In “Modern British Sculpture” at the Royal Academy, there hangs a little work by an artist named Urs Fischer. “Untitled” (2000) consists of half an apple screwed to half a pear, suspended from a thread.
It’s an apt metaphor for an exhibition that spends a great deal of space comparing apples to pears, and of which about 50 percent is good to look at, the remainder rotten.
The curators, to their credit, have not taken the easy path. You might have expected a historical survey of this kind to feature a roomful of work by Jacob Epstein, followed by abstraction by Henry Moore, and so on down to Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley today. It would have been predictable, but we would have known where we were.
The show, which the RA says is its first on the subject in 30 years, does begin with Epstein, yet with photographs of carvings from a building on the Strand that were deliberately smashed in the 1930s and now only exist in mutilated form. This destruction caused one of the biggest British art rows of the 20th century. The other work in the first room is debatable too, since it’s a replica of the Cenotaph war memorial (1919-20), designed by Edwin Lutyens, that normally might be classified as a work of architecture. So far, so lively.
Unexpectedness continues in the second room, which displays work by British sculptors of the early 20th century side by side with pieces from Ancient Egypt, Easter Island and elsewhere. This has the effect of making the poor Britons look a good deal less talented than the Easter Islanders, etc.
Still, it makes the valid point that London, as the center of an empire, was filled with artifacts from around the world and that so-called “primitive art” influenced the Edwardian avant-garde.
Several rooms in this part of the show are odd, in terms of content. One combines an abstract sculpture by Phillip King “Genghis Khan” (1963), resembling a tent with horns, with two statues of naked men, one -- by Frederic Leighton -- from as long ago as 1877.
These athletic bronze chaps are overwhelmed by a huge bronze “Jubilee Memorial to Queen Victoria” (1887) by Alfred Gilbert. It’s strange to find that one of the showstoppers in an exhibition of modern British sculpture is a monument to Queen Victoria. It looks terrific, as does Anthony Caro’s “Early One Morning” (1962), all alone in another gallery.
Then you turn the corner, and everything becomes pear-shaped. The remaining rooms have the feeling of a building site. This isn’t the fault of the work on display. In the right place, “Chalk Line” (1984) by Richard Long would look beautiful, but on the floor of the RA it’s killed by the elaborate ventilation grills. I’d never noticed them before. Now, they’re all you see.
The grand rooms at the RA are marvelous for hanging Old Masters, and some types of modern sculpture look well there. The color, movement and drama of Anish Kapoor scored a hit here last year. That’s not the kind of thing on show now: Kapoor’s is just one of many absent names among well-known modern sculptors (Gormley, the Chapman brothers and Rachel Whiteread are others).
Instead, there’s a plethora of art made out of everyday materials -- not just fruit, but old electric fires, scrunched-up books, used clothes. It might work in a different context, but here the whole thing looks like a muddle. That, historically, may well be what it is.
“Modern British Sculpture” is at the Royal Academy, London, through April 7. American Express Co. is the Exhibition Preservation Partner. Information: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” The opinions expressed are his own.)