(Royal Academy, London, until 9 December 2012)
Fate has a sense of humour. One of the things I would have loved to see in Sicily was the Dancing Satyr in Mazara del Vallo: the beautiful bronze which was pulled out of the Mediterranean by a fishing boat in 1998. Of course, with only five days on hand, we couldn’t trek across country simply for the sake of seeing one bronze statue, so I quietly added it to my list for my next visit. So imagine my surprise and delight this afternoon, when I stepped into the first room of the Royal Academy’s new exhibition, Bronze.
The only exhibit in that first circular room, splendidly spotlit, was this very same Satyr, mounted in such a way that he seemed to be suspended in the light against a dark blue background. I thought, fancifully, that he still seemed to be underwater, his hair rippling in the current. I’ve read that the fishermen who discovered him only realised what they’d found when he came surging up out of the water in their nets, head-first, his face turned up towards the skies he hadn’t seen for almost two thousand years. Just think what a stunning moment that must have been.
Quite apart from making me very happy, this was an astute choice to kick off the exhibition. It’s one of the show’s highlights – a comparatively little-known classical statue which has real plinth-power (I’m going to patent that phrase). It shows off the potential of bronze, which is a medium light enough to allow the gravity-defying, swirling dynamism embodied in this satyr’s wild dance. Whichever angle you study him from, he looks unsteady, permanently frozen in the midst of some frenzied leap. I spent quite some time just walking round and round, admiring him. Few of the other sculptures on display could be seen in the round, but I think this is one where a 360-degree view was especially beneficial. He was just glorious. In one way, seeing a show like this makes your heart bleed because you think of how many wonderful things have been melted down to make cannon or broken into pieces or lost at the bottom of the sea. At the same time, you wonder that such rare and fragile things have survived so long.
The earliest objects in the show are a handful of items from a site at Nahal Mishmar in Israel; these, including a crown, a sceptre and a mace head ornamented with gazelles, date from around 3,700 BC (the Royal Academy, incidentally, has adopted the irritating habit of using BCE and CE in its labels, but that is a rant for another time). The thing which most impressed me from this prehistoric period was the Chariot of the Sun from Trundholm in Denmark, dating from the 14th century BC, which showed a horse mounted on wheels (almost like a child’s toy) pulling a large bronze disc. One side of the disc was covered with gold leaf, which was intricately decorated with concentric whorls and spirals. This represented the sun; the other side, which was plain, dark bronze, represented the night. It’s mind-boggling that something has survived from that date. It’s even more incredible that we can still see the intricacy and beauty of the chased patterns on the gold leaf. This show reintroduces you to the skill and the elegance of ancient art.
There were some objects in the exhibition which made me reevaluate my very idea of ‘antiquity’. Take the Etruscan Votive Figure (Evening Shadow). This tiny but astounding figurine dates from the 2nd century BC, according to the catalogue; and yet if you saw it without any label you’d assume it was modern, perhaps by Giacometti. The form is super-elongated but nevertheless anatomically precise; the short hair is depicted with incised waves and rises at the front to a quiff; and the figure gives a quirky, enigmatic smile. Similarly, the Sardinian Capotribù, dating from some point between the 8th and 4th centuries BC, looks like something from the early 20th century, with the kind of elongated face that you now see in Pixar animations and a belt across the chest that bears… well, if it’s not a machine gun, I don’t know what it is. Both these sculptures were so implausible as antique artefacts that I actually began to wonder if the curators were having a laugh at our expense.
The Etruscans were definitely the standout civilization for me in today’s visit. The more I saw of their work, the more intrigued I was by this mysterious culture. Their bronze-crafting is just as sophisticated as that of the Greeks or Romans. A curving bronze strigil from circa 300 BC was topped with the nubile figure of an elegant girl who looked more like a 16th-century pastiche of the antique than the real thing. And then there was the Chimaera of Arezzo, an old friend who’d been the undisputed highlight of the Museo Archeologico in Florence when I visited six years ago, and whom I certainly hadn’t expected to see here. Once again this sculpture shows the skill of Etruscan bronze crafters. Dating from about 400 BC, it has a wonderful sense of movement; the rather stylised head and mane are countered by a thorough understanding of the muscle, bone and sinew beneath the skin of this imaginary animal. Due to the thematic arrangement of the exhibition – on which more later – the Chimaera was shown alongside a Lion from Southern Italy, dating from the 11th or 12th century; and it was startling to see how much understanding and energy had been lost in that time. The Lion, for all its charm, was stiff and archaic and blockish, in the face of its sinuous, roaring Classical predecessor. In the same room there was a Roman statue of a ram, which was slightly larger than life-size with pert ears and scrolling horns.
Having imagined Classical art through marble statues, I simply wasn’t expecting such vigour and accuracy in the medium of bronze. Just across the room was the head of the Medici-Riccardi Horse, with veins standing out on its nose, the flesh crumpling around the snorting muzzle and the velvety skin falling into folds on the neck… and this is from the 4th century BC as well. To complete the list of Classical works that left me astounded, I have to hurry you on into the ‘Heads’ room. Here I was arrested first by the Woman with corkscrew curls from the 2nd century AD, whose delicate bronze ringlets are echoed by incised curls on her forehead. I simply couldn’t believe that she’d survived the centuries without having her hair bent or broken. But then I was distracted by the Portrait Head of King Seuthes III, a Thracian work from circa 400 BC in which the alabaster and glass-paste eyes survive intact. This benign head has all the character and psychological force of the Roman busts five hundred years later; it is, I imagine, utterly true to life.
