This review originally appeared in the Vol. 20 No. 1 / Spring-Summer 2013 issue of West 86th.

Royal Academy of Arts, London
September 15–December 9, 2012

Edited by David Ekserdjian
London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2012.
248pp.; 260 ill. (mostly full color)
Cloth £40; paperback £27.95
ISBN: 9781907533280 (cloth)

On stepping into the Central Hall at Burlington House, the visitor slips into a dark, sea-blue space, essentially empty except for one form, mounted on a raised platform in the center but seeming to float in the quiet aquatic atmosphere. The Dancing Satyr, one of the life-size Greek bronzes most recently dredged up from the bed of the Mediterranean, soars through the room, his head thrown back in drunken abandon, locks streaming to the side. As remarkable as the size, the naturalistic modeling of form, and the inlaid alabaster eyes are, it is the drama of the satyr’s pose that arrests the viewer and plants the seed for the Royal Academy exhibition’s theme. Given the fragmentary state of the Greek figure, its standing leg not found with the rest of the body off the coast of Sicily in 1998–99, the miracle of this statue in particular, and of bronze in general, is that one bronze leg, one bronze ankle, and one bronze foot are sufficiently strong to support the cavorting figure. Bronze, unlike clay, stone, marble, and ivory, has sufficient compression and tensile strength to replicate the biomechanics of the musculoskeletal system. This simple but extraordinary fact is the rationale behind the exhibition at the Royal Academy: how humans the world over, with the notable exceptions of native Americans and Australians, have crafted sculptures from this curious alloy of copper to wonderful effect.

The sweeping theme of sculptures in copper alloys—the curators are quick to point out that distinctions between bronze (copper alloyed with tin) and brass (copper alloyed with zinc) are largely academic and did not inflect the choice of works for the exhibition—from nearly six thousand years of human history on three continents, is a difficult one to organize. David Ekserdjian and Cecilia Treves, lead curators of the show, eschewed the traditional march of time and adopted an installation based on the formal types conventionally cast in the medium: figures, animals, objects, groups, reliefs, Gods, and heads. The basilica-like hall of the second gallery welcomes a cast of characters from renowned collections worldwide, presenting them lined up with ceremonial formality. A Nigerian seated figure of the late-thirteenth or early-fourteenth century confronts the colossal Rustici figures from the north door of the Florentine Baptistery of the early sixteenth. This juxtaposition, like so many others presented in the show, utterly undermines our received notions of artistic development and center versus periphery. The Nigerian bronze is compact, well proportioned, and naturalistic, and the supple surface texture successfully renders the yielding nature of skin. By comparison Rustici’s Baptist, Levite, and Pharisee are top-heavy (granted, they were meant to be viewed drastically from below) and lost in overelaborate and brittle drapery, with pantomimic gestures and expressions lacking the interiority of their African forerunner. If all the exhibition did was posit such forceful reassessments of our art historical idées reçues, it would be a success.

The third gallery, however, ensures that this is not merely the case. It is devoted to the detailed explanation of technical processes and is supplemented with videos of lost-wax bronze casting and traditional foundry methods still used today in India and West Africa. Text panels painstakingly explain the various methods employed to fabricate these sculptures. In addition to extensive didactic panels, there are examples of molds, test pieces, and an array of different patinas. It also includes a replica of Barthélemy Prieur’s Acrobat Performing a Handstand (cat. 115) for the visitor to grasp and feel its weight—a tactile experience key to comprehending many of the small-scale bronzes in the show. What makes this technical gallery so important is that it lives at the center of the exhibition, not hidden away to one side, thus foregrounding the importance of the information here relayed. This technical gallery gives the uninitiated viewer the tools for thinking critically about the works painstakingly assembled and presented at Burlington House. Armed with knowledge from the technical gallery, every visitor, not just the trained art historian, can enjoy the intellectual play of thinking through the works presented. Analyzing and understanding the various stages of production in any object shown are not only pleasurable and challenging in themselves—they require a certain focus and engagement not unlike a crossword or meditation—but they furthermore furnish in the mind of the viewer a repertoire of criteria with which to compare disparate works.

