Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Bronze at the Royal Academy

If the Tate likes to have a thesis for its exhibitions, the Royal Academy's thesis for its shows seems to be "Look at all these things!" They have a show at the moment which is about looking at things made of Bronze. And because it's at the Royal Academy it's rather larger than is sensible. If my civilised aunt hadn't come to London specially to see it (and bought me a ticket) I might not have bothered to go. But I'm very glad I did because some of the things made of bronze are really worth looking at.

There's no attempt at all to put the objects into any sort of historical, cultural, or technical groups, and no sense that you're supposed to learn anything from it, or have any response more intellectual than the occasional "ooh, look at that!" The rooms are called simply "Animals" or "Objects". This makes the show oddly restful, and helps with the sheer quantity of things on display. There isn't even a definition of what bronze is, as opposed to, say, brass -- I think they were using it as a catch-all term for brownish metal alloys. There is a room that tells you about different bronze-casting techniques, with videos and displays of the same object at various stages, which was very interesting indeed. But this was not laid on heavily, and isn't referenced in other parts of the show. I overheard some people who I think were from the RA talking about trying to get people to look at the objects not the labels. I have mixed feelings about this approach, and I would probably have found it frustrating if it had been a show where I felt there was something available to be learnt and taken away. But just relaxing and looking at nice things is actually probably a good discipline for someone like me who finds it hard to appreciate images without the help of words.

The things I particularly liked were: an etiolated 2nd-century BC Etruscan figure which I thought at first was a Giacommetti (I found later that it inspired him); some beautiful fifteenth-century weeping figures from the tomb of Isabella of Bourbon, Duchess of Burgundy; the African bronzes from Nigeria, especially the leopards; and some Greek and Roman bronzes, especially a surprisingly art-deco style Roman candelabra in the form of a bare-branched tree. There were some interesting modern pieces too, including one of Louise Bourgeois's spiders, and forms by Brancusi and Picasso.

I don't know if it counts as a plus or minus point for a show when you find yourself taking little notes about things to google when you get home. Things I found out later included: the definition of bronze as opposed to brass (they're both copper alloys but bronze has more tin and brass more zinc); who exactly Isabella of Bourbon was (she was the wife of the last Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, and mother of poor old Mary of Burgundy); what the inscription is on the Asante ewer (a little moralistic poem); where Luristan is (part of modern-day Iran); whether Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden was the father of the excellent Queen Christina (he was). I would be interested to know whether the curators would feel good about provoking me to further enquiry or bad about not having told me what I wanted to know. They may have assumed I would have a smart phone, though I don't know how easy it would be to use one in there since photographs and phone calls are not allowed. Or they might feel disappointed in me, with my failure simply to look at all the lovely bronze things.

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