What is British?
What is Modern?
What is Sculpture?
These are the questions that we are presented with in the first room of the Royal Academy’s major new exhibition Modern British Sculpture. Curated by the RA’s Keith Wilson and Penelope Curtis, former director of the Henry Moore Institute, now director of Tate Britain. The text panel in the first room tells us that the exhibition will offer a new reading of the key questions that have faced sculptors in the twentieth century: What is British? What is Modern? What is Sculpture? The curators propose to answer these questions by presenting a series of rooms, which each contain works that are representative of a specific problem, aspiration or confrontation.
The first room, ‘Monumentalising Life and Death’ is dominated by a scale model of Lutyen’s Cenotaph memorial, and thus immediately and successfully brings into question these three key themes. The Cenotaph is a memorial to WWI, a time in history when notions of Britishness and Empire were at threat as never before and when the full destructive power of modernity and industrialisation were just beginning to be realised. As for ‘what is sculpture?’, Lutyens was an architect and the stark lines and plain surfaces of the Cenotaph are completely at odds with the Victorian and Edwardian sculpture which came before it.
Room two, ‘Theft by Finding’, offers us the British equivalent of Picasso and Matisse’s explorations of primitivism. Works from early in the century are shown alongside sculptures from the British Museum, such as Jacob Epstein’s Sun Goddess, Crouching (c.1910) next to Baboon Wearing a Feathered Hood (c.1350 BC). Other stand out pieces in this second room are Eric Gill’s Headdress (1928) and Charles Jagger’s Belgian Peasant’s Assisting the Wounded (1921). As Richard Cork notes, Epstein nearly bankrupted himself collecting African and Oceanic art, studying the pieces obsessively.(1) This obsession culminates in the magnificent alabaster carving Adam, which encapsulates all the lessons learned from studying the British Museum collection – about carving and representing the figure – and invigorates them with a new degree of sexuality and virility. The sculpture makes a dramatic intervention into the space, the shining pink alabaster is vital and polished, like newly scrubbed skin fresh from the bath. The curators have placed a bench, a replica of the seating from the Twentieth Century Sculpture in Britain exhibition in Whitechapel, in case any one is overcome.
Room four deals with ‘The Establishment Figure’, although it is not clear if this label refers to the sculptors, Leighton, Wheeler and King, all past presidents of the RA or the sculptures themselves. On the surface Alfred Gilbert’s Jubilee Memorial to Queen Victoria seems to exemplify this label, in both senses. But a closer look at unconventional form of the monuments, not to mention Gilbert’s turbulent relationship with the royal family, means we might question just how establishment this figure is.
You can read more about my research on Alfred Gilbert and the Jubilee Memorial here.
(1) Richard Cork, ‘Formative Influence’, RA Magazine and Blog, Winter 2010. Available here.