The Triumph of Bronze

Bronze

an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, September 15–December 9, 2012
Catalog of the exhibition edited by David Ekserdjian
London: Royal Academy of Arts, 301 pp., $65.00 (distributed in the US by Abrams)
butterfield_1-122012.jpg
Museo del Satiro, Church of Sant’Egidio, Mazara del Vallo, Sicily/Scala
Dancing Satyr, Greek bronze with alabaster eyes, fourth century BC

This fall the Royal Academy in London has put on one of the most astonishing exhibitions of sculpture ever mounted. Titled simply “Bronze,” the show brings together an abundance of masterworks in bronze and other copper alloys from a dazzling range of cultures and periods. On display are more than 150 pieces, coming from nearly every continent, and made over a span of almost six thousand years. The excitement of the show lies not only in the chance to see so many great works, from prehistoric to contemporary, in a single visit. Gathering in one place outstanding examples from different civilizations, and arranging them by theme rather than culture, the show also allows the viewer to consider some of the common characteristics of sculpture throughout time and all over the world.

Bronze is very different from most materials of sculpture. The other substances commonly used in pre-modern statuary, such as stone, wood, and clay, are natural materials. But bronze is a human product, made by melting copper together with one or more other metals to create an alloy. First devised in the ancient Near East probably sometime early in the fourth millennium BC, the resulting alloy has many advantages over pure copper. It melts at a lower temperature and thus is easier to cast; and it makes an exceptionally hard metal, one that can be worked in fine detail, and keep a sharp edge. It is excellent for tools, weapons, and bells, as well as sculpture.1

Creating a statue in bronze, however, is far more complex than making one in stone, wood, or clay. In those materials, the artist works directly on the final piece (although of course possibly after developing the composition in a series of preliminary studies). A bronze sculpture, on the other hand, usually requires a laborious procedure known as lost-wax casting. There are many steps in the technique, but in essence, the artist must make a model in wax, encase it in a fire-resistant mold, bake out the wax leaving a void in the mold, pour molten metal into this void, let the bronze cool and harden, break open the mold, and then clean up, chase, and polish the bronze. This is the simplest method. But to save on the great cost and weight of bronze, as well as to ensure that the molten metal would cool at an even temperature and not crack, most statues are cast so that they are hollow inside, and to achieve this requires many additional stages of work.2

The casting process could break down at almost any point. For example, the molten bronze could fail to run through the mold properly, or hot gases produced during the pour could leave holes in the sculpture. Success was far from assured. Indeed, throughout much of history, making a bronze was considered to be akin to wizardry, and even …

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    A point of possible confusion must be clarified. In the modern era it has been common to distinguish between different copper alloys based on their major secondary ingredient; today an alloy of copper and zinc is called brass, while the word “bronze” is reserved for the alloy of copper and tin. But this distinction was not always rigidly followed in the past. In earlier times the metallurgical refinement of ores was highly imprecise, and an alloy might contain both zinc and tin as well as copper; small percentages of other elements, such as gold, silver, lead, antimony, and nickel, might also be in the mix. Furthermore, it must be noted that many artists sometimes preferred to work in alloys of copper and zinc rather than copper and tin. For instance, the magnificent Gates of Paradise made by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Baptistery in Florence are in brass, not bronze. In view of the complexity of the situation, the curators of the show have chosen, when writing about individual works, to identify their specific alloys, but to use the general term “bronze” when speaking about copper alloys on the whole. This is a sensible decision, and one I will follow in this article. 

  2. 2

    For more information, see the excellent essay in the catalog by Francesca G. Bewer, “Bronze Casting: The Art of Translation.” One room of the show is given over to a clear presentation of technical information, with diagrams and a movie.