Modern British Sculpture


Written by Siobhan Morrin
17 Monday 17th January 2011
In the first exhibition of its kind in over 30 years, Modern British Sculpture at the Royal Academy of Art will present significant works of the twentieth century, exploring them thematically and in relation to the wider world. Displaying creations by the most significant sculptors in recent history, including Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Damien Hirst, the exhibition looks at the influence of international art on British artists, as well as the choices they have made in their own work. While not claiming to provide a comprehensive study of sculpture, the Academy seeks to illustrate a visual argument about the history of the individual pieces.
Phillip King, Genghis Khan, 1963, Painted plastic, 170 x 245 x 365 cm, Private collection, Copyright The Artist

Although chronologically displayed, Modern British Sculpture does not aim to be a comprehensive survey of the topic. The juxtaposition of pieces, such as Queen Victoria by Alfred Gilbert, sculptor of Eros, with Philip King’s Genghis Khan illustrates the relationship between artists of different eras and the recurrence of significant themes throughout history. The visual juxtaposition is clear, Gilbert’s intricate statue apparently at odds with King’s simple lines; yet the theme and the sentiments of power and authority are highly evident in both. Further displays illustrate debates over sculpture as commemoration or political statement, no more clearly than in the placement of Edwin Lutyens’ Cenotaph and Cycle of Life by Jacob Epstein in the opening position.
Alfred Gilbert, Jubilee Memorial to Queen Victoria, 1887 (plinth 1901/10), Bronze, 310 cm x 215 x 215, Hampshire County Council


The Royal Academy itself has played a significant role in the work of British sculptors, a fact that is not overlooked; works by three former presidents, Frederic Leighton, Charlie Wheeler and Philip King are included within the exhibition.
Alongside the British art of Empire, those pieces from 1910 to 1930, the Academy has a number of loans that demonstrate a fascination many artists had with international (particularly non-Western art) often displayed the British Museum. Inspiration is most surely evident in Totem to the Artist by Leon Underwood, as well as in the works of Henry Moore.
Leon Underwood, Totem to the Artist, 1925-30, Wood and metal, 110.5 x 25.4 x 27.3 cm, Tate. Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1964, London 2010, Copyright The Artist Estate 
The move towards less figurative work by many in the post-war period also appears to have coincided with British sculpture becoming a brand of sorts. The work of Barbara Hepworth is a particularly striking example, her Single Form having been designed for the UN building in New York.
 Dame Barbara Hepworth, Pelagos, 1946, Part painted wood and strings, 43 x 46 x 38.5 cm, Tate. Presented by the artist 1964, Photo copyright Tate, London 2010, Copyright Bowness, Hepworth Estate 
Sarah Lucas, Portable Smoking Area, 1996, Wood, chair, weights, chrome stand, shellac, 180 x 76 x 140 cm, Collection of Ursula Blickle, Copyright The artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London 

Of course, if to talk about art as a brand gives rise to no truer example than the work of the Young British Artists of the 1990s. This exhibition offers the exciting opportunity to see early works by Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas, some of the most famous recent exponents of British art. Appearing alongside work from the entire twentieth century, their creations represent just part of the idiosyncratic history of modern British sculpture into which the Royal Academy offers us an insight.  


*first image credit - Bill Woodrow Electric Fire with Yellow Fish, 1981 Electric fire, enamel and acrylic paint, 27 x 37 x 19 cm, Waddington Galleries, LondonPhoto courtesy Waddington Galleries, London, copyright Bill Woodrow


 Modern British Sculpture opens Jan 22 at the Royal Academy of Art. More info at their website

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