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Modern British Sculpture, Royal Academy of Arts, London

Modern British Sculpture, London

A century ago the academy was the enemy of artists and architects, a conservative bastion against change and renewal. Once again the academy has become the enemy, or at least its theory-inflected modes of thinking, more concerned with spinning verbiage around an artwork than with the artefact itself. Such thinking has spread beyond the academy to infect also criticism and curatorship. An example of what results is, aptly enough, on show at the exhibition Modern British Sculpture, curated by Penelope Curtis and Keith Wilson at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Given the subject, this should have been a dazzling exhibition. While Henry Moore dominated the mid-20th century as prolific producer of plaza plop to prestigious buildings around the world, British sculpture saw a huge flowering of diverse talent in the last decades of the century that drew international admiration. A few of the many sculptors excluded from this exhibition are Richard Deacon, Andy Goldsworthy, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Anish Kapoor, David Nash, Rachel Whiteread and Richard Wilson, and then the Chapman Brothers and other YBAs. With so much to have chosen from, you leave the show irked by the many fine sculptors who have been excluded and also by the often poor selection of works from those included.

Most annoying of all, though, is that this poor selection is to provoke fatuous ‘confrontation’ and ‘conversations’. Even before entering the RA, the portents are troubling. In the courtyard is a meticulous reconstruction of the Merz Barn in the Lake District, in which Kurt Schwitters made his late Merzbau. But the artwork itself is in Newcastle, you cannot enter the shed and, besides, what relevance does Schwitters hold for Modern British Sculpture?

The first room confirms the problematic nature of the exhibition. A caption announces ‘that each gallery features pieces that focus attention on a specific problem, aspiration or confrontation (taking) us through a series of sculptural conversations’. (Uh-oh.) The room is dedicated to ‘Monumentalising Life and Death’, which is fair enough, given that much sculpture is commemorative, and the sub-theme of abstraction and figuration makes sense.

The latter is represented by photographs of Jacob Epstein’s plaster carvings (1906-08) for the BMA building in the Strand. Abstract sculpture, and its affinities with architecture, is represented by a mock-up of Edwin Lutyens’ Cenotaph for Whitehall (1919-20). This is spectacularly misjudged: the Cenotaph is a small structure that holds its own in the vast elongated space of Whitehall; the mock-up appears huge when cramped with the RA’s central octagon. Moreover, anyone with visual acuity would sense that something is seriously wrong with the mock-up, and any architect should see what it is. The sides lack entasis, without which the structure loses its poise.

Along with the cramped proximity of the viewer, this exaggerates the presence of the moulding at the top of the plinth, further robbing the piece of poise and unity. The next room is the highlight of the show. Entitled ‘Theft by Finding’, it shows ancient works from the British Museum once studied by and influential on various modern sculptors. Among the best is a commandingly still Egyptian baboon (c.1350BC), the sinuously sensual Sanchi Torso from India (c.900AD), the poignant portrait of Gudea, King of Lagash, Mesopotamia (c.2130) and some Assyrian reliefs. The modern sculptures simply can’t compete with the ancient works, although Eric Gill’s Headdress (1928) is beautifully sexy.

The sculptor has cleverly made a virtue of the constraint of carving an elongated rectangular block. From now on, although there are some fine pieces, it is more or less downhill all the way. The following room shows Jacob Epstein’s mighty Adam (1938-39) and Henry Moore’s dinky Snake (1924), as well as a replica of the hessian-covered bench at Anthony Caro’s Whitechapel show of 1963 (Why?). Next is a room of four disparate sculptures that the caption reveals to be works by former Presidents of the RA (is that the best you could come up with?). Alfred Gilbert’s Jubilee
Memorial to Queen Victoria (1887) is splendid if over the top; the seated queen impresses by looking as unimpressed as befits an empress who has seen it all.

Frederic Leighton’s Athlete Struggling with a Python (1877) could be argued to be modern in that Mussolini (but also Hitler) would probably have liked the sculpture. Charles Wheeler’s Adam (1934-35) stands in a preposterous pose and Philip King’s Genghis Khan (1963) appears to be included merely because of its name. A room then shows ceramics and sculptures together simply on the basis they were often shown together.

Shown also are old Chinese ceramics, but not the Japanese that were equally influential. There are small pieces by Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, while the next room confronts Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure (1951) with Hepworth’s Single Form (Memorial) (1961-62). This is no contest: the Moore is a mix of curvilinear fluidity and angular disjunction, of ease and effort; and there is a rich interplay of forms, regardless of the viewing point, together forming a narrative of sorts that engages and elicits empathy.

Against this the overrated Hepworth is merely somewhat elegant. Another whole room is filled by Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton’s An Exhibit (1957), with floating rectangular Perspex planes distributed at more or less equal density, so there are no moments of greater or lesser intensity. With so much excluded, why was this included?

The next room is given over to Anthony Caro’s still fresh, plinth-less, zinging red Early One Morning (1962); but this merits the space dedicated to it. From now on all the pieces are plinth-less and the display very erratic in terms of who has been selected and the particular works that represent them. Richard Long’s Chalk Line (1984), for instance, lacks in drama compared to similar works in elongated, angular dark stone. The fabric work Line 3’68 (1967) by Barry Flanagan is most easily understood if seen as part of a series, introducing you to a way of looking.

In this same big room are photo works with varyingly convincing claims to be sculpture. Included here is Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966) that, like the Jeff Koons that follows, doesn’t deserve to be displacing excluded British works. Jeff Koons’ One Ball (1985) shares the next room with the inevitable Damien Hirst vitrine, here Let’s Eat Outdoors Today (1990-91), which, with its rotting food and swarms of dead and dying flies, still disgusts many.

The penultimate room is called ‘In Search of the Ordinary’, (wouldn’t banal have been a better word?). While there is a Bill Woodrow, Electric Fire with Yellow Fish (1981) from his best period, it is otherwise filled with truly dismal works, many of them utterly meaningless without the necessary verbiage. But even in the catalogue this is often missing. Although it is easy to invent a narrative, it would be welcome to know what the artist or curators think, say, Lucia Nogueira’s Untitled (1989) is about and why it is worthy of inclusion.

Off this room is a small one displaying a Len Lye film (how is this sculpture?) and a slide-and-tape sequence by Richard Wentworth, in which the sculptor’s eye discovers all sorts of inadvertently created works. The last room contains a Sarah Lucas assemblage Portable Smoking Area (1996) that, unlike her best work, requires you to read the caption before you ‘get’ it. There are also works by Gustav Metzger and John Latham, included for the supposed influence of the artists on those who followed and clearly not for any quality in the actual works.

Despite its moments, this is a shamefully bad exhibition in which misguided attempts to be clever have resulted in the opposite, and where a theoretical agenda has swamped aesthetic engagement. Yet a too common defence against deserved critical onslaught is self-congratulation at the controversy provoked, the supposedly intended ‘conversations’ referred to in the first room. This won’t wash. To provoke genuine controversy and conversation requires a smidgen of intelligence and insight. This show is just stupid. Worse, it does a great disservice to Modern British Sculpture.

Modern British Sculpture

Where: Royal Academy of Arts, London

When: Until 7 April

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