Ooof, what a burdensome topic for a blockbuster – you can practically taste the gravitas even before the first gloomily lit gallery; you can almost hear the floors groaning under the weight of all that heavy metal. But after passing a disarming, seemingly floating, opening gambit – a dancing statue of an ancient Greek nymph, fortuitously dredged from the seabed by a Sicilian fisherman – the first room proper does its best to reshape what we think we know about bulky old bronze.
Sure it can be hefty, as in the funereal slab depicting the Renaissance friar buried beneath, who is presumably now miffed at the loss of the lid bearing his likeness in low relief. But bronze can also be light on its feet, as David Smith's nearby 'Portrait of a Painter' (1954) proves, with its spindly, twig-legged figure, sporting a palette instead of a head.
There are bronzes large – a giant Emperor Lucius Maxmimus, living up to his name – and little – Alberto Giacometti's 'Cage' next to a tiny Nigerian hunter, who is actually almost a metre tall, but still dwarfed by much else around him. Bronze can be shiny, as in an over-rubbed Rodin, or matte, in any number of greenish Buddhas covered in age-old candle soot. There's also bronze as material of refined beauty, in a trio of characters attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, or as turgid statement of human wretchedness, in Willem de Kooning's gouged and squeezed 'Clam Digger' (1972).
Instead of following up this dichotomous display with more revelatory comparisons between styles, methods and themes from both now and then, we're plunged into safer territory with galleries devoted to Animals, Objects, Heads, Gods and Figures. Borrowing heavily from the (fictional) Manual of Museum Display 101, the remaining exhibits are mostly packed away in glass vitrines, making any appreciation of 'sculpture in the round' quite impossible.
The only worthwhile concession to this by-the-book treatment is a small anteroom on the tricky manufacture of bronze, which strips away all the layers and stages in this arduous process. It also tangentially suggests that an alternative title for the show might have been simply 'Wax' (as this is what most bronze sculptures start out as).
'Bronze' can be sublime, when presenting an ethereally melting portrait of a child by Medardo Rosso from 1906, as well as ridiculous, in such complex compositions of figures as a group of mounted cowboys charging 'Off the Range' or the stacked figures representing 'Sculpture, Arithmetic and Architecture', which is the sculptural equivalent of a showy wedding cake. Some of it is indeed unnecessary, given the lengths that craftsmen and artists have gone to in pursuit of the drama and durability afforded them by this most grand, but least malleable, of materials. Yet this show is also an object lesson in bronze's particular strengths – power over function, statement over subtlety.