One word and nothing more, Bronze is the magnificently pithy title of a new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. It is the accurate and compendious description for what is an incredibly remarkable show that covers over 5,000 years of art making at its best with this perennially popular material.
There’s something special about bronze. It was the first metal that human beings started to properly manipulate, the second great technological accomplishment that sought to philosophically and physically emancipate man from the natural world.In prehistory, this first began with stone and ended with iron.
The Royal Academy has gathered over 150 of some of the most exquisite sculptures to have ever been made using bronze, be it in Africa, Asia or Europe. Cross-cultural and global, the show celebrates the workmanship of ancient civilisations to the modernists of the twentieth century.
For such a succinctly named display, this is a decidedly sweeping presentation, expertly put together. For example, the curators have ingeniously decided to band the works of art thematically, which offers a subtle displacement of time and location that suggests any given art movement over the ages could have existed now, yesterday and anon.
An instance of this can be seen in the beautifully patterned Elephant-shaped Vessel from the Shang Dynasty. Here, the unknown artist has truncated the natural characteristics and contours of the large animal, and covered its entire body with the kind of patterns that wouldn’t have gone amiss on one of Gustav Klimt’s gilded paintings.
Another case in point is articulated by Auguste Rodin’s The Age of Bronze (1876), an almost full-scale statue of a nude man that could arguably have been at home during the time of the High Renaissance; something produced by Michelangelo no least.
That’s not to say that some works betray the era they have come from. Adriaen de Vries’ Vulcan’s Forge (1611) is palpably a fitting example of the eloquent style sensibilities of baroque sculpture, while there is something about Pablo Picasso’s Baboon and Young (1951) that revels in a sort of mischievousness that only he could have produced.
So too does Constantin Brâncuși’s Danaïde (1918) hark of something only imaginable at its point of creation. A featureless head upon which sits a quasi-futurist and Romanesque helmet, Brâncuși’s abstract sculpture was even ahead of its own time, suggestive as it was of the Art Deco movement that was soon to come.
Bronze, we learn, is a metal made chiefly out of copper, with elements of tin added to make it hard. What makes it useful for artists as a material – or else it wouldn’t have endured for so long – is that it allows for detail, explains Michael Prodger in the Guardian.
“The most prevalent form of casting from antiquity onwards is the ‘lost wax’ method in which a full-scale model, usually of clay, is coated in a layer of wax – on to which can be scraped the most delicate of effects – and then covered with a plaster mould,” he adds.
“When the mould is heated the wax melts away and molten bronze can be poured into the gap. After cooling the metal is malleable enough to be further chased, chiselled, polished or treated with acid to give a variety of patinas.”
The Royal Academy has thus done a commendable job in gathering a superlative cast of stars to really bring home the hard work that goes into making bronze sculptures. Yes it is conducive to composing elegantly refined components, but make no mistake, bronze is tough.
It’s incredible then that so many distinct works of art have been possible. From the emboldened Chimera of Arezzo (400 BCE) to Giovanni Francesco Rustici’s enormous St John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee, the craftsmanship is startling. It’s enough to knock you back a few steps, all with a beatific smile of course.
While bronze from a sporting point of view is tantamount to coming a respectable third place, in the case of this landmark show, it certainly trumps gold and silver for a top podium finish.
Bronze at the Royal Academy of Arts runs until December 12th.