When I first got wind of the fact that the Royal Academy was to stage a major exhibition around the theme of bronze and its use in sculpture down the ages, a pall of gloom descended upon me.
Venerable monumental figures rose up, Grecian, Roman, Renaissance, Neo-Classical. There would be a modicum of greatness on display, but I felt that at root we were going to be treated to a show which would be embraced by every starch-collared traditionalist who had ever lived, that the Royal Academy's own reputation as the proud bearer of traditional values would be enhanced, and that, fundamentally, the past would be used as a stick with which to point up the inadequacies of the present.
How wrong I was.
This magnificent show lays out for our delectation just how brilliantly versatile bronze has been, in the past and in the present.
In spite of the fact that it reaches back five thousand years, it has no truck with chronological presentation. Each room has a different theme – gods, animals, objects, figures, etc – and within those rooms there is a hugely exhilarating mixing and matching of periods and styles.
A huge quantity of objects is on display here, but no room feels overcrowded. The rhythms of the individual rooms are good, from the single low plinth to an entire raised stage; from cabinets, to Louis Bourgeois' huge, malign spider, frozen there, half way up a wall, in the semi-dark. Individual objects are displayed just as they need to be, in order to maximise their potential impact upon us. When we stare up at Perseus holding out the head of Medusa – this is only a 19th century cast, but it still works its magic upon us - we shudder in awe at its truly overbearing monumental presence.
The alloy of copper and tin called bronze is about so much more than second-rate monumental fustian. It has tremendous strength and versatility as a material - in fact, it cannot be matched. This is why some of the complicated group scenes in this show have the power to amaze and enthral us, still – see how Hercules reaches up to interposes himself between the rearing Centaur and his victim in Adrian de Vries' 'Hercules, Nessus and Deianira' (1622) or the breathtakingly intricate pyramidal construction of Francesco Bertos' 'Sculpture, Arithmetic and Architecture.'
The only way to do this great show justice is to see it. And then again.
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