its prey.

How the ‘Astante Ewer’ (c.1390-1400), inscribed with the royal arms of England, ended-up in what is present-day Ghana is a mystery, but what is obvious is its practical styling: it’s bulbous but well-balanced, has a spout which is generous but which won’t spill the ewer’s contents, and a long, curving handle which looks easy to manoeuvre. lt demonstrates that art, design and practicality had met together long before Modernism started to lay down rather obvious points about form following function. From monarchical furnishings we move to the power of monarchy itself with a bust of ‘Catherine de’ Medici’ (1580-1600) by Germain Pilon. He gives this French queen consort, mother of three kings and patron of the arts a hard, self-assured expression. She expects obedience as a right and a slight frown is a harbinger of what’s in store if it’ s not forthcoming.

A running figure by Umberto Boccioni demonstrates ‘Unique Forms of Continuity in Space’ (1913, cast 1972) with a human body that seems to be formed by a whirlwind of blade-like semi-circles. The Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture, issued by Boccioni in 1912, spoke of destroying the materiality of bodies, but this sculpture radiates corporeal human power. You can almost smell the sweat as it cuts its way through the air. This sculpture ought to be used regularly when sport is promoted, an ever-present icon for athletic achievement: a perceived undertone of Fascism within Futurism is, possibly, why it’s not. Nearer our own time, David Smith gives us his ‘Portrait of a Painter’ (1954). The figure is elongated with, both amusingly and seriously, an artist’s palette for a head, a reminder that an artist should have an obsession about the nature and content of his or her work. And Richard Deacon’s jagged pile of ‘Bronze Nails’ (2007) looks — at first -threatening, like some form of trench defence from a First World War battlefield. But look at it for long enough and it seems to mutate into a comfortable straw-like bale.

These bronzes deliver a hammer-blow to any suspicion that their component is, somehow, inferior as a working metal to gold and silver. But there may be a lingering feeling that this exhibition lacks deeper value because it has the feel of being a thematic and chronological mish-mash, reminiscent of the sort of sleepy country town museum where you might find Roman coins exhibited next to an assegai donated by some long-dead veteran of the Zulu wars. However, this perception is undone — in a quiet, factual way — by the exhibition’s Second Room, which is devoted to the technical side of bronze casting, complete with diagrams and films showing the stage-by-stage process it involves. This instructional material captures the imagination, and seems to arouse just as much interest amongst the onlookers as the bronzes themselves. And this is good, because there are wide cultural implications here. in recent years within the arts, it can be said that metallic sculpture has - with the occasional exception like Antony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’ - taken a back seat behind (easily-constructed) installations.

Maybe this is because at the heart of metal-work lies skilled craft, with its need to mentally master and physically apply scientific knowledge - along with the unavoidable effort this entails. in other words, technical education is involved here and this is something which has, arguably, been neglected by educationalists since the end of the Second World War. There are a number of possible reasons for this: the fetish for university education, leading to the importance of technical training being downgraded and the dumbing-down of institutions and degrees so that all get prizes; the view that science - upon which technical knowledge is dependent - is a cold, hard, logical thing, unlike the arts which are felt to be warm, fluffy and inclusive (anyone who conceives thus of art evidently hasn’t wrestled with, say, the anti-democratic sentiments expressed by Shakespeare and Eliot); and a culture of instant gratification which wants immediate results and which is not helped by modern educational approaches which pander to pupils’ — sorry, students’ — short attention spans instead of imposing the hard work of learning. ‘My time is now’ is the mantra on the lips of every X Factor wannabe.

It would be good to think that craft’s time has come — or, rather, returned. The Olympic legacy is to be welcomed — if it materialises — but not everyone is cut out for the sports field. The imminent return to rigour in examinations (but will it be allowed to survive?) is long overdue, but not everyone can shine in the hothouse of academic endeavour with its atmosphere of abstract speculation. The hard graft of craft, with the technical education it involves, is something where non-sporty or academic pupils can be achievers. But this isn’t just a place where refugees from sports-field and classroom can be dumped: craft is a skilled field where pupils can come into their own. Most importantly of all, it has intrinsic value because it is a forum for the expansion of human knowledge. Like bronze itself, it isn’t simply an also-ran. This exhibition is important, not only because of its visual pleasure and the skills whose application it manifests, but also because of what it can point to as a future fruitful field of human achievement. It’s a reminder that the artificer, as well as the artist. has a vital role in culture.

Till 9 December 2012

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