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Modern British Sculpture

February 3, 2011

Kitty Hudson reviews two new shows which take contrasting perspectives on the current state of sculpture in Britain.

The reappraisal of modern British sculpture has been brewing for some time. ‘Wild Thing’ at the Royal Academy and the Henry Moore exhibition at Tate Britain last year were the first major manifestations; now we are being brought up to date with two shows – one large, one small – which place seminal works by the big names of early twentieth century sculpture alongside contemporary pieces. The Royal Academy again leads the way with ‘Modern British Sculpture,’ which introduces its theme by articulating the ‘fundamental choice between figuration and abstraction’, and, in recreating Edwin Lutyens’ famous Cenotaph, highlighting sculpture’s ‘formal affinities with architecture.’

The selection of ancient sculptural forms from the vast holdings of the British Museum, which alternate with Modernist works of the 1920s and 30s, is superb. Millennia have passed, but these monolithic forms still have an overwhelming impact, and inspired a powerful and virile response among advocates of ‘carving’ (as opposed to ‘modelling’) such as John Skeaping, Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Leon Underwood. Attention is then diverted towards the RA’s own role in the history of British sculpture by grouping together the work of three of its past presidents. It’s an interesting idea, but – with Alfred Gilbert’s haughty Queen Victoria (1887) facing down the purple plastic of Philip King’s Genghis Khan (1963) (pictured right) – visually eclectic, an aesthetic clash that is more amusing than revealing.

Contemporary conceptions of sculpture are so diverse, the boundaries so blurred with installation and performance art, that it is not surprising if the more modern exhibits seem a little arbitrary in the final few rooms. I am ashamed to admit that my overriding reaction to Hirst’s Let’s Eat Outdoors Today (1990-91) was pity towards whichever employee of the RA has the task of clearing up all the dead flies and putrefying food at the end of the show. A similarly banal thought occurred as I glanced up at a trio of strip lights suspended from the ceiling by chains; had these not contrasted so heavily with Sir Robert Smirke’s deep-coved neoclassical ceilings – in fact, had this been the Tate Modern – I might have believed them to be the functional objects they are, rather than stopping to appreciate them as ‘art.’

In tandem with the RA’s show, Gimpel Fils has staged an exhibition of the same name. Here the selection of contemporary sculptors appeared far more interesting in their diverse approach and imaginative use of materials. On tall vertical plinths in the centre of the room presided examples of Hepworth and Moore, withReg Butler’s Figure in Space (1957-8) (pictured above) to one side, and yet these acknowledged masters did not overshadow their neighbours in the least – not only because they were relatively small in size, but because their smooth, polished bronze set off in turn the bright perspex of Camilla Low’s Soledada Red (2003) behind and contrasted with the rough rust-covered Thousand Metre Stare (2010) of Des Hughes (pictured right). The younger sculptors clearly engage with tradition, but at the same time challenge it, so that Moore’s classic standing figure seems at once inspiring and also somewhat conventional. The aims of this show are similar to the RA’s survey: exploring questions of the abstract and the figurative, the links between sculpture past and present, and the physical, spatial interaction of the objects in the context of the gallery space. Gimpel Fils presents these contrasts succinctly and successfully in a small but illuminating display.

‘Modern British Sculpture’ at the Royal Academy runs until 7 April 2011

‘Modern British Sculpture’ at Gimpel Fils runs until 5th March 2011

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