Thursday, 24 February 2011

Our sculptors used to celebrate our history - now they take a dump on it

BBC 4 is going through a genuine purple patch at the moment: I can’t recommend highly enough the three part series, Romancing the Stone – a celebration of British sculpture, currently airing (all three episodes are available on iPlayer).

Presenter Alex Sooke, who writes about art for the Telegraph, does a superb job: his love of British art and history shines through, without recourse to over-statement or frantic arm-waving or desperate attempts to make his subject “relevant” to a modern audience. 

In the second programme in the series, he looks at statuary from Britain’s Imperial Age – and it’s an eye-opener. Sculptors discussed included John Flaxman, whose determination to match the greatest of the Ancients led him to study in Rome for seven years – and whose impressive  The Fury of Athamas (1790-94) was studied in some detail.

There was Sir Francis Legatt Chantrey and his poignant and superbly detailed The Sleeping Children (1817) in Lichfield Cathedral – a memorial to two young sisters who had died in 1812, commissioned by their mother. When  it was first exhibited in London,  female visitors stood in front of it, their faces streaming with tears.

There was the cautionary tale of Alfred Gilbert, described as “the last Master of the Imperial Age” (he moved to Belgium after his Eros - yes the one in Piccadilly Circus -  was mocked,  and having produced a ruinously expensive memorial to the Duke of Clarence, commissioned by Queen Victoria). The Gilbert section started with his beautiful, naturalistic bronze statue of Icarus (1884). As a man of ambition, Gilbert was intrigued by the theme of a young man - an “anxious adolescent” as Sooke described him - flying too close to the Sun. 

There was a sequence involving a contemporary Scottish sculptor working in the Classical tradition. Alexander Stoddart had very definite – and refreshing – views on the function of statuary:

“Statuary is never a casual thing, never jocular… Nothing is more annoying than a joke told twice. A joke told 24/7 for the next 1000 years - well, it would incline people to murder. For this reason, the stable and  serious things of this world have to be themselves stable and serious.. The job is to arrest the form for perpetuity… My statues in Edinburgh look best at the Edinburgh Fringe when the Fringe people are jumping about in all sorts of antic activities and the statue stands there completely detached from it all, taking no part in it… The statue tries to stand or sit like a pool of silence and calm in the middle of all the general karaoke. And our cities are in need of these great outposts of silence that the statuary – particularly the 19th Century - afford.”

Aye, fair enough, Al!

We got a very different view of statuary’s function from Rose Gibbs, who was shown creating a six-foot tall bronze piece at the Royal College of Art foundry in Battersea for her MA Show. The aim of this sequence was to demonstrate the “lost wax” method brought by Alfred Gilbert from Rome to London to create Icarus (it allows artists to capture extraordinarily precise details). 

After we’d seen Ms Gibbs – this heir to a wonderful British artistic tradition which has produced works of celebration and poignancy and beauty – go through the complex rigmarole involved in the “lost wax” process, Sooke (rather naughtily) gave us a glimpse of the work she’d produced. It seemed to consist of a formless mountain dotted with penises and ugly women. Responding to the presenter’s gently ironic questions, this is what our truly “modern” artist had to say:
“I wanted to play with those associations with great victories, kind of conquering countries, winning wars, so I have these penises to sort of symbolise male virility and strength so they’re kind of defunct on this mountain – they’re kind of limp… If you take a look at these penises, there’s a lot of texture and detail and the women have varicose veins. That kind of thing is something that’s achievable with the ‘lost wax’ technique. You sort of get all that detail in there.”

The sequence ended with a shot of the monstrosity from on high, resembling what, aesthetically, it represented – an enormous pile of disgusting, repellent excrement.

Nice to know that this is what our arts institutions use our money to churn out – some silly, vacuous, brain-dead woman taking a vast, ugly  dump on Britain’s history, where her predecessors (and some of her contemporaries – unsubsidised, one presumes)  celebrated achievement and endeavour and beauty and nobility with tenderness, verve and reverence.

How far we’ve travelled in such a short time.

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