I was thrown off by the title of this show: Modern British Sculpture. Modern, yes – next to sculptures dating from hundreds even thousands of years ago. British, yes – as well as American, Swiss, French, etc… Sculpture, yes – as well as ancient pottery, architectural monuments, installations and video work. In effect, the show utilizes a bit of everything to give a brief history of how sculpture has evolved. The exhibition opens with a scaled-down version of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall which makes one think of Rachel Whiteread (who’s not actually featured in the show, a bit of a shame although the absence of Gormley and Kapoor is a welcome respite from these lately over-promoted artists). But here too there is a stumbling block. Hung well above on the walls are eight photographs of Jacob Epstein’s infamous sculptures sequencing ‘the ages of man’ which adorned the outside walls of the New British Medical Association on the Strand (now Zimbabwe House) in 1908, and caused public uproar for depicting naked men and women. Unless the visitor knows all this, and preferably has an art-related degree, these photos are of very little use or impact.
The second gallery shows a collection of ancient sculptures from around the world sitting neatly among modern works by the likes of Leon Underwood, Eric Gill, Henry Moore, Eric Kennington, Betty Rae and Dora Gordine. Sometimes it is hard to tell the ancient from the modern, which is good fun. Here the curators tell the visitor that the modern artists were inspired by the ancient objects they had seen in museums such as the V&A and the British Museum. To prove the point, the third room houses Jacob Epstein’s gigantic ‘Adam’. The artist clearly must have seen the Easter Island figures at the British Museum to carve this one. The fourth room contains work by four RA presidents. Here is public art, with a beautiful and bizarrely shaped statue of Queen Victoria by Alfred Gilbert, Frederic Leighton’s ‘Athlete Wrestling a Python’ and Phillip King’s brilliant ‘Genghis Khan’. It’s about how a sculpture can acquire authority and these three do so, but the sexually ambiguous male nude by Charles Thomas Wheeler is just creepy. In the fifth room, we see how Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore have been influenced by craft and how beauty can be found in the abstract. Next, Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton’s collaboration ‘An Exhibit’ is a welcome and uplifting breather. Equally impressive is Anthony Caro’s phenomenal ‘Early One Morning’, which singularly occupies a room beautifully. Next, Damien Hirst’s ‘Let’s Eat Outdoors Today’ has it out with Jeff Koons and Urs Fischer in a room to themselves. But from here on Modern British Sculpture becomes a bit of an onslaught, as one big gallery crammed with artworks follows the next. First, landscape with Richard Long, Gerry Schumm, Carl Andre, Tony Cragg and the Boyle family sharing the stage with Rasheed Araeen, Rose Finn-Kelcey et al. Then on to examples of how objects replace sculptures made from scratch, namely Bill Woodrow, Damien Hirst and Siobhan Hapaska, although they share the space with Rebecca Warren and Gary Webb who effectively have made their work from scratch.
The show closes with a gloomy installation by Stuart Brisley that conveys constriction and
hopelessness, and the last image on your retina as you leave the exhibition might be a page 3 girl
by Gustav Metzger. The challenge of this show is the extensive variety of aspects that curators Penelope Curtis and Keith Wilson pick up on. It’s about abstraction and figuration, the dialogue
between the works, the influence between the British and the Americans, public sculpture and
the monument, the private and the commercial, and the influence of museums on British artists’
work. For all the brain teasing the result is a quirky show, with a reminder of how very good
British sculpture can be. Antoinette Hächler
Dame Barbara Hepworth, Single form (Memorial), October 1961