Take Picasso’s Baboon and Young (cat. 146), for example, which is featured in the second of the galleries devoted to the theme of animals. The artist has cleverly taken household items and a couple of his son’s toys—two plastic cars, cup handles, a deep-bellied jug—along with some automotive parts to constitute the initial model for the indirect lost-wax casting process. The smooth texture of the plastic, the rough surface of the terra-cotta jug, and the irregular and impressionistic treatment of the clay used to shape the legs, neck, and arms are all preserved in the final sculpture, indexing directly their multimedia origins. Clear interventions of the artist’s hand not only occurred in the modeling of the clay but were also introduced into the wax “inter-model.” The line of the mother baboon’s breast, gouged into the wax version of the terra-cotta jug, is a gesture possible only at this intermediary step. Thinking through process, the viewer is able to pinpoint moments of witty appropriation that recall the artist’s earlier collages, versus the instances of dexterous interventions, all of which underline the fact that these near readymades of humble media have been transformed into costly and illustrious bronze, perhaps representing for this self-reflexive artist the apotheosis of assemblage.

Such reflections on process directly illuminate other works, specifically the casts of well-known marbles that might at first glance seem out of place within a show consecrated to the examination of bronze. Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi’s full-size bronze replica after Michelangelo’s Bacchus (cat. 127) recalls, at the outset, that the man who claimed to have been nursed at the breast of a stonecutter’s wife distained bronze casting throughout his life. He was a carver, not a caster, preferring to excavate individuals from a block of marble rather than fashioning them ex nihilo from clay; his was a rigorously Platonic and not a Judeo-Christian understanding of artistic creation. Michelangelo was, however, deeply attached to the classical tradition, and the Roman statues he carefully studied in the Medici gardens of his youth were, he knew, marble replicas of Greek bronzes, and the incongruous dolphins, tree stumps, and vases were unwelcome supplements necessary to a marble copy’s success. With young Michelangelo realizing the relative weakness of his chosen material, his attempt at (perhaps) a counterfeit antiquity knowingly references the brittle nature of marble through the tipsy Bacchus’s stumbling stance—buttressed by the attendant satyr, himself perched on one of those ubiquitous tree stumps. All of Michelangelo’s witty formal repartee—don’t forget the anomalously tense index finger pointing to said stump—is overturned with Benzi’s cast. Rendering Michelangelo’s Bacchus in bronze completes an enclosed rhyme scheme (bronze-marble-marble-bronze, a-b-b-a), a centuries-long, tongue-in-cheek contemplation on the nature of artistic media.

In the Royal Academy installation, this lighthearted approach to what might be referred to as an intrasculptural paragone is immediately resolved by Giambologna’s Mercury (cat. 107) standing opposite. This representation of the fleet-footed messenger of the gods could, as aptly as Rodin’s sculpture in the figure hall (cat. 134), be called The Age of Bronze for its exemplification of the full potential of the medium. Mercury stands poised on tiptoe, the effort of which strongly and markedly flexes his calf and thigh muscles, his right arm stretching up in an elegant continuation of line, his right leg kicking back to balance the composition; the small-scale bronze captures the aerial movements of the god in virtuosic form. The near yogic pose describes in visual terms the strength and flexibility of the medium. Not only does the tiptoe contrast so very strongly with the stumbling Bacchus’s reliance on the stump, but the verticality of the upraised arm calls to mind the sprues necessary for proper pouring of molten metal, and Mercury’s prophetically pointed finger and intense upward gaze seem to recall his own creation from the downward trickle of the fiery medium.

Part of the excitement of the show is that these rich comparisons are unique to the installation and do not feature in the catalogue. The editorial choice here was to arrange the works chronologically and not to attempt to reconstruct the manifold interactions that the thematic installation generates. Organized in three discrete sections, the catalogue begins with essays by leading scholars dealing with period and geographic groupings of bronze. It is here that the visitor can access a historically minded account of the medium’s development in antiquity (Carol C. Mattusch), South and Southeast Asia (John Guy), and the European Middle Ages (Ittai Weinryb). The central section comprises large and superbly rendered photographs of each individual object arranged in roughly chronological order, accompanied solely by tombstone data. It is in the last section where short catalogue entries are to be found, identified, thankfully, by thumbnail images and not merely by number. While the rationale of keeping the images as large and as aesthetically pleasing as possible is recognized, I’m not sure the sacrifice in separating information from image, handsome though those images may be, is fully justified. One must engage in an awful lot of flipping back and forth to use this volume, which in the end finally just seems cumbersome.