And then there was the Renaissance. It must have been a real coup not only to get the Florentine Porcellino, with his blunt snout rubbed golden by generations of hands, but also Giovan Francesco Rustici’s sculptural group from the Opera del Duomo. There’s been much excitement over this group in the press, with Leonardo’s potential involvement once again being trumpeted, presumably as a way to bring in the crowds (if you’re feeling cynical). No matter who conceived the statues, they’re impressive; and ironically I find the flanking figures of the Levite and the Pharisee to be more successful than the central figure of St John the Baptist. Just look at the complex draperies of these outer figures and the way that the different densities of pleats and folds suggest a finer under-tunic covered by a thicker mantle. Look at the Levite’s frowning, monumental face: am I the only one who sees a foreshadowing of Michelangelo’s Moses in that head? And look at the wonderful head of the Pharisee, whose shaved scalp, pudgy profile and squashed ear make him look more like a retired pugilist than a member of a priestly elite.
Just a few steps away there was a 19th-century cast of Cellini’s Perseus, which I’m sure is bigger than the original. Standing beneath it, staring up at the enormous figure of the hero and the severed head with its bronze tendrils of blood, the only possible response was ‘Wow’. Beside these oversized Florentine works was a case containing six rather lovely mourners, each about two foot high, cast in 1475-6 as part of a set of twenty-four to adorn the tomb of Charles the Bold’s wife, Isabella of Bourbon. The three men and three women are dressed in the height of fifteenth-century Burgundian style and they impress the modern eye less for their piety than for their status as fashion plates, recording the elaborate folds and swags and gathered lengths of fabric; the padded, steepled or gabled headdresses, sweeping sleeves and high-belted gowns. In other cases there are miniature sculptures by Donatello, Antico and Riccio: classically-inspired putti and satyrs for Renaissance cognoscenti to display in their studies as a sign of their erudition.
Rather than arrange the show chronologically, the RA have decided to lay it out thematically. The rooms are helpfully titled ‘Figures’, ‘Animals’, ‘Groups’, ‘Objects’, ‘Reliefs’, ‘Gods’ and ‘Heads’. I happened to read Brian Sewell’s review in the Evening Standard the other day and saw that he objected to this thematic arrangement. So did I, on principle, before I went in. There is much to be gained from seeing how an art form develops over time, and perhaps in a chronological context the amazing modernity of the Etruscan and Sardinian sculptures would only have been emphasised. However, by the end of the show I’d changed my mind. I liked the fact that I was able to directly compare different treatments of the same theme from different dates. The classical world almost always had the advantage.
It was playful and interesting to see Lucius Mammius Maximus, the inhabitant of Herculaneum standing full-length in his draped toga, orating across the room at Lorenzo Ghiberti’s placid and boyish St Stephen, swathed in a similar apostolic mantle. A 1st-century Roman beam-end, in the form of a very realistic wolf’s head snarling around the ring held in its teeth, was juxtaposed with the 12th-century Sanctuary Ring of Durham Cathedral, where the door-knocker is gripped by a fantastical head, half-monster, half-lion and nowhere near as chilling as the ancient wolf. I’m sure there were many more such comparisons, and I’m also aware that it isn’t always correct to judge by what is most realistic. Next time I’ll try to approach the exhibits in a new way. But the thematic arrangement does give me that choice, to compare and contrast in my own way – and in many different ways. A chronological structure, for all its virtues, would have been a more prescriptive way of organising the show.
Like all exhibitions in the Main Galleries at the RA, this one is huge. There are 158 exhibits, stretching from the Israeli mace-head of the 4th millennium BC to Tony Cragg’s Points of View, executed in 2007. You cannot see everything in one go. You wouldn’t want to, because in trying to absorb it all you’d be sure to miss something. The curators have done a stupendous job in securing loans and, whatever floats your boat – African art, Buddhist sculptures, Modern and Contemporary art – there are enough objects here to captivate you. You may not be surprised that this post has focused on the Classical and Renaissance aspects of the exhibition. Indeed, there were so many treasures from these periods that I simply spent an hour ricocheting from case to case in transports of delight; and I think I’ll have to go back at least twice before I’ve looked at everything properly.
For example, the Modern sculptures include works by Picasso, Kapoor, Brancusi, Bourgeois (note to self: check the walls of rooms for giant bronze spiders before inadvertently standing right underneath them), Moore, Hepworth, Matisse and Giacometti. In comparison to the stunningly beautiful works in the rest of the show, Jeff Koon’s bronze replica of a basketball – whose sole point was that it looked like a basketball but was made of bronze and so weighed more (this was supposed to be a valid conceptual point) – was satisfyingly overshadowed. But, that one snark aside, there are so many wonderful things to see. I urge you to come. You have until December; there’s no excuse.