Unnatural selection

With a replica of Kurt Schwitter’s Dadaist “Merz Barn” installed in the Annenberg courtyard, the Royal Academy’s new Modern British Sculpture show promises eclecticism and originality. Yet once inside Burlington House, here is as disappointing a major exhibition as London has seen in a decade.

There are five world-class sculptors working in Britain today, artists whose innovations and vision changed the concept of what sculpture can be, and whose work is iconic and international. Of these, three – Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread – are entirely excluded from the Royal Academy exhibition while a fourth, Damien Hirst, is represented solely by his least sculptural installation, “Let’s Eat Outdoors Today”, the fly-and-maggot-strewn remains of a déjeuner sur l’herbe.

A seminal work, the painted red steel abstraction “Early One Morning”, by Britain’s most senior and formally serious living sculptor Anthony Caro, is included, but its dynamic horizontal planes and airy brightness are derided in the wall panel as “the end ... rather than the beginning” of sculptural inquiry. A vengeful catalogue continues the attack: Caro and his New Generation followers are “a relatively marginal historical phenomenon”; that his legacy “failed is now a fact of history”; his controlling influence attempted “the annexation of the historical terrain of sculpture in the name of a belated modernist cause”.

Modern British Sculpture carries a disclaimer that it is not “attempting to be comprehensive or definitive”. But what exhibition ignores or diminishes the greatest contemporary artists in the medium it seeks to cover? Only one that itself seeks to annex the historical terrain of sculpture for its own purpose. That purpose is to prove, as curator Penelope Curtis argues, “the way in which sculpture mediates issues of national identity and how Britain’s links with its empire have shaped its artistic output”. Since this is to impose an ill-fitting political narrative on a genre where national identity is irrelevant and multicultural references are a global, not a British, phenomenon, the show is forced into a sustained interpretation of modern sculpture which is at best wilful and inconsistent, at worst dishonest.

The exhibition opens with a replica of Lutyens’s “Cenotaph”, Whitehall’s first world war memorial which was copied across the British empire from Melbourne to Penang. Its impact on sculptural – as opposed to imperial – history is negligible, though it does demonstrate that by 1919, public taste accepted an abstraction as a monument.

How this came about is explored in two compelling galleries comparing Mesopotamian, Assyrian and Indian sculptures from the British Museum with the primitivist modernism that they inspired. Although it is preposterous to claim an imperial theme here (Picasso, Brancusi, Modigliani in Paris, Kirchner and the expressionists searching Dresden’s ethnographic museum, all followed similar trails), echoes of highly sexualised ancient art in two stunning Epsteins, the limestone “Sun Goddess, Crouching” (1910), and the later monumental alabaster “Adam”, are impressively demonstrated.

Yet Curtis’s choices are already perverse. After Epstein’s, the most significant British primitivism is Henry Moore’s early, vital “Mother and Child” sculptures, evoking ancient fertility figures. But no example is offered: instead, there is a mediocre 1932 “Mother and Child” by Betty Rea, a pupil of Moore’s.

The other great British modernist from this epoch, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, is also underplayed: his only work here is a small aluminium “Dog”, although his masterpiece, Tate’s compressed cubist “Red Stone Dancer”, would have been an easy, magnificent loan.

Curiouser still are the juxtapositions with Epstein’s “Adam”: Alfred Gilbert’s monstrous neo-baroque bronze-gilt “Jubilee Memorial to Queen Victoria” (1887), Leighton’s neo-classical “Athlete Struggling with a Python” (1877), and Charles Wheeler’s stilted, academic “Adam” (1934-1935). None, by any stretch, are modern. Leighton and Wheeler are included because they are “site-specific” – that is, former Royal Academy presidents. Incongruously shown alongside them is the whirling purple plastic “Genghis Khan” (1963) by Phillip King, another sculptor-president. There is no other example of pop art – a fertile time for British sculpture – in the exhibition.

That is because the Royal Academy’s decline-of-empire paradigm cannot admit flair or inspiration in the second half of this show.

A large gallery is therefore squandered on a display of Chinese and British ceramics, while the central battle of the mid-century, abstraction versus figuration, most eloquently expressed in the dialogue between Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, is reduced to just three works. Hepworth’s coolly lyrical yet geometric “Pelagos” illustrates her innovative use of strings drawn over a concave hollow; her bronze “Single Form (Memorial)” from Battersea Park is set against a Moore “Reclining Figure”.

Having dismissed Moore’s pupil Caro, the exhibition flirts briefly with minimalism and conceptualism – inexplicably by showcasing Americans Carl Andre and Jeff Koons. There is no glimmer of the “geometry of fear” school – Chadwick, Armitage, Paolozzi – who really did confront post-imperial British insecurity, nor of the 1980s “new British sculptors” Kapoor, Deacon, Alison Wilding, dismissed in the catalogue as “a kind of swansong from which pure sculpture has found it hard to escape”.

What does this mean? Burlington House ducks justification by sidestepping post-1980s sculpture altogether in favour of installations. Proudly banal, these mark what the catalogue celebrates as an aesthetic of “dumbness” and “indifference”: Liam Gillick’s plexiglass ceiling “Big Conference Platform Platform”, Julian Opie’s aluminium cupboard “W”, Martin Boyce’s untitled suspended neon lights, Sarah Lucas’s chair and chrome stand, “Portable Smoking Area”. The Lucas is a particular disappointment, as her recent fabric sculptures fascinatingly combine the rawness and laconic tone of Young British Art with allusions to Hepworth and classicism.

The show ends with a reprise of Gustav Metzger’s collage of Page Three girls from The Sun. This is 21st-century sculpture, like the British empire, dematerialised. Hirst’s picnic remnant, chosen presumably for overtones of class disgruntlement – plebian plastic versus Manet’s fête galante – similarly “sounds notes of closure”, according to Curtis. Of this final section, she explains: “The works we show here are all concerned with their own collapse ... and plant doubt in the viewer’s mind that they have anything lasting to say.”

That defeatism is a reason for going anywhere rather than the Royal Academy to see modern British sculpture. For sculpture did not die. Few pieces are as vibrantly representative of the 1990s as Hirst’s shark or Whiteread’s casts, while for current work, Goodwood’s Cass Foundation, Roche Court near Salisbury, Yorkshire Sculpture Park – each showcases scores of excellent British sculptors, from conceptualists to stone carvers. All express sculpture’s primal concerns with form, meaning, beauty, visual delight – elements that, in its dire selection and distortion of history, the Royal Academy has shamefully forgotten.

‘Modern British Sculpture’, Royal Academy, London, to April 7 www.royalacademy.org.uk

For a video tour of the exhibition with Richard Calvocoressi, director of the Henry Moore Foundation, and a slideshow, see www.ft.com/arts-extra

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