Other than problems of facture, the installation of the exhibition successfully brings out other subthemes intrinsic to the medium. The first room dedicated to animals includes impressive examples of large-scale, hollow predatory beasts, namely the Chimaera of Arezzo (cat. 23), the Mari-Cha collection Lion (cat. 62), and the Benin Pair of Leopards (cat. 102). The mythical status of the Etruscan Chimaera, installed prominently at the entrance of this suite of galleries on a wide plinth so that it can be seen without the interruption of glass, weaves together three important strains: fearsome animal playing a protective role, wide-open mouth to intimate a sonorous roar, and the fire-breathing nature of the monstrous Chimaera. The Mari-Cha Lion, one of the unfortunately few artifacts in the show representing the strong Islamic tradition of bronze casting, likewise depicts a menacing beast, though here in a more stately than threatening mode, also with an open mouth. Invisible to the viewer, this object is fitted on its interior with a resonating chamber to amplify the sound of the wind blowing in through the mouth. Like the Pisan Griffin, the actual rather than implied roar ties this object not only to a classical tradition of protective animals, but also to the sonorous aspects of bronze and brass—a tradition in which bells as well as wind instruments figure prominently, neither of which is sufficiently represented in the show. Given the prominent place Ittai Weinryb’s essay assigned to bell casting in both the ideological as well as the technological development of medieval European bronze culture, it is disappointing that the exhibition did not seize this unique opportunity to amplify the acoustic function of the Lion.

Chimaera of Arezzo, Etruscan, ca. 400 BCE. Bronze, 78.5 x 129 cm. Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana. Photo: Antonio Quattrone, Florence, Italy.

The Islamic Lion can be related not only to such other Mediterranean-oriented objects as the Aquamanile in the Form of a Lion (cat. 61), but more enigmatically to the Pair of Leopards from sixteenth-century Benin. Stylistically these works are incredibly similar—the soft, rounded feline forms, the alert and focused facial expressions, and the incised chasing on the surface of the cast metal. John Picton’s essay on West African bronzes tantalizingly underscores Benin’s reliance on the trans-Saharan trade for the zinc necessary for the medium in which these leopards are cast (brass), and one must wonder whether techniques or craftsmen also traveled from North Africa by those same routes. Similar global connections forged through bronze are signaled with The Assante Ewer (cat. 67) shown in the next gallery—manufactured in England at the end of the fourteenth century, it was preserved in the royal palace of Asante, now Ghana, until 1895–96 when it was “repatriated” by British explorers. The nature of the economic and political ties that brought West Africa into conversation with England in the early modern period, ties that seem purposeful rather than random as two other jugs of similar date and manufacture were found with the ewer, is a burning question still unanswered. The installation of The Assante Ewer manifestly poses and problematizes precisely this question, as it mediates between the thirteenth-century aquamanile from Hildesheim on the left and the extraordinary Snail Shell Surmounted by a Leopard (ex cat.), found at Igbo-Ukwu, that dates to the ninth or tenth century. Copper, lead, and tin were all available locally in the lower Niger region, and contrary to the Benin brasses, the Igbo-Ukwu bronzes were likely a wholly indigenous development.

