Modern British Sculpture, Royal Academy, London

Moore and Hepworth aside, our Modernists persistently failed to hit the target

Modern British Sculpture: little title, big subject.

Big, because it takes in the entire national output of a complete genus of art for the whole of the 20th century, from Lord Leighton to Damien Hirst and beyond. And big because sculpture is big, by and large.

Four hangar-sized rooms in the Royal Academy's new exhibition contain one work each, several more, just two. Excluding side-bar antiquities and ceramics, no space holds more than half-a-dozen objects. If you were to put on a show called Modern British Photography, the RA's main galleries might seem threateningly vast. As it is, Modern British Sculpture is an epic squeezed into a hundred or so works, like a Charles Marowitz rewrite of War and Peace.

So, where to start? The answer seems to be in proving that the first two words of the title of Modern British Sculpture are not a contradiction in terms. In 1932, Paul Nash asked if it was possible to "go modern" and "be British" at the same time, concluding, half-heartedly, that it might be. By 1940, Nash was changing the titles of existing works from Landscape Composition to Landscape with Megaliths, turning away from the dangers of international modernism to the blimpish comforts of napped flint and chalk down. Fifteen years later, in his Reith Lectures entitled The Englishness of English Art, Nikolaus Pevsner, Continental to his bootstraps, waxed warm on the insular charms of his subject, the product of a world of "windows that will never close and heating that will never heat". His delight is not shared by the curators of this show.

The unspoken thrust of Modern British Sculpture is that, of all the 20th-century artforms in Britain, this was the most outward-looking and advanced. Epstein's big-willied Adam arrives via a roomful of African and Oceanian art. European avant-gardists such as Picasso were turned on by primitivism, the sequence suggests, and so, our side of the Channel, was Epstein. There is a blurring of histories here, though. Picasso's époque nègre was in 1907, Adam made in 1938-39. More nationally typical than Epstein's going Continental was his doing so 30 years late.

It is a depressingly familiar story. One room, called Ceramics and the Influence of Craft, looks at the overlap between the studio pots of Bernard Leach and William Staite Murray and the art of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. That overlap was certainly there. Nicholson and Hepworth showed their work alongside Staite Murray's until a trip to Paris in 1934 alerted them to the existence of a true avant-garde. The impulse to blur the line between craft and art hadn't come from the radical Bauhaus, though, but from the late Victorian (and very English) idealism of William Morris and Roger Fry. It was the opposite of cosmopolitan, the inverse of new.

Working in the same studio as his lover Hepworth, Nicholson began to make wall sculptures that were, for a handful of post-Paris years, genuinely international and modern. One of them, 1935 (White Relief), is in this show. The war and Kenneth Clark soon put a stop to that. "Essentially German" was Clark's fatal comment on abstract art, and he, Surveyor of the King's Pictures and director of the National Gallery, called the shots. Although a wistful Nicholson later said that he hoped to be remembered by his white wall sculptures, by the mid-1940s he was back painting on canvas; pictures of Mousehole, seascapes with fishing boats.

And that is the true story of this misleading show. However you tweak the facts, British 20th-century sculpture, like British 20th-century painting, tended to lag behind. British sculptors would jump on the bandwagon of international art movements and then anglicise them. American land artists such as Robert Smithson and Walter DeMaria made epic sculptures out of the vastness of America; Richard Long strimmed them to the size of Surrey. Only Hepworth and Henry Moore made art that could hold up its head on the international stage, and even then it was largely consigned to the windswept municipal plaza.

One puzzling thing about Modern British Sculpture is its genius for scoring own goals. To prove its subject's international credentials, the curators have included works by foreign artists, who largely wipe the floor with their British followers, and in any case got there first. Seeing Long's Chalk Line next to Carl Andre's bricks or Damien Hirst's Let's Eat Outdoors Today next to Jeff Koons's One Ball does the first part of each pairing no favours. It does tell a truth about modern British sculpture, though, however inadvertent.

Next Week:

Charles Darwent sees John Stezaker and Bethan Huws at the Whitechapel

Art Choice

Gabriel Orozco's wide-ranging work (from photography to performance and sculpture) comes together for a retrospective at Tate Modern (to 24 Apr). Also in London, Spruth Magers offers new work by New York's Cindy Sherman: come face-to-face with the enigmatic characters in her photographic murals (to 19 Feb).

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