Issue Number: 109
Sculpture in Britain took on a new importance in the twentieth century, flourishing as never before. Richard Cork gives an overview of the RA’s major show of modern British sculpture
Jacob Epstein, 'Adam', 1938-39. By kind permission of The Earl and Countess of Harewood/Photo Leeds Museums & Galleries (Henry Moore Institute Archive)/© The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein Sculpture in Britain underwent an astonishing and irrepressible revolution during the twentieth century. Before then, painting played a far more prominent role in visual art. No sculptors had attained the prominence enjoyed by Hogarth, Constable and Turner. Too often, even the most skilful carvers were confined to dutiful portrait busts or architectural embellishments on façades, which passers-by never noticed. But soon after 1900, all that changed dramatically. Sculpture in Britain was reinvented by successive waves of audacious young rebels.
Some, such as Jacob Epstein, were invaders from foreign lands. Others, like Barbara Hepworth, proved that women could at last claim their rightful place in a world dominated for so long by men. And nothing ever stood still. Even when Henry Moore gained an immense international reputation, his formal language was challenged by outstanding members of the next generation. This dynamic, provocative momentum continued and even intensified throughout the century, widening the term ‘sculpture’ so that it embraced an increasingly rich range of unpredictable possibilities.
That is why the curators of the Royal Academy’s ‘Modern British Sculpture’ exhibition felt free to adopt an equally bold approach. Confronted by the prodigious vitality of their subject, Penelope Curtis and Keith Wilson have challenged the idea of a traditional survey and opened up the show by devising an original series of key themes.
What are the ambitions of Dr Curtis, Director of Tate Britain, for the exhibition now? ‘We hope to show some really great pieces well, and not be afraid to single them out and give them space,’ she says. ‘I want the show to propose a slightly different way of thinking about sculpture in Britain, in terms of its success and failure, its dialogue with the past, present and future, with its compatriots, and with foreigners. I hope it will do things we can't quite predict and that it will have staying power.’
Curtis’s fellow curator, the sculptor Keith Wilson, says he is looking forward to ‘walking freely through the [sculpture of the] twentieth century, seeing history in the present and the present in history. The far-reaching scope of the exhibition should make for unexpected pairings of works and echoes across time and space.’
Nowhere is this seen more arrestingly than in a section of the exhibition called ‘The Establishment Figure’. Here, Queen Victoria is celebrated in a grand and elaborate Jubilee Memorial, of 1887, by Alfred Gilbert who is now best known for his Eros in Piccadilly Circus. But the Queen sits alongside three other sculptures, all made by one-time presidents of the Royal Academy: Frederic Lord Leighton, Charles Wheeler and Phillip King. Both Leighton and Wheeler’s works were inspired by the classical tradition. But King broke free, producing in 1963 a superbly innovative and flamboyant work in painted plastic called Genghis Khan.
Phillip King RA, 'Genghis Khan', 1963. Painted plastic, 170 x 245 x 365 cm. Private collection. © The Artist King’s youthful daring shows just how far he was prepared to depart from classical orthodoxy. ‘Genghis Khan is all surface turned to colour,’ he says. ‘There is, of course, the echo left of parts that might have pushed one against another in order to stand up. But something else is going on. A sort of internal explosion that is partially contained by the sides of the cone but escapes in the front and back and under the sides a bit and erupts a bit wildly at the top. One can imagine two hands about to be joined as if for praying, but they are also containing an eruption.’
The RA show will emphasise the liberating role that was played by the British Museum’s collections in exhibiting so many inspirational alternatives to Greek and Roman sculpture in the early twentieth century. In celebrating the wealth and geographical spread of the British Empire, the BM attracted all kinds of work from Africa, Asia, Oceania (such as the Easter Island sculpture) and the Americas. The 21-year-old prodigy Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was amazed, on visiting the museum in 1912, by what he called ‘the primitive statues, by negro, yellow, red and white races’. Eric Gill was entranced above all by Indian sculpture, and admired the Sri Lankan writer Ananda Coomaraswamy, who called for ‘a frank recognition of the close analogy between amorous and religious ecstasy’. Henry Moore was especially enthralled when he encountered the Chacmool reclining figures carved by Aztec sculptors. To illustrate the museum’s impact on these artists, the RA is borrowing a miniaturised Aztec Chacmool, Seated Human Figure which is carved in basalt and which was probably intended to be used as an incense burner.
