An exhibition has opened in London with, if not everything, virtually everyone in it: Romans, Greeks, Indians, Germans, Chinese and Africans, plus Picasso, Donatello, Matisse, Ghiberti, Anish Kapoor, possibly Leonardo da Vinci, and certainly his nephew.
Bronze equals copper with a dash of tin. Yet the Royal Academy has stretched the point, and included a bit of brass -- copper plus zinc -- as well. Giving the show a metallic theme also makes it amazingly inclusive. The premise is that just about all peoples, for thousands of years, have made art from bronze.
The major exception is with the inhabitants of the Americas before 1492, who didn’t know about the stuff. The show does include plenty of later American artists, such as Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons (represented by a basketball) and Willem de Kooning.
Otherwise, from the 4th millennium B.C. onwards, bronze sculpture has been a constant in an extraordinary range of human cultures. Many of the most riveting artworks are extremely old, among them the euphoric Greek “Dancing Satyr” (4th century B.C.), fished off the coast of Sicily in 1998, which opens the show. The most recent, a bronze mirror by Anish Kapoor, was made this year.
Taking this fact and running with it, the organizers have arranged the show by theme, rather than date or geography. In the stunning gallery devoted to sculptures of figures, you find works by Rodin and Giacometti side-by-side with predecessors from medieval Nigeria, ancient Rome and Renaissance Florence.
From Florence, in fact, comes a showstopper that Leonardo just might have been involved with.
“St. John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee” (1506-11) has always been attributed to a younger friend of the great man’s, Giovan Francesco Rustici. Yet as the 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari recorded, “some believe, without knowing it for a fact, that Leonardo worked on it with his own hand.”
The extraordinary naturalism of the bald figure on the right makes it easy to understand why that rumor went around. (Leonardo’s nephew Pierino da Vinci, who died at age 23, features in the section devoted to reliefs.)
One of the unique qualities of bronze is that it lasts so well, it collapses your sense of time.
The Rustici group -- which has been standing for 500 years in all weather conditions above one of the doors of the Florence Baptistery -- actually looks older than the life-size portrait of Lucius Mammius Maximus (41-54 A.D.), a Roman inhabitant of Herculaneum. In fact, Lucius looks as if he could have been cast yesterday.
You get that effect throughout the exhibition: very old art next to much newer art, on equal terms.
In the two rooms devoted to animal sculptures, the wonderful and weird Etruscan “Chimaera of Arezzo” (c. 400 B.C.) -- a lion with a goat’s head bursting out of its back and a snake for a tail -- takes on Picasso’s “Baboon and Young” (1951), a monkey with a toy car for a head.
What’s more, in this two-and-a-half-thousand-year contest, the ancient Etruscan artist wins. In fact, the old stuff looks extremely good all through the show.
Not all the themed galleries are quite as gripping as the ones filled with figures and animals. Some works didn’t grab me (a huge and hideous bronze incense burner from 19th-century Japan, for instance).
Overall, however, I’ve never seen a sculpture exhibition so packed with masterpieces of so many different varieties.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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