The mesmerizing effect of the surface pattern on both the Mari-Chi Lion and the Benin Leopards, as well as the protective role of the predatory felines, links the animals directly to what I think of as the most successful room of the exhibition, the second gallery dedicated to objects. This gallery is dominated by Anish Kapur’s untitled mirrorlike dish (cat. 157) of highly polished copper alloy coated with lacquer to preserve the unpatinated and untarnished surface of the metal, and this piece clearly demonstrates that the apotropaic function of bronze—in Greek literally meaning to turn (-trepein) away (apo-)—is paramount. The reflective quality of metallic objects was their foremost characteristic, allowing them to deflect evil intentions and spirits. Kapur furthers this core attribute of bronze with his almost signature concave format, which, paired with the glistening surface, creates a captivating and hallucinatory space before the object. Hung directly opposite, the beautiful Celtic Battersea Shield (cat. 27) capitalizes on exactly the same reflective qualities as the Kapur, but reinforces the enchanting power of bronze through the dazzling interlace patterns and enamels. Diverting evil from the carrier, and trapping those attentions in the web of intertwined, concentric circles, this shield was perhaps considered a most powerful one, even though the gallery text signaled that it was “clearly intended only” for display. The apotropaic significance of bronze, strongly communicated to the viewer through the juxtaposition of the Kapur and the Battersea Shield, and described explicitly in the form of the huge lion’s head door knocker from Durham Cathedral (cat. 65), illuminates too one of the highlights of the exhibition: the late Nordic Bronze Age Chariot of the Sun (cat. 7), its shining gilt surface arrayed with concentric circles, deals with the same millennial symbolic vocabulary.1 The apotropaic theme continues into the last room, which is dedicated to heads, with the Ife Mask of Obalufon II and Head with Crown (cats. 73 and 74), which John Picton’s catalogue essay explains were originally highly polished to shine brightly—a quality, he remarks, still appreciated in the lower Niger today for its apotropaic function. The thrust of the object gallery is, however, confused by the interjection of Jeff Koons’s Basketball (cat. 154), a facetious statement contrasting iconography and material. This installation suggests to the viewer that Koons has not thought as sensitively as we would hope about media.

The Chariot of the Sun, Early Bronze Age, 14th century BCE, Trundholm, Zealand. Bronze and gold. 95 x 60 x 25 cm. National Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: Roberto Fortuna & Kira Ursem, The National Museum of Denmark.

By touching on just a few of the works assembled in Burlington House and the material-based narratives their juxtapositions evoke, I only gesture toward the full richness and depth of the show. Many masterpieces have not even here been mentioned—Giambologna’s Turkey (cat. 111), the Goslar altar (cat. 63), Louise Bourgeois’s Spider IV (cat. 155), the Chola period Yashoda Nursing the Infant Krishna (cat. 69), the sixth- or seventh-century Vaikuntha Vishnu (cat. 47), or the Crosby Garrett Helmet (cat. 42)—and their forms should lead a different viewer through an equally satisfying art historical ductus, to borrow Mary Carruthers’s term for contemplative engagement. By discarding the strictures of chronology and geography, and by not shying away from technical questions, the curators orchestrated some pairings and welcomed other chance encounters between works from vastly different ages and civilizations. Not limited by an outmoded assumption of progression or development, the viewer is free to roam among the extraordinary loans, following their own interior path. The reception of Bronze has been unprecedented: crowds have flocked, and critics have raved. While this is due in no small part to the exceptional works assembled by the curators in a short time frame, it is also because the curators were comfortable with a suggestive rather than prescriptive mode of installation. With Bronze, we have been furnished with a playing field for looking closely at, and thinking critically about, the function, facture, and meaning of a compelling medium.

Sarah M. Guérin is a postdoctoral fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

  1. 1. *While many objects are very successfully installed without cases, the chariot is one that understandably needed to be protected. What is not understandable, however, given the double-sided nature of the object—displaying the gilt sun on one side and the natural bronze moon on the other—is why this object was placed in a case with the moon side practically invisible to the viewer? It is a small point worth raising only because the rest of the installation choices are so sensitive.

Dancing Satyr, Greek, Hellenistic period, 3rd–2nd centuries BCE. Bronze, with white alabaster for eyes. Height 200 cm. Church of Sant’Egidio, Mazara del Vallo. Photo: Sicily, Regione Siciliana – Assessorato Regionale dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana – Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana – Servizio Museo interdisciplinare Regionale “A. Pepoli” Trapani / © 2012 / Photo Scala, Florence.

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