Royal Academy to celebrate a century of British sculpture

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A crumbling barnyard, a room full of page three girls and a previously undisplayed work by Damien Hirst will be among the artworks included in the first retrospective of 20th century British sculpture to be held in this country for nearly three decades.

At the centre of the exhibition at the Royal Academy will be two pieces by sometime rivals and reputed lovers Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, the glittering international stars of the form during the last century who made the world hungry for British sculpture.

But it will be an unfinished architectural work by the German artist Kurt Schwitters that looks set to excite the interest of visitors when the exhibition opens in Piccadilly, central London early next year. Schwitters' Merz Barn, which he created in Elterwater in Cumbria in 1947, will be painstakingly reconstructed in the Royal Academy's Annenberg Courtyard with the help of local craftsmen skilled in dry stone walling. Having fled the Nazis and finding himself interned in Britain, Schwitters, who died a year after beginning the barn aged 60, never completed his work – one of four structures he decorated with his distinctive murals in Britain and Scandinavia during his lifetime.

Although he may be little known to the general public and his work abandoned for the best part of 40 years, the German was a huge influence on a generation of pop artists and others that followed including Sir Peter Blake. He also inspired Damien Hirst, whose Let's Eat Outdoors Today – a picnic table covered with living flies encased within a glass box – will also be a major attraction as it goes on show for the first time.

In the final room of the exhibition, veteran artist Gustav Metzger plans to cause controversy by pinning up a Sun page three for every day the three-month long show is open. He said the installation was designed to reflect how people's perceptions of British culture is shaped by the media.

While there will be in the region of 120 pieces of work – including native American, Indian and African items on loan from the British Museum and the V&A which inspired the artists – there is no room for Antony Gormley, the creator of the Angel of the North and arguably the most popular sculptor working in Britain today.

Dr Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, said she hoped the exhibition would "make people think about what is modern, what is British and what is sculpture." But she said Gormley did not fit with the story being told post-Damien Hirst, hence his absence.

The exhibition will describe the development of the home grown scene in a chronological series of themed galleries. Dr Curtis said sculpture had continued to remain something of a poor relation to other forms despite the emergence of global superstars such as Moore and Hepworth in the 1950s and 60s.

The last 20th century retrospective was staged by the Whitechapel Gallery in 1981 and cemented the reputations of the men behind it – Sandy Nairne and Sir Nicholas Serota – as well as proving a massive hit with the public. Dr Curtis said the exhibition hoped to have the same popular appeal and would end with Hirst at a time when British sculpture was in "crisis", with the next generation of artists "assailed by doubt" as they faced the difficult task of finding somewhere new to take their work.

The displays in the Academy's main galleries will also look at Britain's relationship with the Empire and the wider world through its sculpture – although Dr Curtis conceded she would have liked to have more representatives of Asian and black artists working in Britain at a time when the country and especially its capital were the centre of a global power.

Modern British Sculpture will run from 22 January until 7 April

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