Modern British Sculpture
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Never judge a show by its title. Rather than a heavyweight survey of moulding and assembling, ‘Modern British Sculpture’ is instead a rough-hewn slab from which we have to carve out our own meaningful history and lineage of the form. Essentially, the exhibition is a series of dialogues on the artistic push and pull of influence and resonance – something of a ‘who was copying who’ of British sculpture that needlessly takes in ancient Assyria, Tang dynasty ceramics and American scatter art (just the British Museum’s Mayan Chac Mool next to a reclining Henry Moore would have sufficed).
However, the curators rarely let us in on the internecine conversations guiding their juxtapositions, leaving just a lasting impression that the past century began with a monumental bang and ended with an incidental whimper. And while I don’t actively join the laments for obvious, latter-day absentees such as Gormley, Whiteread and Wallinger, the idea that there was none of the sculptural century’s original energy and bombast left by the year 2000 is just obfuscatory nonsense. Whatever you think of the grandiloquence of most pre-millennial public sculpture, you can’t deny its scale and ambition, something this show’s sad and scrappy ending attempts to do with its jerry-built piles of incidental detritus by the likes of John Latham, Sarah Lucas and Gustav Metzger.
Like its title, ‘Modern British Sculpture’s opening salvo is misleadingly impressive, with a scaled-down version of Whitehall’s Cenotaph, the war memorial by Edwin Lutyens, displayed as a totem against which all modern sculpture might be measured. This strand (among many others) is soon forgotten, though, and architecture doesn’t again feature as sculptural bedfellow except in the baffling presence of another model, this time of the ‘Merz Barn’ built by war-exiled German Kurt Schwitters in 1947 in the Lake District. The life-size reconstruction of this unfinished artist’s shed sits pointlessly in the RA’s courtyard, as you can’t get in to see the interior’s frieze, which was long ago moved to a museum wall anyway.
As well as confused, you will doubtless be maddened and beguiled along the way by the presence of some outstanding individual works – an Eric Gill nude, an early Hepworth torso, an experimental environment of abstract colour and planes by Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton among others. But even the great and the good look bad when shoved in the corner, as with Anthony Caro’s ‘Early One Morning’ , or when placed on the busy floor next to distracting grates and zig-zagging parquet, as with Richard Long’s ‘Chalk Line’ – and neither sculpture can be walked all the way round.
It’s even stranger to say it, but there’s not enough Modern British Sculpture here. Antiquity, Victoriana, and New York minimalism are just some of this show’s frustrating dead-ends, by-ways and tributaries. Nothing need be set in stone, not even a subject as seemingly monolithic as that of ‘Modern British Sculpture’, but the basic building blocks should be there for all to see.