Cast of thousands

Hockney versus Hirst, the Royal Academy versus Tate Modern – that was London’s visual arts battleground in the first half of 2012. Round Two, this autumn, is more subtle, farther-reaching, and just as riveting. The Royal Academy challenges our intoxication with the ephemeral by launching Bronze, an enthralling, enlightening show devoted to the most durable, age-old medium in the history of art.

As Hockney’s A Bigger Picture did with landscape painting, Bronze makes a traditional form – figurative sculpture – look spectacular, contemporary, exciting, upbeat and accessible. The show is also the most genuinely multicultural I have ever seen, ranging across four continents and 5,000 years. It shrinks differences in time and space by rare juxtapositions of masterpieces: from a Mesopotamian bull, a large Chang dynasty vessel shaped as an elephant and a tiny jewel-inlaid Egyptian depiction of Ptah, patron of craftsmen, through African heads, Indian deities and the Christian baroque, and on to Jasper Johns’ painted bronze ale cans (1960) and a Louise Bourgeois “Spider” (1996).

It is unlikely that so many exceptional pieces will again be gathered under one roof. Bronze sculpture does not travel easily, and it is impressive that its monumental scale is represented here both by landmark works – the comic-heroic “Chimera of Arezzo”, a mythical fire-eating monster comprised of a lion, a goat and a snake, which provides the tail, is the outstanding bronze from the Etruscan era, for example – and, where necessary, by life-size copies and models, as for Benvenuto Cellini’s three-metre emblem of mannerist violence, “Perseus and Medusa”, from the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence.

But even from the familiar classical and Renaissance period there are many surprises: a fiercely frowning, individualised Hellenistic “Portrait Head”, discovered in 2004 in Bulgaria; Giambologna’s informal rendering of a wattled, feathered, exotic “Turkey”, made only a few years after the bird arrived in 16th-century Europe. A delight is the extreme diversity of styles and, throughout, an inventiveness impelled by the conviction that memory and imagination can stand up to mortality, and that bronze – being almost indestructible, able to assume any shape and hold any amount of detail – offers artists unique creative scope.

‘Dancing Satyr’, Greek, 2nd-3rd century BC

The show begins with something ancient but quite new to our eyes: spotlit alone in the first gallery is “Dancing Satyr”, a fragmentary figure, head thrown back, white alabaster eyes shining, engaged in an ecstatic dance. Believed to be the work of the Greek sculptor Praxiteles in the 4th century BC, this was found by fishermen off the Sicilian coast in 1998. Fresh, vivid, unknown, enlivened by a glorious green-gold mottled surface – the sea offered protection; few pieces remaining on land from this epoch have survived so well – it is a stunning work in which medium and form, as ever in great art, deliver meaning. Only in a bronze sculpture would the compositional boldness of the dancer’s energy and gravity-defying pose, supported on one leg, be conceivable.

The human form lies at the heart of this exhibition, and it is characteristic of the wit, open-mindedness and scholarship of curator David Ekserdjian that he opens the long second gallery focused on the human figure with an unexpected work by David Smith, known chiefly for steel abstractions.

“Portrait of a Painter” (1954), cast from found objects – palette for head, paint box for hand – and elements welded from iron, forges a comically severe, geometric yet engagingly animated human presence. It towers over two eclectic parades of figures debating possibilities of realism: Rodin’s intensely naturalistic “The Age of Bronze”; the corpulent form of Buddhist master Mahasiddha Virupa, seated on an antelope pelt, from the Ming dynasty; de Kooning’s pared-down but expressive, lumpen “Clamdigger”; a dignified Roman portrait of an affluent freed slave, Lucius Mammium Maximus; a Nigerian seated female figure, fleshy, arrestingly life-like, cast by an Ife artist around 1300.

David Smith’s ‘Portrait of a Painter’, 1954

Such abundant, non-chronological displays (subsequent galleries are arranged thematically by animals, objects, gods, reliefs) leave visitors free to make their own associations – though examples of influence, appropriation and challenges to tradition abound. Giacometti looked to Etruscan sculpture – especially the elongated statuette “Ombra dell Sera” (“Evening Shadow”), lent here from Volterra – to develop his conception of an etiolated human form resonating with postwar existential uncertainty. Massimiliano Soldani Benzi determined to make bronze measure up to bravura baroque marble carving by copying Bernini’s psychologically charged, hyper-real head “Damned Soul”. Modernist Brancusi challenged what he called the “beefsteak” bronze mimetic tradition with sleekly condensed forms and polished finishes – the sleeping head “Danaïde”, the bird-like “Maiastra”.

Brancusi opened the way both to futurist sculpture – Umberto Boccioni’s abstracted “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space”, for instance, where surface detail is eliminated to capture the striding body’s dynamism – and, in his lightness of being and airy reflective surfaces, defying the mass and weight of sculpture, to Anish Kapoor. In the show’s newest piece, Kapoor’s consciously bronze-coloured concave mirror “Untitled” (2012), we see ourselves, a plethora of other works and, by implication, a homage to bronze itself.

Always highly prized, bronze has connotations of seriousness, ambition, proud historical epochs. Where does this place it in today’s hierarchy-free multimedia age, when a sculptor’s materials may be frozen blood, cast dirt or MDF, when conceptual practitioners scorn permanent materials of any sort?

Tony Cragg pioneered new materials, particularly plastic, in the 1970s. Eventually, as he recalls in the catalogue here, “I knew that I had to make a bronze but it took almost a year to pluck up the courage; the Henry Moore legacy looms ... down on us.” “Points of View” (2007), Cragg’s trio of flowing columnar forms, suggesting simplified profiles to be seen in the round, is among the most compelling reinventions of figuration in the exhibition.

Others are to be found beyond Burlington House. Across the road, Berlinde de Bruyckere is showing a bronze-and-granite sculpture of a fallen deer, at once lyrical and shocking, in the garden of St James’s Church, Piccadilly. At Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre, fantastical bronzes by 40-year-old Thomas Houseago, the most original sculptor of his generation, reference Rodin as readily as Star Wars. Lismore Castle has a solo show, including massive, unfinished-looking bronze figures, by Hans Josephsohn, who died last month aged 92; obscure for most of his life, Josephsohn is now hailed as a key 21st-century influence. In Bronze, the Royal Academy has brilliantly caught the crest of a rising wave, and united history and the contemporary in a provocative celebration of art’s essential materiality.

‘Bronze’, Royal Academy, London, until December 9,

Curator David Ekserdjian on bronze’s enduring appeal

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