Painting by its nature can present all kinds of illusions, deal with complex ideas with the flick of a brush, manipulate light and shadow with a multitude of historical and visual references.
How can such subtle qualities be presented in the materials of sculpture? Anthony Caro has made this his challenge. He distills and extracts the essence of a painting into a new object which we experience as a distinct physical presence.
He has brought the rough, unembellished materials of his craft – rusty steel, stoneware and wood – into the ornate and gilded halls of the National Gallery, to make the gallery’s first-ever sculpture exhibition.
Over the past decade, Caro has taken Giotto, Mantegna, Rembrandt, Goya, Manet and Matisse as themes for his own work, and now he has made five new sculptures inspired by Van Gogh’s famous Chair.
Caro’s sculptural technique allows him to translate visual themes and techniques into three-dimensional objects. The transposition from flat canvas to objects in space is governed by a process of analysis and clarification, which strips the original theme down to its bare bones.
But the severity to be found in sculptures such as Act of War (after Goya), Caro’s reaction to the war in Bosnia, is counter-balanced by humour, pathos and wit, in many other works.
He encourages the viewer to become aware, not only of what modern art has in common with the past, but what makes it so different. The simultaneous presentation of the past and the present can be quite shocking to some.
Indeed, it should and must shock, for otherwise we would be condemned always to live in the past with things that are familiar but never with anything new.
Caro does not go for instant sensationalism, even though there is a lot of enjoyment to be had from his sculpture. His interpretations of Van Gogh’s Chair, probably the best-loved piece of furniture ever to be painted on canvas, tell a story of their own.
The Three Chairs after Van Gogh exist as powerful physical objects, enhanced and enriched by our knowledge of their source. Standing squatly on the polished floors of the National Gallery, they are true to Van Gogh’s feeling for the humble, the solid and the really important things in life: the physical presence of people and things.
As John Golding writes: "Caro was attracted to the Van Gogh because of its earthiness, its simplicity, what he calls its ‘objecthood’, because it depicted an object of everyday use, in this case heavily layered in meanings."*
Made of stoneware (a hard opaque pottery) and rusted steel, Caro’s chairs are even more modest and down-to-earth than those of the great Dutch painter. Van Gogh’s bright yellow and blues are entirely lost. Instead, we have rust brown and dark grey.
The legs of Caro’s chairs are thick and stumpy, almost like an elephant’s feet. They are splayed out and stand less steadily than Van Gogh’s, despite their width. Each of Caro’s chairs brings brings out and expands a psychological aspect inherent, but latent, in the original.
The late 20th century variations are much more tragic and mentally disturbing than the original theme.
By way of contrast, however, Caro is equally capable of infusing light-heartedness and humour into a 20th century classic – Matisse’s Blue Nude, for example. In a waxed steel "table piece", Caro transforms Matisse’s massive, twisting female into a relaxed play of palm fronds and flapping, metal shapes – softer in steel than in oil on canvas.
The sense of play is exploited in the Book Sculptures, made between 1995 and 1997. The combination of stoneware – which has a doughy feel and creamy colour – with steel, brass and wood gives rise to a visual-tactical intercourse.
The metal shapes squeezing, penetrating and clamping the books or emerging out of them give clues to the "contents", which we cannot read. Thus, we "read" without words – through objects, shapes, colours and associations and the interplay of forms. Having freed the formal qualities and properties of sculpture of their merely descriptive associat-ions, Caro orchestrates them in an intriguing and refreshing new language.
* Publications: Caro at the National Gallery by John Golding. National Gallery Publications 1998. Anthony Caro:New Sculptures, a survey. Annely Juda Fine Art, 1998, gives an overview of Caro’s work since 1994, including his sculpture for the Millennium Bridge project.