A British Model of Modernism

How insular is our sculpture? Not very, as a major new exhibition at the Royal Academy reveals

Art

In 1955, Nikolaus Pevsner delivered the Reith Lectures, in which he spoke about “The Englishness of English Art”. In his talks, he sought to sift and enumerate the defining characteristics of the art of his adopted country. Among the traits he identified were architectural quirkiness, irrepressible humour, a love of domesticity and of the pastoral. What Pevsner laid out was that our national school had an identity that was independent of geography. Modern British Sculpture at the Royal Academy (from January 22) seeks to do a similar exercise in taxonomy and examine whether Pevsner’s checklist applies to the long sculptural 20th century, or if indeed it has any other distinctive strands joining it together. 

The exhibition starts with Lord Leighton and ends with Damien Hirst, that is from High Victorian aestheticism to the Young British Artists’ knowingness, and takes in the likes of Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Anthony Caro and Richard Long along the way. A brief glance at these figures is evidence that they are far too heterogeneous to give much joy to a latter-day Pevsner. The shift in the period from private to public sculpture, from the commemorative to the museum piece, from the figurative to the abstract, splinters his unities. What the curators do instead is to look at how sculptors from different generations treat themes such as imperialism, war and non-Western art.

Hence the juxtaposition of Alfred Gilbert’s Queen Victoria of 1887 with Phillip King’s Genghis Khan of 1963. Gilbert, one of the most original artists these isles have produced, shows the queen-empress as a conical, hierarchical symbol of empire. She is an extraordinary confection of folded bronze drapery, Brobdingnagian throne and floating gilded foliate crown, who confronts the viewer with the implacability of power. King’s work is also based on a cone but his is a smooth geometrical shape surmounted by a bat-wing decoration that summons up not just the look of Mongol helmets but the terror implicit in that different exercise in empire. The passage of 80 years means that these two pieces couldn’t be more alien to one another in appearance or materials, yet in their symbolism there is a real fellow feeling. 

It was representatives of Gilbert’s empire who filled British museums with sculpture from Africa, India and Polynesia which, in turn, served as inspiration for Jacob Epstein. And it was Epstein who first turned British sculpture modern, imbuing his work with a primitivism and sexuality at odds with the refinement of the classical tradition. Moore and Hepworth later picked up on his simplified forms and went on to shape a distinctive response to European Modernism, as characteristic as the work of T. S. Eliot and Michael Tippett was in literature and music. They are paired here, with Moore’s Reclining Figure of 1951 and Hepworth’s Single Form of 1961-4, as complementary stylists — the one loosely figurative, the other loosely abstract — who nevertheless shared a sensibility. Indeed, from the 1940s to the 1960s, their monumental humanism was an exportable brand, dealing in statement pieces for the headquarters of the world’s cultural organisations and making the simple assertion that if they stand for any one thing it is for civilisation. 

Moore’s assistant Anthony Caro, on the other hand, pioneered work that was thoroughly transatlantic in tone. His massive steel works, often in primary colours, are the sculptural equivalent of American Abstract Impressionism. If there was a coherent line between Epstein, Moore and, for example, Richard Deacon, then Caro proved that British sculpture could also be thoroughly un-British, too. 

Indeed, what this exhibition shows, for all the intriguing — and occasionally coincidental — confluences of theme, is that with a few exceptions (the landscape art of Richard Long, for example) there is really no such entity as “modern British sculpture”. The diversity of ethnicity and influence that shaped the rest of the British 20th century shaped its sculpture too. After all, Epstein was a Polish-American and our most celebrated living sculptor, Anish Kapoor (an artist not in this show, however), is Anglo-Indian. That is quintessential modern Britain.

Disparateness is also the theme of the major display of the work of the contemporary Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco at Tate Modern (from January 19). Orozco is a playful creator who works in many styles and many mediums — sculpture, photography, video and installations — and he is hard to categorise. His work has no signature look but is marked by a sense of humour, a use of found objects and a delight in pattern-making.

This is evident in such pieces such as La DS, in which he cut a Citroën DS car lengthways into three and removed the middle slice before painstakingly rejoining the two outer pieces. The resulting attenuated vehicle is a sort of four-wheeled optical illusion, a real car that, though stationary, seems to be passing at speed. And years before Damien Hirst started playing with skulls, Orozco came up with Black Kites (1997), a skull covered with a black grid that follows the bones’ contours and looks as if it has been projected on to them as part of some unspecified phrenological experiment — a modern twist on the crystal skulls supposedly from pre-Columbian South America. Orozco has also rolled a large plasticine ball through New York streets to see what imprints and detritus it picked up (Yielding Stone, 1992), made fake puddles from circles of semi-transparent paper and photographed the condensation of a breath on the polished surface of a piano.

His is an abstract art that deals with reality, playing games with the objective by altering it. In its multiplicity it reflects something of the surfeit of visual information in modern society. Orozco’s professed aim is not just the objects themselves “but what people see after looking at these things, how they confront reality again”. It is worth taking him at his word.