Modern British Sculpture?


The exhibition called "Modern British Sculpture" that opened at the Royal Academy today (until 7 April) is a fraud.

         It's one of those shows intended to illustrate a theory or make an argument. Its publicity claims: "the exhibition takes a fresh approach, replacing the traditional survey with a provocative set of juxtapositions that challenge the viewer to make new connections and break the mould of old conceptions [my emphasis]." The trouble is that the "new connections" are so desperately old hat.

File:'Roaring Lion', bronze sculpture by Lynn Chadwick (British), 1960, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel.JPG

         OK, room 2, "Theft by Finding" has lots of lovely African, Native American, Mexican and Etruscan objects, such as we expect to find in the British Museum and the V& A. You mean Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, F.E. Mc William and Leon Underwood were influenced by seeing these artifacts? Well I never! You could knock me over with a feather.

         And that there's something in common between Carl André and Richard Long? Or between Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst? No! You astonish me. There is no reason whatever for André's installation and Koons's (now tatty-looking) piece to be represented in this show, except fatuity and fashion (last year's, at that).

         You can see why, at one of the many private views of this appalling show, an eminent, older British artist told me how worried he was that the co-curator, Penelope Curtis's day job is as the new Director of Tate Britain.

         I can see why he's nervous. We all accept that this exhibition is not a "traditional survey" (though could someone please remind me when was the last traditional survey of modern British sculpture on the scale of this show?). But look at this on page 16 of Dr. Curtis's heavyweight catalogue. She is writing abut Henry Moore's world-wide celebrity and international demand for his work following his success at the 1948 Venice Biennale: "A pattern established through the demand for Moore was continued in the 1950s and 1960s with Reg Butler, Kenneth Armitage and Lynn Chadwick..." According to her index, this is the only mention of these three major British sculptors in the entire 316-page volume; and there is not a single work by any of them in her show.

         I knew Armitage slightly and, to disclose an irrelevant interest, Lynn Chadwick and I were close friends in the 1970s. Speaking sub specie aeternitatis, it would have added a good deal more to the sum of human knowledge (and possibly even to human enjoyment) if the RA had mounted a large retrospective/survey of those three artists, or of British sculpture of the 60s-80s, including a good deal more of the early work of Barry Flanagan (of which there is one strong, but unrepresentative piece in this feeble show).

         Just to remind younger - or unfamiliar readers: Lynn Chadwick (1914-2003) came first to public attention when he was commissioned to make three works for the Festival of Britain (1951), and was one of the sculptors characterised by Herbert Read as evoking the "geometry of fear." He showed to great acclaim at the Venice Biennale of 1952 and in 1956 won the Biennale International Prize for Sculpture, beating Alberto Giacometti.  Though the British art establishment reacted to this British triumph by neglecting him from the 1970s until he died, his work continued to sell well, especially abroad. A couple of years ago a piece of his broke the £1million barrier. There is a retrospective of his work on the theme of "Couples" recently opened at the Pangolin Gallery in King's Cross. I understand that one of the pieces in it has a £1m price tag. I wish I owned one of the "Beasts," the near-abstract lion/dog/wolf-like creatures cast in bronze that prompted Read's brilliant description.

January 22, 2011 5:20 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on January 22, 2011 5:20 PM.

The Critics' Critic: A Tribute to John Gross was the previous entry in this blog.

Heresy or commonplace? is the next entry in this blog.

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