Bronze @ the Royal Academy

‘Bronze’ is a major exhibition at the Royal Academy which sets out to show how bronze has been used to make religious and cultural artefacts in cultures all over the world for nearly 5,000 years. The show brings together some 150 of the finest bronze works from Africa, Asia and Europe in a really massive, overwhelming exhibition.

From the exhibition we learn that bronze has been employed as an artistic medium for over five millennia. It’s an alloy made by blending copper with small amounts of tin, zinc or lead. Due to its strength and resistance, copper has been subjected to an extraordinary variety of uses over the centuries.

The exhibits range from the ancient to the modern, from the large to the tiny. If the exhibition was just about European bronze it would be impressive enough with ancient works such as the severed head of King Seuthes III dating from the early Hellenistic period, through loads of medieval saints, to masterpieces of the Renaissance from Florence made by Bellini, Cellini and Donatello. There’s a sequence of pompous kings from the 17th to 19th centuries, and then ‘modern’ works from Rodin, Brancusi, Matisse, Giacommetti.

But interspersed with the familiar European works are bronze pieces from Asia and Africa, from India, China, Cambodia and many from Nigeria.

This intermingling is because the exhibition isn’t sorted by area but by them, each room focusing on a topic such as the Human Figure, Animals, Groups, Objects, Reliefs, Gods, Heads and Busts. In any one room there’ll be work from all areas and all ages. Plus one whole room dedicated to explaining the manufacturing process. Here you learn about the methods for casting bronze, how models are made, cast and finished – with models, videos, and – the end result – a foot-high slender statue which you can handle. It is heavy. Shiny and heavy. You can see why even small statuettes are used as murder weapons in some thrillers.

One of the earliest exhibits is the wonderful Trundholm sun chariot, one of Denmark’s biggest national treasures. It was found in one of Denmark’s many peat bogs in 1902. It’s thought to date from 1800 to 1600 BCE. A large bronze disk is being pulled by a bronze horse on wheels. One side of the disk is gilded and the common interpretation is that the ensemble represents the sun being drawn across the heavens from East to West during the day, presenting its bright side to the Earth and then returning from West to East during the night, when the dark side is being presented to the Earth.

The Chimera of Arezzo is one of the best known examples of Etruscan art. The Etruscans inhabited the area of Italy now known as Tuscany before the rise of the Romans. This bronze was found in 1553 and was one of a hoard of bronzes that had been carefully buried for safety some time in antiquity. In Greek mythology the monstrous Chimera ravaged its homeland, Lycia, until it was slain by Bellerophon. This statue may have been part of a set including Bellorophon. The present bronze tail is an 18th-century restoration. An inscription on the right foreleg is agreed to be TINSCVIL indicating that the bronze was a votive object dedicated to the supreme Etruscan god of day, Tin or Tinia.

One evening in March 1998 fishermen off the southwestern coast of Sicily caught in their nets one of the most spectacular ancient finds of recent times, a more than life size bronze statue of a dancing satyr. Dating varies widely from the 4th century BCE by scholars who say it might be the handiwork of the legendary ancient sculptor Praxiteles, to others who date it to the Hellenistic period of the 3rd or the 2nd centuries BCE. It’s dancing writhing body is a masterpiece of action and movement captured in hard cold metal.

There’s an amazingly detailed and characterful head of King Seuthes III, a Thracian king contemporary with Alexander the Great, which was only discovered in a tomb in central Bulgaria eight years ago.

The wealth, the variety of traditions, of religions and histories and cultures o display is quite overwhelming and exhausting but I found myself consistently liking the non-European works. Although obviously ‘masterpieces’ I found the famous and often huge works of the European tradition – like Bellini’s Perseus and Medusa – too familiar, to easily assimilated. It was the works from Asia and Africa which struck me, excited me, haunted me and above all the pieces form Africa, from Nigeria. For example this wonderful masterful ‘Head with crown’ from 15th century Ife in Nigeria. In terms of composition, finish, realism and yet something haunting and transcendental, this piece is head and shoulders above sculpture produced in England in the 15th century, all those slender wooden Marys and bleeding Christs.

‘Perseus and Medusa’ by Benvenuto Cellini was unveiled in 1545 on a square base with bronze relief panels and still stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy. Its heroic super-realistic depiction of the human body in wonderful anatomical precision is hailed as a peak of Renaissance knowledge and craftmanship.

Another very striking Renaissance piece is this ‘Damned soul’ by Gianlorenzo Bernini made around 1619. The original is in marble but a bronze copy was made in the early 1700s by Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi. He looks pretty unhappy at being consigned to an eternity of torment. A very European idea which we successfully exported to countless more peaceful and relaxed cultures around the globe.

The Benin Bronzes are a collection of more than 3000 brass plaques from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin (located in present day Nigeria). They seem to have been cast in Benin between the thirteenth and 16th century. They were seized by a British force in a “punitive (ie plundering) expedition” in 1897 and passed along that great lumberhouse of loot, the British Museum. It’s worth visiting the Museum to go to the underground gallery where several hundred are displayed. They make an overwhelming impression.

The early 20th century is well-represented by some massive slabs by Matisse, spindly figures by Giacommetti, figures by Rodin. But surely the most striking is this wonderful piece from 1918, ‘Danaïde’ by Constantin Brancusi, apparently based on a famous flapper from the era. It reminds me of art deco and the round caps worn by flappers in the Jazz Age.

Post-war there are some jokey beer cans cast in bronze by Jasper Johns, a bronze basketball by Jeff Koons, a blodgy swamp monster by Willem de Kooning, a praying mantis by Germaine Richier, a big spooky spider by Louise Bourgeois and a typically bric-a-brac Baboon and Young by Picasso.

Amid bronze Indian votive bulls and Chinese treasure chests and medieval altars, I was struck by this modern Arte Povera-style work by Richard Deacon, titled simply ‘Nails’.

Not a great photo, but it was one of the few pieces which struck me as ‘artistic’ in the sense of wonderfully capturing the world, the materials and artefacts of the world we live in, as opposed to religious offerings, Renaissance supermen or African cult figures. Industrial length nails. Stark, evocative beauty of the observed, the chosen-from-detritus, the taken-from-here and made-to-last-forever.


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1 Comment

  1. galagali

     /  August 26, 2013

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