A large exhibition entitled Bronze – of which I am one of the curators – is about to open at the Royal Academy in London. By assembling works from all over the world which range in date from the fourth millennium BC to the present, it argues that bronze is one of the most genuinely universal of artistic media.
Nevertheless, most aficionados of bronzes tend to focus on the productions of a particular country or period. For all that collectors of archaic bronze vessels from China or Ife and Benin bronzes from Nigeria may admire and even love the productions of Renaissance and Baroque Europe, they do not usually attempt to assemble universal holdings of bronzes from across the globe. In the same way, and as will immediately become apparent to visitors to the forthcoming Biennale des Antiquaires, dealers in bronzes are at least as specialised in their approach.
In ancient China and Africa bronzes were not regarded as works of art, but rather as objects which served both practical and religious ends. However, it goes without saying that these areas have been avidly collected in the west since the 19th century, and that great collections still continue to be made. At the Biennale, in addition to a variety of other pieces in bronze and other media, Gisèle Croës is presenting a private collection of archaic bronze vessels, whose dispersal may well prove an inspiration and an opportunity for collectors new and old.
Conversely, in the European context, sculpture was clearly collected in antiquity, and there was already a real sense of the magic of what we would call the Old Masters. Its most obvious manifestation was in the Roman passion for plundering Greek antiquities, most of which were alas ultimately melted down. A few survivors – such as the incomparable Bronzes of Riace (now in Reggio Calabria) – have been discovered on the Mediterranean seabed in recent years, jettisoned from ships that got into trouble in treacherous waters. At the same time, the villas of Pompeii and Herculaneum also testify to an avid craving for commissioning brand-new bronzes.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, such tastes went into abeyance and were all but extinct throughout the middle ages. Happily, and above all in the form of statuettes, from the 15th century onwards such pieces were again esteemed as collectors’ items, and were one of the principal ways in which the period paid homage to the genius of pagan antiquity.
It is not possible to determine quite how early in the century such independent small bronzes were being made, but the example of a signed and dated Hector on Horseback by Filarete of 1456, currently in London but usually in Madrid, proves they were in existence by that date. In the following century, the bronzes of Giambologna achieved a stunning combination of extraordinary power of invention and technical refinement which has proved all but impossible to match.
By the 17th century, artists such as David Teniers the Younger, who painted what are in effect portraits of notable art collections belonging to the likes of the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, included both contemporary and earlier bronzes alongside paintings. In the early 1700s, the cream of the 800+ items in the sculpture collection of the French royal sculptor François Girardon (whose full-scale translation into bronze of the ancient Laocoön group in marble from the Vatican is one of the highlights of the Royal Academy show) was reproduced in a series of prints.
His “Gallerie”, as it is called on the prints themselves, combined bronzes with pieces in other media, and is now the direct inspiration for a display at Christie’s, Paris, of a selection of works of art – naturally including bronzes – from the legendary collection of the great couturier Hubert de Givenchy (September 11-October 3), which will coincide with the Biennale.
The study and collecting of Renaissance and Baroque bronzes is something of a law unto itself, especially for anyone more familiar with the ways of what on occasion sculpture experts somewhat dismissively refer to as “flat art”. The two main reasons are that sculpture is as a rule less well documented and that, especially when it comes to statuettes, there is seldom only one unique original. Signatures and dates are rare, and not always to be trusted.
Even more crucially, it is normal for a particular model to be reproduced in multiple form, initially by its original creator but then over a considerable period of time. In consequence, the same “Giambologna” invention may exist in versions dating from almost any century, made in a potentially alarming range of places.
One inevitable result of all this uncertainty is that in the rare instances where a bronze has an impeccable provenance – King Louis XIV of France had inventory numbers incised into his, and since the inventories have survived, they can be checked – its value is increased.
But only on one condition. This is that it is an outstanding cast with an excellent patina, and that its general state of preservation is also excellent. The great bronze connoisseurs may not invariably agree, since judgments concerning artistic quality are always subjective, but they are all looking for the same thing. Glamorous names for their own sake are of virtually no interest in this context: what is required is what experts in this field still unashamedly term “a good eye”. Photographs are virtually useless when it comes to forming a view about quality.
For anyone who has been privileged to look at bronzes with a true master of the art – I cannot think of anyone to match the late Tony Radcliffe, the great authority on Renaissance bronzes at the V&A in London – it soon becomes apparent how much the rest of us have to learn. But there can be few greater pleasures than making the attempt.
‘Bronze’ is at the Royal Academy, London, September 15-December 9 www.royalacademy.org.uk
Big cats, goddesses and an elegant moustache
Chadelaud, Antiquaire Paris
Le Louvre des Antiquaires 2 Place du Palais-Royal, 75001 Paris
18 Avenue Matignon, 75008 Paris
Michel-Guy Chadelaud specialises in “19th century Art Decoratifs prestigious masterpieces”. On display are 19th and early 20th century paintings and drawings, watches, bronzes, silverware and 19th century furniture made after 1850.
Charly Bailly Fine Art
10 rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, 1204 Geneva
Charly Bailly founded Charly Bailly Fine Art in the heart of Geneva’s old town. Three generations later, the gallery specialises in a broad range of work with an emphasis on old as well as modern sculptures, drawings and paintings. The eclectic nature of the collection makes it virtually unique in Switzerland.
Galerie Yves et Victor Gastou
12, rue Bonaparte, 75006 Paris
For 30 years Yves Gastou has specialised in 20th century art, in particular the avant-garde and work by forgotten designers. This is the gallery’s 17th appearance at the Biennale des Antiquaires.
David Ghezelbash Archéologie
12 rue Jacob, 75006 Paris
Specialists in Greek, Etruscan, Egyptian, Roman and Near Eastern antiquities.
Sur Rendez-Vous, 75017 Paris
Former banker, Hioco Christophe is a dealer who remains “a collector at heart”. The gallery specialises in Asian art, concentrating on Hindu and Buddhist statues, with special focus on the Gupta era (fourth-sixth centuries) and Pâla era (eighth-twelfth centuries, Bihar region) as well as Chola sculpture. Vietnamese art is also part the collection, with two main fields: rare bronze pieces from the Dông Son culture and ceramics from the first to the sixth centuries and from the Ly and Trân dynasties.
Univers de Bronze
27-29, rue de Penthièvre, 75008 Paris
Founded in 1986, this gallery mainly exhibits bronzes by sculptors from the last two centuries, with a predilection for The Golden Age – 1830-1930. Among others the gallery has shown Barye, Fratin, Mêne, Carpeaux, Rodin, Bourdelle, Bugatti and Pompon.