RA Magazine Summer 2008
Issue Number: 99
Anthony Caro RA on his sculpture in the RA Courtyard
‘It will be rather nice to go into the Royal Academy Courtyard and get involved with my sculpture’
VIDEO: The installation of 'Promenade'
Before entering the RA Summer Exhibition, visitors will be confronted in the courtyard by one of Sir Anthony Caro’s largest and most spectacular works. Entitled Promenade, this mighty, five-part piece was made in 1996 for a prominent location in the Tuileries in Paris.
Daniel Abadie, then director of the Jeu de Paume, was organising a major exhibition of twentieth-century British sculpture and commissioned Caro to make the piece. Created entirely of steel and painted grey-green, it looks more monumental and restrained in colour compared with his angular, often brilliantly painted sculpture of the 1960s. Yet it also invites viewers to explore its interior spaces and recline on ledges as they encounter this landmark achievement in the sculptor’s long, ceaselessly inventive career.
Discussing Promenade in his London studio, Sir Anthony says, ‘It will be rather nice to go into the Academy courtyard and get involved with my sculpture. The colour is subdued because I felt brighter paint would make the soft steel too decorative. But it’ll be an intimate experience, to do with extension and length and not seeing everything in one bang.’ To emphasise this point, he makes his fist hit the open palm of his other hand. The octogenarian sculptor remains an intensely physical and energetic man.
He describes how Promenade – unlike most of his sculpture – was made in a factory in Dagenham by Benson Sedgwick. They were able to take the elements within the piece and change the order very easily with the help of a big crane. He stresses again how much he wants Promenade to offer a welcome. ‘You’ll be able to discover it slowly,’ he says, adding with a smile, ‘I like to do the same thing with people.’
When I ask him what inspired the piece, he explains: ‘The forms are quite abstract but rural. I looked at Courbet’s painting of an oak tree, and the sculpture has got a landscapey feel. Children will be able to sit on it, lie on it and hide inside. They love doing that, and I think it’s nice for people to become aware of their bodies in a different way.’
Sir Anthony takes me into a studio where a model of Promenade is displayed on an immense wooden table. The model demonstrates how the piece will stretch dramatically across the Academy’s courtyard. At the far end of it stands a satirical little image of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s familiar statue on its plinth. The painter seems to be conducting an orchestra with his brush and palette. Sir Anthony smiles ruefully. ‘Reynolds is too prominent in the courtyard – I wish they’d push him away onto the steps for a while!’
How does he feel about being an Academician? He looks at me mischievously. ‘Well, I resisted it for many years because the RA was the establishment. But when Phillip King became President, he was an old friend and I just thought: “Why not?”’
Sir Anthony is still critical of the RA.
‘It’s damn stupid electing some of these new members,’ he growls. ‘They’re not very good artists and they’ve only been admitted because they’ll add spice to the proceedings. Well, that’s a damn silly reason, isn’t it?’
What does he think of the Summer Exhibition? ‘It’s a hotchpotch. A lot of it is terrible. But they’re getting better, and Tony Cragg is on the right lines.’ Cragg, in fact, selected Caro’s Promenade for the courtyard and has done much to change the way sculpture is displayed in the annual show.
What will happen to Promenade afterwards? ‘It’s being sold to Peter Loescher, now the head of Siemens. He’s married to a lady from Barcelona and wants to build a museum in her home town for children.’
At this stage in his life, Sir Anthony clearly underlines the wider purpose of his work. ‘It’s not just about art, it’s about people relating to it. I saw Diego Rivera’s paintings in Mexico, and they reminded me that public art must have a readable message.’
He feels very angry about Britain’s involvement in Iraq and tells me, ‘If I met Blair, I’d refuse to shake his hand.’ The Second World War, however, he calls a just war, turning to a project he is undertaking in a church near Calais. Soon after the Dunkirk retreat, a British pilot crashed his plane into the twelfth-century church in Bourbourg. By avoiding the houses, he saved the town. ‘His plane smashed through the church roof, and a lot of stonework fell down. It was just a mess.’
Then, a decade ago, Sir Anthony was invited to transform the church’s east end. It has proved a highly ambitious venture. The scope of his contribution to this church is epic, with works spanning from the Creation to Adam and Eve. ‘I’m not religious,’ admits the artist, ‘but I’m not anti-God. We leave out the spiritual at our peril. And I hate fanaticism too, so it’s not easy.’ Judging by the immense model in his studio, the church project promises to be one of his most complex and deeply meditated works.
‘You need to question your own past,’ he says with conviction. ‘I’m an abstract sculptor, so maybe I should think about how to tackle figurative art.’ He is not letting anyone in before October. ‘I’m keeping it private – it’s got to be a surprise.’
- Richard Cork
- Promenade, RA Courtyard, until end of Aug; Anthony Caro: Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London (020 7312 2463; www.npg.org.uk) until 7 Sep; Millbank Steps on display at The New Art Centre, Roche Court, Salisbury (01980 862 244; www.sculpture.uk.com); Chapel of Light, Eglise de St Jean Baptist, Bourbourg, France, inauguration 10–12 Oct; for details of further exhibitions of Anthony Caro’s work, visit www.anthonycaro.org
Summer Exhibition 2008
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