Tuesday, 23 October 2012


Royal Academy, 15 September - 9 December 2012

The dancing satyr, one of the highlights of this exhibition
Image from the website of Mazara del Vallo, where it was found.

More a temporary museum of bronze than an exhibition, but containing many powerful and thought-provoking objects.

During the thousand years of the Ancient Olympics, there were no prizes for coming second, much less third. But ‘getting a bronze’ would have been the greatest success an athlete could achieve, for it meant a statue of himself (rarely herself), supposedly immortalising his achievement.

Endurance is one of the characteristics of this exhibition: the endurance of bronze, but also endurance on the part of the spectator. Dozens of items, covering thousands of years and a vast geographic range (large parts of Africa, Asia and Europe), ranging from the mundane to the spiritual, and in size from tiny jewellery to huge statues, the only unifying factor being that they are comprised of a copper alloy.

The Royal Academy may need no further justification for this exhibition: the variety on offer, and the technical comments on making the items, would no doubt be helpful for any aspiring sculpture.

For non-specialist audiences, it’s still a curatorial nightmare – how to best organise this material? It has been arranged thematically in loose groupings, allowing items from different centuries and cultures to sit next to each other. The catalogue has been ordered chronologically, giving a very different journey through these items.

This exhibition has a museum feel, and as in other museums, a series of fairly random observations come to mind, rather than a coherent ‘review’:

Does bronze really endure? Where are all those statues of the athletes? Destroyed, along with so much else from their period. Astonishingly, beautiful items are still being uncovered, as with the frenzied figure above, found in 1998. But this is a melancholy thought, that so much has vanished.

Artists are rarely ‘true’ to the material. Metal sculptures can permit a wider range of forms than stone, and in depicting the human figure could allow greater feats of flight, almost literally. Whereas stone statues require a lot of weight on the ground, so are typically sombre, bronze people can do handstands, or rest on one foot. Yet across every culture, dignified – earthbound – postures are the norm. So why use bronze?

Satyr and satyress, attributed to Desiderio da Firenze.
Musée National de la Renaissance, Château d’Écouen.

Artists are more truthful to materials when it comes to sex. The image above is one of several items in the exhibition utilising the properties of bronze to depict a frozen moment during sex, including a wonderful Chinese coupling whose image I sadly can't find online.

Big is better. Bronze jewellery simply doesn't appeal to me as much as gold or silver. Whereas huge metallic statues or incense burners, or whatever, seem imposing and majestic. This might be a flaw of the curating, though - the temptations of the large always block out the tiny, whne they are next to each other.

Nigeria is really really trying to get its bronzes back. One of the nerdy joys of the exhibition was the simple variety of lending institutions, many of them tiny and so presumably losing significant attractions through these loans. The number of Nigerian loans, including one not in the catalogue, made me wonder if there might be an ulterior motive.

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