Visual Art review: Bronze, London Royal Academy of Arts

THE sheer scope and continuity of the Royal Academy’s Bronze show is impressive, filling in gaps most of us wouldn’t have known were there, yet the organisation of them is odd, to say the least


Royal Academy of Arts, London

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Rating: * * * *

Two massive bronze door knockers from the cathedral of Trier in Germany, made some 900 years ago, bear Latin inscriptions. One reads “That which the wax gives, the fire removes and the bronze returns to you,” the other, “Magister Nicolaus and Johannes of Bincio have made us.” Artists’ signatures are rare in the early Middle Ages. To have put their names on the door of the cathedral, these two masters of bronze must have been people of exceptional status. The first inscription suggests why that was so. It is a summary of the near magical process of lost-wax bronze casting. It works like this. The model is made in wax. The wax gives its shape to a clay mould built around it. It is then burnt away (lost) and the mould fired hard. The molten bronze poured into the mould fills the space left by the wax and miraculously takes its precise shape. To achieve the metamorphosis of a lump of inert metal into an image that could mimic all the diverse shapes of life itself is a skill worthy of the gods themselves. It is little wonder that the masters of such an art should have had great status. The origins of this magical technology are lost in remotest prehistory. The earliest objects known that were made using this technique are in the Royal Academy’s exhibition Bronze. The reeds they were found wrapped in have been carbon dated to 3700 BC. From the Near East, the cradle of civilisation, they are small but beautiful, a sceptre, a crown, a mace head representing a two-headed antelope, and another similar object decorated with a vulture. They push back by several hundred years the beginning of the Bronze Age, but this technology from 6000 years ago is also still in use and has hardly changed. That is the premise for this show which, in consequence, spans almost 6000 years. It begins with the beginning of the Bronze Age and ends with Tony Cragg, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons and Louise Bourgeois.

The qualities of bronze itself explain this continuity. It is hard and very durable. Its colour is rich and diverse, ranging from deep brown to yellow, or indeed the brilliant green of oxidised copper, its principal ingredient in an alloy with tin or zinc. Bronze can also vary in finish, from matt to surfaces so bright that mirrors were once made of it. The same subtlety of surface provides the faithfulness with which the lost-wax technique reproduces in hard metal the artist’s minutest touch.

As an aesthetic material bronze has never been out of fashion. Thus as nothing else does, it appears to bring into a single frame of reference the sculpture of the whole Eurasian landmass, over five or six millennia, from Scandinavia to China and south to India and Indonesia. Transported across the Sahara, the technology also appeared in West Africa a thousand years ago with stunning results in the bronze sculptures of Benin and Ife that are displayed here.

Superficially, as it is all bronze, this show seems unified, but look closer and it doesn’t make much sense. Organisation is partly by subject matter and partly by form. Thus there are rooms devoted to figures, animals, gods, heads and objects, but then others to groups and reliefs. By this arrangement, to give just one example, you end up with Rodin’s Age of Bronze, a 15th-century seated Buddhist sage from China, a Clam Digger by Willem de Kooning, a seated woman from Nigeria made in the 13th or 14th century and Ghiberti’s St Stephen from the Baptistery in Florence all standing in a row. To add to the confusion, the Rodin and the Ghiberti at either end are lifesize. The others range down to the Nigerian figure which is just 50cm tall. This kind of juxtaposition is no doubt justified in the minds of the curators by the idea that art is universal and bronze an impeccable witness to that truth, but it never works. Even when their origin is lost in the mists of antiquity, the variation in the contexts from which these objects come is far too wide and too obvious. The effect is like Babel, everybody speaking at once in languages we mostly do not know. In consequence the show seems vast, but in fact there are only 150 objects in it. As though implicitly acknowledging this confusion, the catalogue takes a quite different line and is organised more or less chronologically.

Like gold and silver, however, as a witness to history bronze has one great drawback. It can be endlessly recycled. Take a work of art, chop it up, put it in a crucible and you can make it into something entirely new, again and again. For all that it is such a universal medium, the record is therefore very patchy and the show unbalanced in consequence. Indian sculpture seems over-represented. Perhaps because of the continuity of Indian religion, sculpture made for cult purposes has survived in greater quantity than it has in the West where much has been lost. History has been as unkind to sculpture from antiquity. Who would suppose that for the ancient Greeks bronze, not marble, was the prime medium for sculpture? Almost nothing was known of monumental Greek bronze sculpture, however, until marine archaeology began quite recently to bring to the surface bronze sculptures lost at sea on their way from Athens to Rome, or perhaps looted from Rome itself. It is one of these recent discoveries that greets you at the entrance. A lifesize dancing satyr that snagged a fisherman’s nets in the Straits of Sicily just three years ago, it has lost its arms and one leg. Nevertheless, the energy and abandon of its dance is astonishing. Degas or Matisse would have been proud of it. Degas is notably absent here, however. Matisse is represented by his great Back series, Picasso by a lively baboon. Brancusi looks more Art Deco than anything, while another modern, Giacometti, is betrayed by an Etruscan stick figure that reveals an uncanny resemblance to his own work. There is a picture of Paolozzi in the catalogue, but nothing by him in the show. Anish Kapoor’s bronze mirror might have been supported to good effect by some of the antique bronze mirrors that it echoes, but it isn’t.

Further back in time, the Bronze Age itself is rather thinly represented, although the Sun Chariot from the 14th century BC, found in a bog in Denmark, is a star. There are some wonderful Greek and Roman objects. A portrait of the ferociously bearded Thracian King Seleuthes III is memorable, for instance, so is a portrait of a Roman girl with corkscrew curls. A spectacular door knocker from Durham Cathedral shows how good medieval artists in bronze could be. Western medieval objects, however, are far outnumbered by those from West Africa which seems unbalanced, although many of the African bronzes are superb. The Renaissance is well represented, however.

Reliefs by Donatello and Adrian de Vries would look terrific anywhere. Rustici’s monumental figures of John the Baptist preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee from the Baptistery in Florence would alone justify a visit. I am not so sure the same is true of Frederick Remington’s cowboys on horseback. Some of the animals are brilliant however. A Shang Dynasty elephant from 1000BC, for instance, a wonderful Greek horse’s head, a Roman ram to match the one that stands in Moffat, (also bronze I think) and a turkey by Giambologna. One of the most striking of all the objects here is the Etruscan Chimera from Florence, a lion with a serpent’s tail and a goat sprouting out of its back. After almost two and a half millennia, its ferocity is quite undimmed, but then that is the magic of bronze.

• Until 9 December