Seated Human Figure, c.1325-1521, from the British Museum Epstein nearly bankrupted himself collecting an impressive array of ‘primitive’ sculptures, which influenced his Sun Goddess, Crouching, c.1910 and Adam (1938-39) an elemental tour de force in alabaster. On loan to the RA show from Harewood House near Leeds, this virile colossus flaunting his genitals is bound, even today, to excite widespread controversy. Carving this muscle-flexing giant just before the Second World War, Epstein may well have wanted his Adam to be seen as a prophetic figure advancing blindly towards his tragic destruction on the battlefield. But when the sculpture was first put on view in London, the frankness of its nudity shocked many visitors – including ‘a charming old lady’ who, according to the Picture Post ‘came forward into the room and, with a supercilious air, raised her lorgnette to look at the sculpture. In another moment the lorgnette seemed to be swept clean out of her hand and with it went all the haughtiness and supercilious gesture. There was no doubt that she had been deeply horrified’. Epstein himself tried to be stoical when Adam was purchased and put on display in Louis Tussaud’s in Blackpool’s amusement arcade. According to the London Evening Standard (8 June, 1949) here, in garish seafront surroundings advertised by ‘a loudspeaker blaring swing tunes and a dozen marionettes dancing on strings’, a recorded barker summoned passers-by to gawp at ‘the strangest thing you have ever seen’.
Moore, who as a young man benefited from Epstein’s support, was also centrally concerned with the naked body. But his obsession focused on reclining figures, usually female. He was preoccupied with childhood memories of his mother, celebrating the importance of parental love in works such as The Family (1935).
His contemporary, Barbara Hepworth, who shared Moore’s drive to push the human figure towards simplified abstraction, also vied with him in gaining major commissions. Moore preferred to keep his sculpture separate from the buildings it enhanced. When I met him in 1981, he told me with a wry smile:
‘I resented the idea that architecture was “the mother of all the arts”’. Hence his decision to turn down an invitation to produce eight seated figures in 1938 for the façade of London University’s Senate House. Moore wanted to free the modern sculptor from being ‘just a decorator for the architect’, and Hepworth agreed with him.
The tirelessly prolific Moore executed far more commissions for prestige settings than Hepworth. But Hepworth’s uncompromisingly abstract work was chosen for one of the most important post-war sites: the plaza of the United Nations headquarters in New York. Her Single Form (1961-64) is a powerful tribute to Dag Hammarskjöld, the late Secretary-General of the UN and a personal friend of hers. A smaller version, Single Form (Memorial) of 1961-62 (right) has been brought in for the RA show from Battersea Park. Hepworth’s ability to produce a convincing commemoration of the dead echoes the achievement of the architect Edwin Lutyens, another RA President whose understated yet profound Cenotaph (1919-20) stands in Whitehall. A scale model in wood is included in this exhibition.
The RA show is also interested in recreating ‘historic’ modern works that have either been destroyed or disassembled and is reconstructing a work that brought painting, sculpture and architecture into a new union. Called Exhibit I (1957) it was designed by Victor Pasmore in association with Richard Hamilton. The reappearance of this ingenious ‘spatial construction’ is both welcome and relevant, because it opened up an enormously influential way of working between these three disciplines.
Sculptors nowadays are often fascinated by the possibilities inherent in both painting and architecture. So was the German artist Kurt Schwitters, who transformed his own house in Hanover into an environment filled with found objects and structural alterations. Made during the 1930s, Cathedral of Erotic Misery was sadly destroyed in the Second World War. Schwitters fled to England in 1940, and began his magnum opus, the Merzbarn, inside a barn in the Lake District, but he died in 1948 before it was finished. The interior, a homage to his fascination with found material of many kinds, was transferred to Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery in 1965. But the barn itself is to be reconstructed in the courtyard at the RA, where it will proclaim the spirit of radicalism that characterises this show.
The development of total abstraction in British sculpture was stimulated by the arrival of another eminent foreign artist: the Russian pioneer Naum Gabo (Construction: Stone with a Collar, 1933) who spent a decade in England before settling in the US after the Second World War. His inventive work is linked in the RA show with Ben Nicholson’s purist white reliefs, as well as the idea that studio pottery by experimental master craftsmen such as Bernard Leach could aspire to the condition of an abstract work of art.
