Bronze sculpture is central to the human story
Bronze is a fascinating, at times heart-stopping, display of human creativity and ingenuity. Corinna Lotz reviews the Royal Academy’s exhibition
The Dancing Satyr – a classical Greek sculpture discovered in 1998 by Sicilian fisherman but not seen by the public until 2003 – is usually housed in a small museum on the western tip of the island.
This mythical being has a thrown-back head with white alabaster eyes. He has lost his right leg and most of his arms. But rather than making him less perfect, the losses add to the Satyr’s mesmerising qualities. It is thought to be by the best-known Greek sculptor, Praxiteles, who lived in the 4th century BCE.
Made with the lost-wax technique, it is hollow, allowing the artist to achieve delicate anatomical detail and gravity-defying qualities. The textured surface, preserved by thousands of years under the sea, varies from copper to green. But what fascinates most is the human figure in such an ecstatic, floating pose.
Now the Dancing Satyr is one of the key pieces on display at a breathtaking exhibition staged by the Royal Academy. Curator David Ekserdjian has persuaded an amazing host of museums and owners to part with some of the world’s most iconic and cherished works in bronze to set them side by side with counterparts from many different cultures and epochs.
Human beings first developed the technique of bronze casting some 6,500 years ago, as they emerged from the Stone Age. Melting copper with tin and other metals led to the new and ever more sophisticated making of objects – for use as tools, vessels, adornment, religious ritual and as works of art in their own right.
The ability to fuse copper and tin, encase the red-hot liquid in a mould and fire it in a furnace is a complex process which has given its name to an entire period of human history – the Bronze Age.
Casting things in this way came along deep in time and deep into the course of human history. It presupposes a variety of skills, tools and knowledge – these in turn are increasingly motivated by, and expressive of, political, religious and psychological realities and needs.
A small bronze dancing figure was found in the Indus Valley settlement of Mohenjo-Daro (today’s Pakistan) from 2600BCE – contemporary with the Minoan civilisation in Crete.
Leaping acrobats, undulating plants and flying creatures appeared in Cretan bronzes around 1600 BCE, an abrupt switch from the death-orientated monumentality and overbearing autocracy of most earlier civilisations, including that of nearby Egypt.
The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro and Cretan bronzes do not feature in this selection, though you can see the bull-leaper in the British Museum. But the wonderful opening section of the show, which focuses on the human body, shows how copper alloy became the medium of choice to defy gravity and heighten expressiveness.
Fast forward to the Italian Renaissance. The iconic statue of Perseus by legendary Florentine master Benvenuto Cellini (1545-46) appears twice. Perseus was the conqueror of the dreaded sea monster, the Medusa, who turned into stone anyone who looked at her face. First there is Cellini’s exquisite working model and then the over three metre-high cast in the Loggia dei Lanzi – the famous spot where Lucy Honeychurch faints in EM Forster’s Room with a View. Not too surprising, given the horror of the frozen in time blood streaming out of the Medusa’s truncated neck. The 1844 version on display at the Academy, made for the Dukes of Sutherland, usually stands in the Italian Gardens of the Trentham estate in Staffordshire.
Giambologna’s Mercury, messenger of the Gods, made after 1580, balances delicately on his left toes, fully meriting his reputation as the Flemish-born sculptor exploited the unique strength of bronze. As Ekserdjian notes, “Giambologna exults in making a form which balances on almost nothing”.
Such wondrous renderings of the human body in motion were rivalled by Indian, Nepali and Cambodian renderings of curvaceous gods and goddesses. Interestingly, Western arrogance led to an embarrassing episode in the history of art. When copper and bronze sculptures from the Benin culture were found in Nigeria, Western curators believed they were fakes, since “savages” were thought to be incapable of such sophisticated techniques. But it is now accepted that the Benin craftspeople were in advance of their Italian counterparts by some decades.
One of the curators’ greatest coups is a potent ensemble of early Renaissance standing figures, made in 1506-11 to stand above the north door of the Florentine Baptistery. It seems that Leonardo da Vinci oversaw the making of this group of three men. St John the Baptist, garbed in his wavy hairshirt, is preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee. Each man is an intensely preoccupied individual, responding to the discussion with “heroic gravity” (Vasari’s words) of facial expression and bodily pose. The sculptor Giovani Rustici inscribed them in tiny Hebrew letters – impossible to see by a spectator as they would have been 34 feet up above her or his head.
The only female sculptor from before the 20th century to feature is the little-known Ann Seymour Damer. Her notable portrait head is of the writer Mary Berry (1793). It is a pity that there are no works by Camille Claudel, who not only inspired Rodin, but defied – and suffered under – the prejudices of her day, to become the most outstanding and innovative female sculptor of her time.
How did bronze sculpture progress after the extraordinary feats of the ancient world and 16th and 17th centuries, whether in Europe, Africa or Asia? There is a great deal to ponder and marvel over in each theme. In particular the way in which a body – human or otherwise – now appears under the impact of abstraction (Brancusi, Boccioni, Smith, Cragg and Kapoor). The body becomes a vehicle for expression, irony, playfulness and sometimes horror in the work of Rodin, de Kooning, Richier, Bourgeois, Johns and Koons.
There is a mystery about metal casting, well-illustrated in the gallery devoted to the technique – showing it in its European and Asian variants. Small surprise that the final results have often been semi-mystical objects of desire and/or worship as well as displays of power.
Making works from copper alloy – the generic name for different types of bronze – requires both negative and positive steps. A “positive” model is used to make a mould from a refractory (heat resistant) substance – which then becomes the “negative”. This mould is filled with molten metal. The significant difference from photography, of course, is that bronze casting involves weighty metals, a huge degree of heat (some 1,000˚C) and physical strength as well as manual dexterity – not to mention artistic prowess.
Once the metal has cooled down, the outer fireproof shell is chipped away to “free” the sculpture from its outer coat. Thus a new positive – the final object – sees the light of day. The last part of the process is texturing, polishing and patination, whereby oil, acid or chemicals are used to finish the surface.
The final cast object may be solid, or hollow – if the “lost wax” process is used. In this versatile form of casting, a wax model is “translated” into bronze. Most of the 150 items on display – whether Chinese, Indian or Greek – are made through this ancient technique.
The expense and skill required to produce such things – and the selection of so many undoubted masterpieces – means that Bronze makes possible a new look, not only at sculpture but at human history itself. Following in the footsteps of the British Museum’s “History of the World in 100 Objects”, we can also appreciate how works in bronze have themselves shaped our view of that history. In other words, they reflect our social, psychological and historical “self” back to us.
The 150-odd objects are arranged in a thematic, a-chronological, a-geographical post-modern way. This challenges the viewer to approach each one as an aesthetic or historic thing in its own right. And, it is soon evident that working in bronze arose in different continents in a universal way. There are strong correspondences and resonances across time and space – but equally powerful regional and cultural forces at work.
As a counter-balance to the a-historical display, the weighty catalogue provides a superbly illustrated chronological account, setting the works that appear at the Academy against some which could not – for reasons of size or fragility – travel to London.
A powerful team of curators together with the exhibition designers Stanton Williams have set out fresh vistas in the history of bronze sculpture – and through that technique – the history of human culture. In contrasting past and present, the question of where we go from here is the great challenge which seems implicitly posed throughout.
20 September 2012