Wouldn’t life be boring if we all liked the same thing? Before going down to see the Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy last week, the Management and I watched the Culture Show episode which included a look at the exhibition. Andrew Graham-Dixon was accompanied by Gallery owner Danny Katz, who has been buying and selling sculpture for over forty years.
In front of ‘Putto with Tambourine’ (1429) by Donatello, Katz was in ecstasy. “This is the one object I totally covet.” “You want to take it home?” asked Graham-Dixon. “I couldn’t! I’m only a mere man, a mortal. I couldn’t live with something like this. This is great art.”
My reaction? It was okay but it didn’t really do much for me. In the case next to it, though, were two superb works. They were clearly modern. I recognised them immediately as probably by Picasso and by Giacometti. However checking the labels showed I was a little out! The ‘Picasso’ was in fact a sculpture of a Capotribu, or tribal chief, from Sardinia (Nuragic period) dating from 8th -4th century BCE (that’s just BC in old money).
Some of the sculptures that actually were modern I really liked. I’d seen many in books but it’s always better to see the real thing. These included Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space from 1913, Constantin Brancusi’s Danaide c.1918 and Spider IV 1996 by Louise Bourgeois, which hung precariously on the wall above a bench – I didn’t risk sitting under it!
One piece I found amusing was Painted Bronze (Ale Cans) by Jasper Johns (1960). It was said to have been made in response to a remark purportedly made by Willem de Kooning about gallery owner Leo Castelli’s ability to sell anything – even beer cans.
I was initially puzzled by a couple of pieces of very ordinary subjects, one of a pug and one of a turkey. Fortunately, the information on the wall solved the puzzle. “Creatures such as the turkey and the pug, ubiquitous today, were prized as exotic imports when the bronze likenesses were created. [1600/10 for the Pug by Hubert Gerhard and c. 1567 -70 for the Turkey by Giambologna.]”
The final pieces I want to mention are four by Matisse. ‘Back I’ was created in 1908-09 and is a well modelled male torso from the rear. ‘Back II’ from 1913 was also well modelled but the surface looked as if it had been cut with an axe and carving tools. It may have been female. ‘Back III’ (1916) is probably female as it has a long plait. The shaping and finish is much cruder. Finally ‘Back IV’ dating from c. 1931 is much smoother than III but the lines are much simpler, and not particularly realistic. The buttocks are not much more than minor curves and the legs are like cylindrical tree trunks. The four sculptures were side by side and it was fascinating to be able to compare their similarities and differences.
In some respects it was an unusual exhibition. Most exhibitions are about a single artist, or group of artists, or about a particular period, and are intended to be “educational” in the loosest sense of the word. By having the theme of a material, this exhibition covered work from all over the world (I haven’t mentioned the fascinating pieces from Nigeria and India) and a time period of nearly three thousand years. As it was shown by themes – portraits, groups, animals, religion and so on – it was possible to compare different periods and cultures, but basically the pieces were selected for their intrinsic value as works of art and, as such, it was an exhibition simply to be enjoyed.