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Louise Bourgeois, Spider IV, 1996. Bronze, 203.2 x 180.3 x 53.3 cm. Collection The Easton Foundation, courtesy Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read. Photo Peter Bellamy. Louise Bourgeois Trust

Bronze at the Royal Academy

By Anna Leung


Adriaen de Vries, Vulcan’s Forge, 1611. Bronze, 47 x 56.5 cm. Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich. Photo Bayerisches Nationalmuseum

This advisedly blockbuster exhibition that is ostensibly competing with Tate’s Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde show calls upon the public to view bronze sculpture with new eyes. Given the pall and weight of tradition bronze statuary has had aligned against it in the modern period, the exhibition comes as a welcome surprise. Largely a return to figurative sculpture it celebrates not only the versatility and durability of bronze but the archaeologists and collectors who devoted their time and energy to tracking these bronzes down. Bronze’s capacity for replication makes provenance something of a mystery, which of course adds to its mystique. ‘Bronze’ brings together over 150 works from four continents that span prehistory to the present day, mingling legendary masterpieces with less well-known small bronzes, statuettes and devotional pieces. The exhibition has no particular art historical agenda, nor even a sustained narrative. It is arranged thematically: the human figure is followed by animals, objects, group sculptures and reliefs, gods and portraits. It cannot, I think, fail to astonish and more importantly to delight, giving the viewer licence to draw parallels between works separated by time and geography. Its approach is fundamentally modernist, the versatility of bronze techniques and the show’s presentation of each artefact isolated from its original context arguing for an underlying universality despite differences in style, form and meaning. 

Although the exhibition contains a host of impressive works, including Rustici’s monumental ensemble group St John the Baptist preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee which may have benefited from the help of Leonardo da Vinci, the two versions of Perseus and Medusa by Cellini, the first a model and the second a new casting by Clemente Papi from 1844, and Giambologna’s Mercury, which exemplifies bronze’s capacity to defy gravity, plus all the presumed replicas of Greek statuary from the late Hellenic and Roman periods that are emulated by Renaissance sculptors on both side of the Alps, it often scores with the display of less well known sculpture belonging to non European artistic practices. But even within the classic sphere there are surprises; the highly naturalistic Roman portraits, curls and all; the extremely naturalistic portrait of King Seuthes, recently unearthed in Bulgaria, and the discovery in 1998 of the Dancing Satyr that exuberantly opens the exhibition. Possibly part of the loot taken by the Vandals from the sack of Rome in 455CE the Dancing Satyr is believed by some authorities to be handiwork of no lesser sculptor than Praxiteles in the second half of the fourth century BC. No other statue can convey with more eloquence the attributes of bronze--its ability to defy gravity and, through the play of light on its surface, to communicate an endless flow of energy and delight. In a very different key there is the solemn beauty of Ghiberti’s Tomb Slab of Fra Leonardo Dati (1425-26) with its simple geometric relief that conveys a moving otherworldliness, the vigour of De Vries’ Forge of Vulcan (1611), as well as Giambologna’s Turkey and Pietro Tacca’s Il Porcellino whose gleaming snout has been stroked smooth by countless generations of admirers.


The Chariot of the Sun, Trundholm, Zealand, Early Bronze Age, 14th century BCE. Bronze and gold, 95 x 60 x 25 cm. National Museum, Copenhagen. Photo Roberto Fortuna & Kira Ursem, The National Museum of Denmark

Bronze is able to create such a panoply of sculptural forms and textures due to the fact that it is a metal alloy. Basically copper mixed with a certain percentage of tin, zinc and occasionally arsenic, bronze has a range of coloration, malleability or hardness and the versatility and durability that have favoured its use throughout history. The down side is that as a result of conquest, many pieces have been melted down as scrap metal – bronze goes into the creation of cannon balls as well as art works. The lost wax method of casting is the best-known type of fabrication in bronze. The room in the exhibition given over to explaining and demonstrating the complicated techniques of casting that make its ancient origins all the more amazing alone makes the exhibition worth seeing. The earliest cast objects come from the Nahal Mishnar hoard in Israel, which is often associated with King Solomon’s mines and dates from c. 3700BC. With the rise of cities in Egypt and the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, bronze was used mostly for royal and sacred images such as in the devotional statuette of Ptah with its beautiful coloration and the Seated Cat, which once sported an incised collar and pierced ears. However one of the earliest cult objects comes not from the Mediterranean basin but from Denmark and is the exquisite Chariot of the Sun that dates from the fourteenth century BC. A lost wax cast with incised decorative patterning on the day side of its huge golden sun disc drawn by a horse on wheels, it probably represents the passing of the sun east to west and then, with the oncoming of darkness, from west to east. Equally spectacular, from the seventh century, is a Cult Chariot from Strettweg in Austria which displays a large female figure on the chariot, minus the horse, surrounded by a retinue of smaller male and female figures.  

