It was Anthony Caro, a relatively late entrant to the Royal Academy, who apparently suggested a grand exhibition to proclaim the virtues of British sculpture to a critical public.
The fruit is this, the first show in 30 years in the UK to look at British sculpture over the last century and into this. The result is a far from comprehensive but consistently enjoyable trot through some of the works from a spattering of the artists who have given vitality to the form and those, such as Henry Moore OM, Dame Barbara Hepworth and Sir Anthony Caro himself, who have gained an international reputation for the country.
It's a display as noticeable for its absentees as those represented. Nothing here of Antony Gormley, Marc Quinn, Mark Wallinger, Ron Mueck or even, Elisabeth Frink, some of the names best-known to the public. But then that's not the point, according to the exhibition's curators, Dr Penelope Curtis, Director of the Tate Britain, and sculptor Keith Wilson. This is not intended to be a "survey" as such; rather there are themes and what the curators call "dialogues" between objects.
Right at the start they pose one of the central dilemmas of sculptural art by installing in the Burlington House courtyard not a sculpture itself, but the imported studio from Cumbria of Kurt Schwitters, a German who settled in Britain at the end of the war. Its point is that sculpture, monumental in its public display, is deeply private in its gestation.
With a flourish, the first room – visible from a number of the galleries as you tour round – sets the great 20th-century division between the figurative and the abstract by installing a large replica of Lutyen's Cenotaph against a series of photographs of the now pathetically eroded statues that Jacob Epstein made for the front of the British Medical Association's headquarters in London's Strand. The statues were notorious at the time for their open depiction of genitalia. There was a rush to get to the top floor of buses for a closer viewing. Lutyens's work is the opposite – sober, dignified and abstract.
Sex, of course, is a drive that is very difficult to disentangle from figurative art when it comes to its plastic form (or indeed any figurative form) and it's there, rampant, when it comes to the second and largest gallery of this exhibition, that devoted to the works on loan from the British Museum and V&A. The room is called "Theft by Finding" and the "dialogues" between the figures and friezes of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Assyria and the Easter Isles, and the artists of the earlier part of the 20th century make for fascinating confluence and contrast.
The curators, to give it a "British" badge, would have this as a demonstration of Britain's global reach and empire as represented by the British Museum. This seems to me just academic pedantry. The early part of the 20th century saw, above all in France but also in Germany and Britain, an excitement with primitive art, a reach for its semi-abstract and openly sexual qualities, as artists were exposed to the masks from Africa and the figures from the ancient world.
The British sculptors who did take the primitive full on were Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and, most powerfully, Epstein. His Adam, all surging male testerone, has a room virtually to himself. Normally on show in the more rarefied surroundings of Harewood House, the sculpture still has the power to astound. It's not just its blatant sexuality, but the sheer energy of a piece that seems on the point of breaking completely out of its form.
Moore and Hepworth, although equally conscious of the primal urge in their earlier work, never went to this extreme, preferring the more polite and formal. Perhaps restraint, as much as anything, is a British characteristic. That and the relationship of artists with landscape. Moore is the most obvious case, making the human figure into an organic form, while Hepworth monumentalised her abstract shapes with the landscape around clearly in mind.
They are both given due honour with examples of their post-war bronzes, Moore's Reclining Figure from 1951 and Hepworth's Single Form from 1961-62. Abstract versus figurative again, a divergence which Caro tries to converge in his painted steel-and-aluminium structure Early One Morning of 1962 (given, quite justifiably, a room to itself), in which the abstraction of the material is given humanity by the figurative form. Although it is the juxtaposition of Alfred Gilbert's grotesquely overblown Jubilee Memorial to Queen Victoria (1887) with Philip King's stunning painted-plastic figure Genghis Khan (1963), that makes the point of modernity and the abstract figure most dramatically.
The most exciting work in the exhibition, also given a room to itself, is the recreation of Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton's construction An Exhibit of 1957. It deliberately brings together architecture, engineering and imagination in an assembly done to the strictest academic criteria and draws the viewer right inside the work, seeming much more than mere spectacle.
But after this the exhibition begins to struggle. How, after all, do you take in a discipline that has broken down in the plurality of video, installation, conceptual and plain muddled media that is postmodernist art? One can't say that the curators do it with entire assurance. A room of Richard Long, William Turnbull, Tony Cragg and Barry Flanagan, as well as the reappearance of Carl Andre's once-infamous bricks, Equivalent VIII, put in for comparison, tries to make the point of "the persistence of British landscape." Damien Hirst's Let's Eat Outdoors Today is there, replete with flies and rotting food, next to Jeff Koons's Basketball. And the show ends with a series of installations suggesting that sculpture has moved away from the hand-worked creation to an arrangement of manufactured items to convey the denominators of life today and their fragility.
But is that really what British sculpture is about now? The curators may have intended it to be a lively dialogue between the sculptures of different tendencies and different generations but the fundamental dialogue is not between works but between the artists fighting to express themselves and the concepts being imposed on them by the curators. You enjoy the works but little encourages you to seek to find out more of their begetters.
It is also wrong to divorce sculpture from its market. The works which Dr Curtis and Keith Wilson seem to prefer are the works for galleries and the private buyer. But the liveliest – and most appealing to the ordinary citizen – of today's sculpture lies in the works created for public space. If one was to point to a single exercise characteristic of London and the British today, it would be the Trafalgar Square plinth and the effort to involve the public in the choices. Yet virtually none of the artists involved in that– Mark Wallinger, Rachel Whiteread, Marc Quinn or Anthony Gormley – are represented here.
That may be because of the peculiar (and wrong-headed) decision to favour as far as possible RA members. It may be that the organisers despise the plinth as too populist, and its exhibitors as too figurative to be considered seriously. But to the public, sculpture is about three-dimensional statements and it is those public assertions which are giving this form of art the profile it has gained in recent years.
'Modern British Sculpture' is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (020 7300 8000; www.royalacademy. org.uk) to 7 April
For further reading
'Modern British Sculpture' (Schiffer Art Book) by Guy Portelli. Order for £69.95 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030