"Modern British Sculpture" at The Royal Academy. By Andrew Graham-Dixon.
"Modern British Sculpture", at the Royal Academy, represents a truly appalling wasted opportunity. A potentially rich and fascinating subject has been treated with a mixture of blinding aesthetic contempt, total intellectual confusion and a postmodern sense of relativist uncertainty developed to such insane lengths that the display remains unilluminated by even the faintest glimmer of logic, argument or sense of value. Many of the most remarkable sculptors to have worked in Britain during the past hundred years have simply been omitted altogether. So, for example, not a single one of Lynn Chadwick’s angular "Geometry of Fear" sculptures from the 1950s – those nervy emblems of post-war doubt – is to be seen in any of the Academy’s august halls; while abundant room has been found for work by a multitude of near-unknowns, also-rans and assorted time-serving tutors from the Sculpture Departments of various art schools. Room has even been found for a piece as manifestly abject and dull as Under Lying, an undergraduate offering by Siobhan Hapaska created in 1991 as part of her submission to study for an MA at Goldsmiths: a work consisting of 2,000 Maltesers in plastic snap-seal bags arranged on a glass coffee table, accompanied by a justificatory label informing the viewer, with perfect fatuity, that "Using a surprising combination of found objects, her piece suggests some kind of secret purpose".
Whatever secret purpose may underly this lamentable pick-and-mix of an exhibition, it is not easy to discern. Inscrutable perversity is the keynote from the outset. The display begins in the main courtyard of the Royal Academy, with a scale reconstruction of the so-called Merzbarn created in the Lake District by the great Hanoverian Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, who took refuge in Britain during the Second World War. This is deeply bewildering. Not only is it a reconstruction of the edifice within which the sadly displaced Schwitters created his last masterpiece; it is completely sealed, a closed box of stone, and therefore permits no encounter with the artist’s actual work, either in reality or in reproduction.
Having negotiated this riddle of an enigma of a tantalus, the visitor enters the exhibition proper through the main octagon at the heart of the building. This space, the largest in the Academy, is given over to more simulacra of sculptures that cannot be borrowed or shown in reality: a scale reconstruction of Lutyens’ Cenotaph, and a set of photographs showing Jacob Epstein’s long-since destroyed sculptures for the facade of Charles Holden’s British Medical Association building in the Strand. No satisfactory or even vaguely meaningful explanation for this juxtaposition is offered up. Neither is it clear why such an inordinate amount of exhibition space should have been given up to material which has at best a merely archival relationship with the story of British sculpture in the twentieth century. This is the curatorial equivalent of beginning a book with a footnote.
The situation improves, but only marginally, in the second of the exhibition’s twelve main rooms. Here the organisers have chosen a motley array of objects from the British Museum’s collections – Assyrian reliefs, votive sculptures from ancient Greece, amcient Mexico, India and elsewhere – in order to suggest their potential influence on British sculptors during the early twentieth century. They have also included – at last! – some actual examples of twentieth-century British sculpture itself, including a frieze-like maquette for a war memorial by Charles Sargeant Jagger, a delicate torso carved from African blackwood by the youg Barbara Hepworth and a clutch of characteristically sensual nudes by Eric Gill.
The third gallery in the show is nearly empty but does contain Jacob Epstein’s heroically well-endowed and phallically rebellious monumental alabaster carving Adam, displayed alongside a much smaller marble carving by Henry Moore. The wall text suggests that Epstein dared to confront sex in his sculpture, while Moore genteelly suppressed it, but goes no further than that. The next room, which goes under the rubric "The Establishment Figure", conjoins a neo-Baroque monument to Queen Victoria by Alfred Gilbert with Lord Leighton’s homage to the Laocoon, his An Athlete Struggling with a Python; Charles Wheeler’s stultified Adam of 1934; and Phillip King’s 1963 vision of Genghis Khan in the form of a mock-grandiose plastic purple helmet melting like ice cream on the gallery floor. The room after that contains lots and lots of ancient Chinese ceramics from the British Museum and a few British sculptures that may have been (but were probably not) influenced by them, including Barbara Hepworth’s small Three Forms and a Ben Nicholson relief or two. The room after that contains just two sculptures, a bronze by Barbara Hepworth borrowed from Wandsworth Borough Council and a Henry Moore Reclining Figure. The room after that is another reconstruction, this time of Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore’s experimental An Exhibit, of 1957, a kind of late Constructivist assemblage of abstract coloured planes, suspended in space (which is not really sculpture at all). That, in turn, is followed by a gallery containing just a single sculpture, namely Antony Caro’s Early One Morning.
At this point, as the exhibition approaches its end, the terrible vacuity of it all becomes painfully apparent. There is no coherence whatseoever to the sequence of displays. Each space is presented like a kind of exam question phrased in the form of an object or group of objects: "Ceramics and the Influence of Craft: Discuss"; "Environmental Construction: Discuss"; and so on. The whole experience is rather like attending a series of seminars organised by earnestly mediocre lecturers who manage, infuriatingly, to believe they are much cleverer than they are.
Towards the very end, "Modern British Sculpture" falls apart altogether, fragmenting into a series of lamentably disjunct displays formed from all kinds of anything, but nothing much, by mostly minor and a few major artists. Even the few attempts at inflammatory polemic fall utterly flat, because they are founded on ignorance. For example, Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, aka "The Bricks", has been included to make the point that American Minimalism was misunderstood and unregarded in Britain, leaving no trace or legacy here. In fact nothing could be further from the truth, and indeed Andre’s brand of Minimalism was itself rooted in part in his own curiosity about the English past: it was while visiting the reformed Anglican churches of the English countryside, and inspecting the empty niches and bare plinths left by the iconoclasts of the Reformation, that Andre conceived his own, Minimalist revolution in the form of a sculpture that actually took the form of an unoccupied plinth. The same desire to strip art back to its basics has animated the work of English sculptors like Richard Long, and others.
But in the end there is little point in arguing with this show, because it is so uninformed by any deep or truly involved sense of the past – or indeed the present – that there is almost nothing in it with which to take serious issue. It is hard not to wonder if there might not be some other reason – truly, some "secret purpose" – behind this disaster of an exhibition. Did they have no money? Was that the real reason why they included so very few serious monumental sculptures by important artists? Was that why they borrowed so much (small, non-sculptural, cheap to move) stuff from the British Museum? The whole things smells very fishy. Whatever the truth, this is a show that gives the impression of having had very little thought put into it, and as little resources as possible. If it gets what it deserves, almost no one will go and see it.
No stars at all!!