There has been a tendency to associate bronze with the Western classical period, ancient Greek and Roman statuary, an association reinforced by the prestige of the Renaissance that was to a large extent based on the rediscovery of Italy’s classical heritage or rather the revaluation of its cultural roots in the idealisation of the standing figure and the nude. But this exhibition demonstrates that the use of bronze was central to many other civilizations and cultures, and the work on display comes from China, Asia and West Africa as well as Europe and the Middle East. Early Chinese bronze making is unusual in that it is marked by an absence of tutelary or votive figures of deities and the like. The standing figure only entered Chinese culture with the adoption of Buddhism, and with it came the lost wax technique, from the fourth century CE. But from as early as 1500 BC, bronze vessels for ceremonial as well a functional purposes were being manufactured in series often replicating already highly sophisticated Chinese ceramics. What distinguishes these multishaped vessels is the artistry of their surface patterning that tends to be made up of semi abstract motifs against a background of angular spirals that often incorporate strange legendary animals. At a later date, script was used as both a decorative device and a means of commemorating successful events. The Elephant is one of the most intriguing of these vessels and was probably intended to store wine, there being a cavity in its back; another that has a pronounced zoomorphic appearance in the form of a Double Owl dates from the twelfth or eleventh century BC. The Chinese also used bronze to manufacture bells (Bo) that were grouped together in large numbers and decoratively characterised by the use of pattern blocks.


Chimera of Arezzo, Etruscan, c. 400 BCE Bronze, 78.5 x 129 cm  Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana Photo Antonio Quattrone, Florence 

While bronze making in China seems to have been almost industrial, elsewhere the metalworker and blacksmith would have been revered for their alchemical or semi-magical powers. This was certainly the case in South and Southeast India, though few bronzes have survived from an early period. The Buddha Shakyamuni, which dates from the late sixth century, is an exception. While most of the sculptural emphasis is on his hand gestures, the way the drapery reveals the figure beneath is very aesthetic in its own right. This is a relatively large-scale figure. There are many more small devotional ones such as the Korean Pensive Buddha, which has its own very appealing and distinctive qualities and is quite unlike the ornate Chinese and Tibetan examples of Buddhist sculpture with their multiple arms and corpulent bodies or the sleek elegance of Cambodian representations of the Buddha whose aesthetic sensitivity is borne out in the exquisite lotus flower Oil Lamp from the twelfth century. Even more mysterious are the bronzes from the region around the lower Niger delta that is now part of Nigeria. These beautifully dignified heads, mostly from Benin and Ife are characterised by an unexpected degree of naturalism and represent an indigenous tradition of smelting and casting that dates back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It is to a large extent devotional or cultish statuary which attests to a highly developed stage of metallurgy. An even earlier work is the Roped Pot on a Stand, which dates from the ninth or tenth century and has been likened to Faberge in its virtuosity. Its various sections were probably cast independently and subsequently joined together.

The prestige attached to bronze goes back to Pliny and the invention of so called ‘Corinthian brass,’ reputedly more prized than gold and silver. Unlike wood and stone, bronze enjoyed the added status of being man made and needing a team of skilled craftsmen to complete a bronze work of art, the operative word being skilled rather than mechanical. However by the twentieth century, the dominant image of the sculptor was that of the solitary artist working directly into wood or stone. The bronze sculptor’s dependence on teamwork militated against the continued use of the material. This was because two notions dominated twentieth century modernism: one was the attention given to materials and materiality, the other the notion of the artist, painter or sculptor, working more or less alone in communion with his or her materials and emotionally responding to the art work’s creative potential. In addition, the fact that casting allows for the production of multiples even after the death of the sculptor violated the modernist ideal of the unique and original work and problematised the whole notion of authorship. Rodin’s posthumous bronzes, for instance, provoked a storm of controversy. By the thirties, Henry Moore was making a fetish of direct carving, taking his cue from Brancusi who, reacting against Rodin’s celebrity status, had targeted his bronzes as so much ‘beefsteak’. Later when he had won recognition Brancusi moderated this negative judgement and produced very beautiful bronzes (Danaide and Maiastra) as did Moore. However Brancusi dispensed with the contribution of the patinier, who traditionally applied a veneer of colour or patina to the bronze when casting was complete. Instead he is said to have devoted hours to produce a high polish that was linked in his mind to the sense of the sacred and to magical or shamanistic flight. For Brancusi’s artistic intentions were not at all the same as Rodin’s. Unlike Rodin’s, Brancusi’s work was symbolic but not emotive and, more to the point, his bronzes were never conceived as casts from a previously modelled object and thus did not re-present an already existing image.  Nor was his aim to capture interiority through dramatic movement but rather to capture light that defines not only the object but our perception of the object with its possibilities of reflection, distortion and sheer intensity; an artistic intention which almost a century later has been taken up by Anish Kapoor with his Untitled concave mirror that flaunts its bronze pedigree. 


