Issue Number: 116
To bring the RA’s survey of bronze sculpture up to the present day, we ask three Academicians why they find bronze such a compelling medium
TONY CRAGG RA
Tony Cragg RA, 'Points of View', 2007. Courtesy Tony Cragg/Photo Charles Duprat/© DACS 2012. Tony Cragg has no doubts about how bronze fares as a medium in contemporary art. ‘It’s an excellent working material,’ he says. ‘It’s no accident that bronze has a history over many thousands of years. When it’s melted, it will flow into a form in an amazingly accurate way. The advantages are enormous, and very few materials come near to it. Dozens of great artists have used bronze, from Medardo Rosso through Rodin to Giacometti and sculptors of the present time.’
Is it only the preserve of successful artists because of its cost? ‘No. Bronze is probably not the first material artists use, and it’s slightly less economic than other materials. I first used it in 1985 with a great deal of trepidation: I was confronted with the spectre of Henry Moore and the whole tradition of bronze sculpture. But after I had made my first piece in bronze, I knew this was something I would use more regularly. It’s as hands-on as it has ever been, but you have to work with foundries. I use two foundries in Düsseldorf. I go to them with a piece, and they say: “It’s not possible to make this.” But I say: “We’re going to do it anyway!”’
Cragg is looking forward eagerly to the RA’s ‘Bronze’ exhibition, which includes his 2007 sculpture Points of View. ‘It’s one-metre high, and there are three elliptical columns mounted on a single base plate. It was used as the basis for a sculpture 10m high I made to celebrate the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. Points of View belongs to a series started in the 1990s, where I used horizontal ellipses. From one vantage point, they’re readable as grimacing profiles, but then you move round and they become abstract forms, which I find exciting. Also, the work seems to be looking at you.’
Does Cragg now feel a sense of kinship with other sculptors working in bronze? ‘No, because before casting a work in bronze you have to make it in another material, like clay, wax, plaster, wood, or even found objects like animal and vegetable parts. The decision to use bronze is often a decision for more permanence. Physical permanence comes at a price, due to the higher level of energy necessary in the working of materials like stone and bronze. I believe that sculpture is basically the study of all possible materials. In using bronze, artists can only buy time for some of the works they have made.’ Richard Cork
RICHARD DEACON RA
Richard Deacon RA, 'Bronze Nails', 2007. Private collection/Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London/Roy Fox/© Collection of the artist. Richard Deacon RA says he is ‘not a big caster’ and has rarely used bronze in more than three decades as a sculptor. But his Bronze Nails (2007) is one of the show’s more enigmatic exhibits. Far from typical Deacon, whose best-known works are massive, sinuous abstract forms in wood and metal, it consists of a pile of bronze nails that look like a cluster of pick-up sticks.
The work was inspired by the atmospherically crumbling brewery where he exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2007. Old nails protruded from the walls at regular intervals. Deacon cast a ship’s nail found on a Newcastle beach in bronze 150 times and then replaced the original brewery nails with the new casts. For the RA exhibition, they take a more relaxed form, as if tipped out on to the floor. ‘I wanted to talk about the history of the nail through time,’ he says. ‘An entirely banal, functional object comes to serve as a metaphor for other kinds of meaning.’ He cites the nails used in the Crucifixion and the old proverb For Want of a Nail, which suggests that ‘the littlest thing can undo the whole of history,’ he explains. Characteristically for Deacon, it also looks at language, with nails as a metaphor for ‘pinning things down, attaching a meaning to a situation’ and ‘having a peg to hang something on’.
Deacon believes the RA’s ‘Bronze’ show is important ‘because it has wonderful things that are so cross-cultural, and the best things are not necessarily the newest things. There are cross-relationships between objects and cultures and periods that are intriguing. For example, there is an Etruscan figure that has an extraordinary relationship to Giacometti’s attenuated figures.’ (1950). Ben Luke
TOM PHILLIPS RA
A Transaction Involving Goldweights, 19th century, from Tom Phillips RA’s collection of goldweights, Ghana. Collection Tom Phillips/Photo Collection Tom and Fiona Phillips, Heini Schneebeli. Tom Phillips RA is no stranger to bringing bronze masterpieces into the Royal Academy. He co-curated the RA’s ‘Africa: the Art of a Continent’ exhibition in 1995, some of whose treasures are returning for ‘Bronze’. But one group has special significance for Phillips – a selection from his collection of goldweights made in the Akan kingdom of West Africa (now Ghana and the Ivory Coast).
These small bronze pieces were used to weigh gold dust, the Akan people’s currency, from the 15th to the late 19th centuries. They take myriad forms, from simple decorative shapes to elaborately worked figures in groups. Phillips first encountered them in an African art shop and bought one in the shape of a fish as a present for his daughter – it was the first of around 5,000 that he has collected since then.
Seated Figure, late 13th-14th century, from Tada, Nigeria. National Museum, Lagos, 79.R.18. National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria/Photo © 2012. Photo Scala, ‘They’re enormously varied to the extent that, in representational terms, uniquely of any art form in the world and historically, they describe every single thing that the craftsmen who made them knew: the people, the animals, the chairs, the swords, the daggers, the spoons – even the process of weighing gold dust, as the goldweight in the exhibition shows,’ says Phillips. The weights also abound in abstract form, capturing ‘the whole world of ornamental invention,’ he adds. ‘The best of them are highly decorative and beautiful things, and some are formally very pure, like tiny works by Brancusi.’
The goldweights are just one example of expertise in African bronze casting. ‘They were virtuoso makers and in various groups in Africa these skills emerged in different ways,’ Phillips says. ‘Here, in the case of these weights, the virtuosity was on a small scale, but of course there are also massive things in bronze that were made, and all made by the lost wax process, which is slightly easier to do in a warm climate than in Britain, for example. Basically, a warm temperature is a good starting point if you try to do wax modelling.’
Among the largest African bronzes in the RA show is a seated figure made in the village of Tada on the banks of the River Niger, north of Ife, and dating from around the late 13th or early 14th century. This figure shows a sophistication equal to European Renaissance sculpture of the same period, so much so that many refused to believe that it was the work of an African artist. ‘It is an astonishing piece,’ Phillips says. He explains how the sculpture was taken to the river and scrubbed every Friday as part of a Tada ritual to ensure fertility and the continued abundance of fish in their waters.
‘Part of its beauty is the beauty of antiquity,’ he says. ‘It has been washed and scrubbed with this gravelly mud over centuries, so it has a wonderfully abraded surface, as well as a smoothness. It is like a relic of a human being in a particular way, because it is human activity applied to a representation of a human being. That’s what gives this work its magic, as well as it being formally magnificent.’ BL