22 September 2012

‘Bronze’ at the RA

There is little point in my struggling to describe this outstanding exhibition, when the RA's press release does it so well:
The exhibition brings together outstanding works from the earliest times to the present in a thematic arrangement that is fresh and unique. With works spanning over 5,000 years, no such cross-cultural exhibition on this scale has ever been attempted. The exhibition features over 150 of the finest bronzes from Asia, Africa and Europe and includes important discoveries from the Mediterranean as well as archaeological excavations. Many of the pieces have never been seen in the UK.  
Arranged thematically, Bronze brings together outstanding works from antiquity to the present. Different sections focus on the Human Figure, Animals, Groups, Objects, Reliefs, Gods, Heads and Busts. The exhibition features stunning Ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan bronzes, through to rare survivals from the Medieval period. The Renaissance is represented with the works of artists such as Ghiberti, Donatello, Cellini, and later Giambologna, De Vries and others. Bronzes by Rodin, Matisse, Picasso, Moore, Bourgeois and Koons are representative of the best from the 19th century to today.
There are some magnificent objects on show, for example The Dancing Satyr (below), retrieved from the seabed off Sicily in 1997:

and the Trunholm Chariot of the Sun found in a peatbog in Denmark in 1902:

For those (“conehead boffins”, perhaps) who are interested, the processes of casting (lost wax, direct and indirect) are well-explained. Bronze is the name given to alloys in which copper is the main component, often mixed with tin, zinc and lead in varying proportions. Some of the most ancient bronzes on display were probably copper-arsenic, and some of the modern ones (Louise Bourgeois Spider IV 1996, left) probably the readily-welded copper-silicon. None of the literature I saw at the RA (but perhaps it’s in the catalogue) pointed out a key characteristic of bronze: after pouring, although cooling, unusually it expands just before solidification and, once solid, contracts as it continues to cool. This property offers obvious advantages in achieving castings with excellent mould detail.

Bronze continues until 9 December. The physical effort in bringing so many heavy objects together must have been exceptional, as is the resulting visual display. This type of show would probably never be a Pre-Raphaelite-style ‘block buster’, but it certainly 'does what it says on the tin' (Jasper Johns Ale Cans 1960, right - sorry, couldn't resist it!) and should not be missed. 

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