The RA’s recent show Bronze brings together works representing over 5,000 years of artistic use of bronze, showcasing not only the versatility of the material, but also the swathe of cultures in which it has been used. From the exhibition’s genesis with the singularly awe-striking Dancing Satyr, a sculpture set beneath the blue-lit dome of the Royal Academy’s Central Hall – which was discovered by fishermen in the trawling nets of their boat off the coast of Mazara del Vallo, Sicily, and dates back to the 3rd century BCE – to its conclusion in a room of heads and busts, the exhibition is lively, beautiful, educational and, at times, funny.
The exhibition is constructed thematically; different rooms focus on the human figure, animals, groups, objects, reliefs, gods, heads and busts respectively. If the Dancing Satyr sets a serious, almost emotional tenor for the following room, it is lost afterwards to education and humour. That is not to say that it can’t be found in later rooms, or in individual objects, or even to say that this loss must be a negative one. Though in one of the animal rooms containing Bourgois’ Spider IV, emotion is lost only to be replaced by horror, later, for the less arachnoid-friendly among us, it is replaced by humour. That humour is exemplified in the final room, a room of heads and busts, in which I audibly laughed, as throughout the room there is such a splash of expression across such a range of people. My very favourite of those expressions is the expression on one man’s head of what looks, to me, like a Wall Street Banker being told Starbucks has gone into liquidation.
Cecilia Treves and David Ekserdjan, and their team of curatorial assistants, achieved impressive feats of diplomacy in order to obtain pieces for the exhibition; it is even rumoured that one piece necessitated a change in state law for its use in the exhibition. Many pieces were, before this exhibition, deemed too fragile, too old or too valuable to leave the museums in which they were housed, never mind the countries. Considering this, it is impressive, then, that one of the oldest pieces here is the Trundholm Sun Chariot, a sculpture of a Sun Chariot pulled by a horse, dated to approximately 1800 BCE. The sun on one side displays traces of beautiful turquoise patina, and on the other, a remarkably preserved gilded bronze.
But, thankfully, not everything here is from antiquity. Not only is there a spread of culture, but there is a stretch, too, of time, from an early 15th century Head with Crown from Lagos, to Louise Bourgois’ 1996 Spider IV, to Tony Cragg’s Points of View. There is no exact chronology. There is no hierarchy either – no pitching of culture against culture in order to decide whose works are more beautiful, whose more unique, to decide a winner. There is no patronising lament of “the internet generation,” nor is there, as you might expect to find in an exhibition of a material associated as it is with power, durability and strength; no nostalgia for a classical, purer or simpler time. The exhibition is curated with admiration of works in their exquisite, perhaps intrinsic, beauty, and for bronze’s appeal both then and now.
It is hard to find a bone to pick with such a beautifully executed and painstakingly curated exhibition, and perhaps I shouldn’t bother. After all, the exhibition essentially has it all: it has rooms detailing the different processes of rendering sculpture in bronze; it has bronze Gods; bronze philosophers; bronze sportsmen; it has bronze cats and bronze horses; it even has bronze basketballs; it is a veritable bronze wonderland, and yet and yet and yet, it is a wonderland from which women are almost completely excluded. One of Louise Bourgois’ spiders is here, but Melanie Yazzie’a Marvin Tso Likes Green Chile Cheeseburgers is not; David Smith’s Portrait of a Painter is here, but Josefina de Vasconcellos’ Reconciliation is not; Brancusi’s Danaïde is here, but Erzsébet Schaár’s Girl in Doorway is not; Giacometti is here, but Magdalena Abankanowicz is not.
This exclusion is almost forgivable. After all, it is a truly cross cultural exhibition, and you cannot help but admire the political finesse of an exhibition containing as many works from as many cultures as it does, and you cannot help but feel the exquisite beauty the curators must have felt when choosing each piece. But by that same token, I cannot help but feel that among those 150 artworks, from almost as many countries and cultures, there ought to be more than four by women – is feminine culture any less provocative, productive or beautiful? It’s almost forgivable, but not quite.