Anthony Caro, 'Early One Morning', 1962. Photo John Riddy/© Tate, London 2010/© Barford Sculptures Ltd/Anthony Caro
The high point of British abstract sculpture was reached in the early 1960s, when Phillip King RA made Genghis Khan and Anthony Caro RA began using painted steel and aluminium. (Caro had been taught by the conservative Charles Wheeler at the RA before breaking away and becoming Moore’s assistant for a while.) Caro’s Early One Morning (1962) is a free-ranging, brilliantly coloured work, which escapes from the plinth and invades the viewer’s space. As its title suggests, the experience of landscape plays a part in this work, the form spreading itself through space in a panoramic way, so that we can roam around inside it.
But it was Richard Long RA, a student of Caro and King, who in the 1970s transformed everyone’s notions about sculpture and the land. Walking on his own in some of the most remote parts of the world, Long used the sticks and stones he found to make powerful, spare, limpid works, which he then photographed. (In the 1980s he also brought the land literally into the gallery space using mud from the River Avon to create wall drawings; see cover). Minimalist sculpture became so notorious that the Tate’s acquisition in 1972 of the brick sculpture by American artist Carl Andre, Equivalent VIII (1966) was denounced by the Daily Mirror with the headline: ‘What A Load Of Rubbish’.
But the most adventurous young sculptors paid no attention to tabloid newspaper hysteria. As early as 1975, while still a student, Tony Cragg RA made his monumental Stack from refuse found in skips and rubbish dumps. He was part of a new generation that came to be known in the 1980s as practitioners of the ‘New Sculpture’. Scouring beaches, gutters and waste tips for thrown-away fragments, they conveyed satirical and even angry views on the state of the nation, marshalling the detritus with great wit, zest and clarity. For Electric Fire with Yellow Fish (1981) Bill Woodrow RA salvaged a discarded electric fire, cut a fish shape out of the back of it and painted it, then placed the fish disturbingly close to the bars. ‘A fish and an electric fire are totally opposite – one is manufactured, the other is a natural product. Fire is hot, fish is cold (as in cold fish). I was excited by this bizarre combination,’ says Woodrow.
As for the provocative Richard Wentworth, he made an extraordinary multi-media work, Making Do and Getting By (1970-85) where projected slides of images showing unusual placements of objects that he had come across by accident, such as a cup jammed underneath a window, were combined with a strong, rhythmic soundtrack by Ry Cooder. ‘My work comes from chance encounter,’ Wentworth says.
The RA show will also include a classic early work by the American artist Jeff Koons, who was elected an Honorary Royal Academician earlier this year. In 1985 he made One Ball 50/50 Tank (Spalding Dr J. Silver Series) in which he suspended a basketball in water in a glass tank. When it was displayed at the Saatchi Gallery in the 1987 exhibition ‘NY Art Now’, Koons’ work had a crucial impact on the young artists who would soon emerge in the ‘Freeze’ exhibition, curated by the then art student Damien Hirst in 1988. The RA show juxtaposes Koons with Damien Hirst, whose Let’s Eat Outdoors Today (1990-91) encloses a barbecue, garden table and chairs in a glass container with flies and electric fly zappers.
Nothing, not even the most despised of throwaway objects, can now be excluded from the sculptor’s ever-widening domain. This continually surprising show ends with an especially heretical exhibit: a work called ‘Sun, Page 3’ (1977) made by Gustav Metzger, who came to Britain in his teens from Germany in 1939 as a Jewish refugee. After studying with David Bomberg, he became notorious in the 1960s with his Manifesto of Auto-Destructive Art, accompanying it with dramatic demonstrations in which he painted with acid on nylon so that it melted into disturbing images. Metzger was highly prophetic in dealing with issues endangering the planet, and in 1996 he published a timely book called Damaged Nature. Perhaps he sees the women who pose for these Page 3 pin-ups as damaged in a different but equally alarming way. His wall-full of Page 3 girls – which will be updated by pinning up one a day for the duration of the RA show – reveals what Curtis and Wilson describe as ‘the pornography of journalism – a daily production’. They hope that visitors leaving the exhibition might finally discover, in the courtyard outside, that Schwitters’ barn ‘seems to offer an ever more appealing refuge from the chatter’.
Modern British Sculpture Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 020 7300 8000, www.royalacademy.org.uk, 22 Jan–7 April, 2011. Exhibition Preservation Partner: American Express Foundation. Supported by The Henry Moore Foundation. See Events and Lectures, page 88