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The Triumph of 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)
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 the most technically accomplished sculptures needed reworking and repair after casting.

Given the additional time, cost, and risk, why bother? Because a sculptor can do things in bronze that cannot be done in any other material. Its tensile strength is vastly superior and this makes it possible to create free-standing statues on a much bigger scale in bronze than in stone, wood, or clay. For example, the exhibition catalog mentions an ancient sculpture of the Roman emperor Nero that was thirty meters tall; this was roughly six times higher than Michelangelo’s David, one of the largest Renaissance marbles.

The strength of bronze also allows the artist to pose the figure with far greater freedom. In a statue in stone, wood, or clay the limbs usually must be placed close to the body; otherwise they will break off. Moreover, drilling through the lower portion of the piece also must be kept to a minimum, or the statue might collapse under its own weight. As a result, statues in those materials often tend to have a blocky appearance, and to be shown in stances with little motion. But a bronze sculpture can be composed so that it depicts a state of vigorous action: running, dancing, fighting, riding, and so forth.

The first work on view in the exhibition is a Dancing Satyr made in Greece in the fourth century BC, possibly by Praxiteles. Although now a fragment, enough survives of this over-life-size figure that it is clear he stood on one leg, with the other leg bent at the knee and kicking up behind him, and the arms fully extended to the sides. In sculpture a pose of such drama and motion can only be achieved in bronze.

The metal has another quality that has been perhaps even more fundamental to its appeal: its supreme durability. Few bronze statues from antiquity survive, but this is only because subsequently they were melted down to reuse the metal for cannons or other tools and weapons. Left alone, bronze will last indefinitely, and this made it especially suited for monuments and other works of art meant to be of timeless significance. This characteristic has long been celebrated. In the Iliad, describing the Shield of Achilles, Homer called its gold and silver elements “valuable” but praised its bronze elements as “weariless.” Horace said that only the greatest poem could be “a monument more lasting than bronze.” Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote of the power of bronze to perpetuate fame.

Different cultures wholly unrelated to one another have independently explored similar capacities of bronze as an artistic medium. As David Ekserdjian, the head curator of the exhibition, states in his essay in the catalog, “For all their cultural specificity, the best individual bronzes do as a rule seem to be uniquely capable of speaking a common language.” To examine both the cultural specificity and the common language of bronze sculptures, Ekserdjian and his collaborators have brought together an extraordinary group of masterpieces from many different periods. The oldest works in the show are a scepter and four other pieces of regalia found in a cave in Nahal Mishmar, Israel, and date from about 3700 BC. The most recent is an untitled mirror piece by the Indian-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor, made earlier this year.

The diversity of cultures, too, is staggering. Not only are there works from major artistic centers in the ancient Near East, Egypt, Nigeria, classical Greece, Renaissance Europe, China, and so on. There are also a refreshing number of pieces from cultures that will be previously unknown to many visitors, such as the Nuragic civilization in present-day Sardinia, the kingdom of Tartessos in present-day Andalusia, and the Ortoquid dynasty of Kharput in what is now Elâzi, in Turkey.

The organizers have made the uncommon decision to arrange the works by theme, rather than region or chronology. The first room presents a breathtaking array of figure sculptures—larger statues ring the space, while the center of the room has cases with small statuettes. Along one wall you see a giant portrait statue of a wealthy Roman official from the first century AD, an ancestral portrait statue made in fourteenth- or fifteenth-century Nigeria, a dynamic blur of an abstract figure by Umberto Boccioni (see below), a wraith in a cage by Alberto Giacometti, and the French nineteenth-century sculptor Aimé-Jules Dalou’s life-size realist sculpture The Great Peasant.

Tate, London/© APAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012
Umberto Boccioni: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, bronze, 1913, cast 1972

Along the facing wall stand such works as Rodin’s The Age of Bronze, full of pathos and grace, Willem de Kooning’s Clam Digger, shimmering and shifting in the light, and Lorenzo Ghiberti’s towering Saint Stephen, looking majestic and serene. Other works in the room include David Smith’s autobiographical Portrait of a Painter and Giovan Francesco Rustici’s Saint John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee, a colossal narrative group made for the Baptistery of Florence at the beginning of the sixteenth century, certainly under the influence, and possibly with the help, of Leonardo da Vinci. It is a gathering of masterpieces, the likes of which has never been seen before.

The following two rooms bring together a menagerie of animal statues, bursting with life. The Chimera of Arezzo, possibly the greatest Etruscan sculpture in the world, snarls and roars near the center of the first of these rooms (see illustration on the cover of this issue). The Hellenistic Head of a Horse, a prized possession from Lorenzo de’ Medici’s collection, is also here, as is the life-size ancient Roman Ram that once stood at the gate of the palace of the Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick II. It is not just the sheer quality and the important provenance of the works that are so astounding. It is the diversity of styles as well. The Ram and the Head of a Horse may seem utterly lifelike, but the Chimera is an absolute fantasy, and other pieces in the room include such highly formalized works as the proud Islamic Lion made about 1100, whose torso is so rounded it is almost like a parade balloon, and the sinister and implacable Pair of Leopards from sixteenth-century Benin, nightmarish animals who could eat you up.

The following section of the show is composed of groups of figures, most of them mythic in subject matter. Here too the breadth of material is exhilarating. The earliest work is Chariot of the Sun, a small piece that shows a horse and a celestial disk, gilded on one side only, set atop a spindly six-wheeled cart. Considered a national treasure in Denmark, where this alluring work was found, it probably dates from the middle of the second millennium BC, and was made by a civilization about which virtually nothing is known. At the other end of the room is the most recent bronze group on display, Frederic Remington’s Off the Range (Coming through the Rye), a statuette of cowboys on horseback, cast in 1903; it looks like a still from a western.

Between these extremes of the sacred and the mundane, the inscrutable and the familiar, comes a wildly diverse assortment of pieces, such as a deeply touching Chola statuette of Yashoda Nursing the Infant Krishna, an early Ming gilt bronze of Kepâla-Hevajra dancing in sexual embrace with his consort Nairâtmya, and half a dozen Renaissance and Baroque sculptures of Hercules as a personification of good conquering evil.

The next two rooms, providing a miscellany of “objects,” are the least captivating portion of the show. To be sure, fascinating things are on view, such as ritual vessels from Shang China and the imposing Krodo Altar from the Ottonian empire, a work that is dated around the late eleventh or early twelfth century. The organizers are making an important point: that bronzes are things, not just representations. But few of the works here grip the visitor with the same fascination as those in the other parts of the exhibition.

Just beyond this break in the intensity of the exhibition is a section on relief, and there are so many treasures in this gallery that it is hard to know where to look first. The largest and perhaps most impressive works here are Matisse’s four massive sculptures of Backs. The show is exceptionally well installed and lighted, and many works appear to have more vitality and power than they ever displayed before. This is the case with the Backs, which seem charged with raw energy, as if the figures were struggling to take shape, and emerge from the bronze right in front of your eyes.

  1. 1

    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. 

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