Billed as the latest ‘blockbuster’ show at the Royal Academy, Bronze is an astonishing collection of pieces from periods spanning the centuries from pre-history to the present day. Looking at the provenance of the exhibits, and their current ownership, it’s clear that an amazing amount of wheeling and dealing, promising and calling in of favours must have gone into the curating, to gather so many well known things, from so many different places.
There are pieces from as nearby as the V&A and the British Museum, and as far away as China and Japan, from Nigeria and from Denmark as well as Italy and Greece. The oldest might be a horse drawn chariot from the 14th century BC from Denmark, and the most contemporary, a shining dish by Anish Kapoor made very recently.
I learnt about the processes used to make bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, from a step by step display and film showing the ‘ lost wax’ method, and all I could think about was what the excitement and trepidation would be like when the artist is chipping away the clay mould after the thing has been fired, wondering if the statue inside will be as he wanted it, and hoping that all the work in creating the cast had not been in vain.
The exhibition isn’t really about the history of the way the use of bronze has developed over time, it’s about the aesthetic pleasure of looking at it. So there is no chronology, nor any explanation of who came before whom, or who influenced what. Instead the rooms are each devoted to the depiction of different forms: the figure, the head, gods, animals and groups, and through that it was possible to see how different cultures and eras had approached each of the forms, how they differed, but also where there were striking similarities.
I could see how the larger statues were meant to intimidate, especially those of mythical leaders clutching severed human heads in outstretched arms, but it was the smaller things which appealed to me more. I wanted to stroke my hand across the shining curved back of a crouching Venus, and leap from one foot like Mercury, with wings on my heels.
But the works which were perhaps my favourites were both of figures in wild action. One is the very first thing I saw on entering the exhibition, all alone in the centre dimly lit space of rich blue, a Dancing Satyr, fished up from the sea near Sicily as recently as 1998, incomplete, but clearly dancing in wild abandon, his head flung back, his torso twisted. It’s a fantastically dramatic start to the show.
And then later, Coming through the Rye, a group of galloping horses fashioned by Remington, where the hooves of the outside horses don’t touch the ground, has the look of sculpting as a competitive sport, a showing off of how difficult he could make things, challenging others to do better.
The show is on until December 9.