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Mar 2011 Journal

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Art notes (review)

The Royal Academy of Arts launches Modern British Sculpture (to 7 April) with a nod to the plundered art of the British Empire. These ancient stone or bronze figurines from Native America, Africa, Egypt and Greece, now on loan from the British Museum and the V&A, are monuments to a time aeons before the term ‘modern’ was in anyone’s vocabulary.

Elegant, simple and profound, they express true integrity. These are the prototypes, the rock from which every modern artist, from Henry Moore to Anish Kapoor, has hewn his craft. You catch a glimmer of it in the first room with photographs of Jacob Epstein’s high relief sculptures, Cycle of Life, commissioned by the British Medical Association in 1907 for its building on the Strand. Physical aspects like pregnancy and old age had not been attempted in public sculpture before, but these works, 40 ft above street level, drew heavy criticism as ‘unnecessarily explicit’. They were abandoned when the building became a diplomatic facility in the 1930s and remain there in decay, testimony to an unforgiving public.

In the same era, Edwin Lutyens faced similar philosophical issues when commissioned to design the Cenotaph on Whitehall. With two weeks to complete the work, he constructed a temporary memorial from wood and plaster, which has been reconstructed for this exhibition. The focus of Armistice Day ceremonies since the plain stone catafalque was installed in Whitehall, it was emulated throughout the British Empire, a simple statement reflecting the barrenness of grief and inscribed to ‘The Glorious Dead’.

Its purity is contrasted by Alfred Gilbert’s near-baroque bronze Jubilee Memorial to Queen Victoria, made in 1887. If the Cenotaph brought abstraction to the 20th century, Barbara Hepworth’s Single Form went further. This memorial for the United Nations Plaza in New York, commemorating her friend, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, who was tragically killed in a plane crash, is literally a flat oblong with a circle – an eye on the world, an introspection - while Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure is angular, stolid. Both are dwarfed by Epstein’s magnificent Adam, a glistening bronze Alpha male declaiming his virility to the world. But he is more than that: he is both primeval and spiritually anguished, alive in every sense. Here the plundered oceanic world is reflected back to us in Epstein’s genius - the modern, chaotic society coming to terms with its origins. He should know: primitive art was his first influence.

There are as many missing names as present ones. No Kapoor or Elizabeth Frink, but Anthony Caro’s red steel bench and a joint enterprise by Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton, An Exhibit, made of coloured perspex panels which you can walk through.

In this show, the sanitised is juxtaposed with the primitive. Damian Hirst’s dinner party in a hermetic box is an ongoing feast featuring maggots, a cow’s head, flies, rotting steaks on a barbecue, flies, chicken carcasses - and – yes flies. Two of them managed to escape to a life happily free of art.

Gloria Tessler

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