Dancing Satyr, Greek, Hellenistic period, Third - second centuries BCE Bronze, with white alabaster for eyes, H. 200 cm Museo del Satiro, Church of Sant - Egidio, Mazara del Vallo  2012. Photo Scala, Florence 

Boccioni’s Unique Form of Continuity in Space, 1913, which might seem to share a sense of modernity with Brancusi’s bronzes was cast posthumously. An early casualty of the First World War he was never able to realise his revolutionary Futurist ideas that scorned the traditional use of bronze and in his attempt to narrow the divide between art and life proposed its replacement with everyday materials such as steel, mirrors, plastic, organic matter and other ready-made functional articles. Ironically it is these everyday objects that we see incorporated in Picasso’s Baboon and Young, the baboon’s face being made up of Picasso’s own children’s toy cars, and in David Smith’s witty Portrait of a Painter with his palette standing in as his head and his paint box as his hand. It is somehow fitting that the one sculptural technique able to accommodate such revolutionary ideas was bronze casting. Jasper Johns, who possibly had Picasso’s hand painted Absinthe Glass in mind, applied a similar logic to his painted bronze Ale Cans, 1960, that originated with de Kooning’s comment, referring to the dealer Leo Castelli, that  ‘you could give that son of a bitch two beer cans and he could sell them’. Johns responded by saying that he thought this a wonderful idea for a sculpture.  

The choice not to arrange the exhibition chronologically or geographically creates an overall feeling of fluidity that aligns sculpture from different cultures. As a result what characterises the exhibition is its eclecticism and its capacity to create fascinating contrasts and comparisons. Giacometti’s etiolated figures immediately comes to mind when we see the Etruscan Votive Figure known as Evening Shadow, though Giacometti always declared his images to be dream readymades. This does not discount the direct impact the strange Etruscan figure would have made on his imagination. Yashoda Nursing the Infant Krishna has its Christian counterpart in the many Madonnas breast-feeding the infant Jesus, while the Nigerian gold weights are reminiscent of Japanese netsuke. The numerous figures on horseback as well as the depiction of animals, horses, leopards and panthers all attest to a universal fascination with animals and their symbolic standing. The ability to create a mimetic resemblance in bronze can be compared to an illusionist’s conjuring trick and delights us precisely because we do not see the moves backstage. It seems to be a skill universally admired; that, plus the sheer aesthetic delight of burnished or patinated bronze, ensures its appeal through out the ages. That bronze can produce works of art as dissimilar as Rodin’s Age of Bronze, de Kooning’s Clam Diggers, the Nigerian Seated Figure, Francesco Bertos’ allegorical Sculpture, Arithmetic and Architecturem 1732-39, that seems to prefigure postmodernist wit, Medardo Rosso’s Ecce Puer, 1906, which was originally modelled in wax, and Jeff Koons's Basketball, 1985, attests to its virtuosity.

Consequently, despite the avant gardist-trend for direct carving that dominated the early twentieth century, bronze has continued to hold its own. It was particularly germane in the post 1945 period when Giacometti’s and Germaine Richier’s roughly modelled welded figures with their excoriated surfaces seemed to embody a deep underlying malaise. In the twenty-first century, we have seen sculpture move into the very different areas of installation and performance art and the use of all manner of materials including frozen blood and dirt. But despite this extraordinary expansion of sculpture, bronze has continued to attract a wide range of contemporary sculptors from  Louise Bourgeois, whose Spider IV  links back to Richier’s Praying Mantis, to Tony Cragg with his Points of View, 2007, that brings together figurative and abstract elements in a way that only bronze can do. 

  Anna Leung, September 2012


Head with Crown, 14th to early 15th century Zinc and brass, H. 24 cm The National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Lagos Copyright 2012. Photo Scala, Florence 


Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions. 

Bronze is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from 15 September - 9 December 2012

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