SCULPTURE / King of the dead and destroyed: Sir Anthony Caro's Trojan sculptures depart from tradition in more ways than one. Iain Gale reports from Kenwood House

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The Independent Culture
In 1775, when William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield, commissioned his portrait from the painter David Martin he asked to be shown in contemplation of a bust of Homer. For the last 200 years, this advertisement for aristocratic erudition has hung in Murray's library at Kenwood House, with the bust itself close at hand. Recently, however, only a few steps away, another image of the epic poet has been installed. On a metal tripod sits a lump of clay. This is another way of seeing Homer which points the way to a new interpretation of the Iliad that Murray, for all his boastful classicism, would be hard-pressed to understand.

This is Homer as seen by Anthony Caro. At the age of 70, the abstract sculptor has taken a startling new direction, finding inspiration in the Trojan War. It began by chance. In April 1993 Caro stayed on the Cote d'Azure, working with a ceramicist. 'I worked very loosely, intuitively, and I hadn't realised, until I unpacked the clays back in the studio, that what I was making were warriors.' That they should be Greek and Trojan warriors was a natural development. Caro was reading a copy of the Iliad (the Fitzgerald translation) at the time and 'began to know all the characters quite intimately'. Gradually each piece of clay, fixed to a pedestal, started to take on the attributes of one of the characters of the poem. For Caro it was an entirely new way of working. 'It's been very odd for me. But it's such fun to push against the rules you've made for yourself.'

Since 1960, Caro's style of minimalism, using I-section beams, aluminium tubing and industrial steel plates, has made the rules for several generations of British sculptors. He has created an original sculptural aesthetic in which space, flowing form and the qualities of the material itself are paramount. As Clement Greenberg put it in 1965: 'No other sculptor has gone as far from the structural logic of ordinary, ponderable things.'

Here, at Kenwood, though, his exhibition is filled with 'ponderable things'. The sculptures, while not figuratively mimetic, are clearly identifiable as individual entities. The artist has turned his own long-established principles on their head. Caro is conscious of the change and of the implicit dangers. He points to his sculpture Iphition, a dead Trojan warrior; a jumble of clay and steel on a red base: 'I got that colour exactly like blood at first, but it was too realistic. So I pulled back. Sometimes I even found myself making real helmets. It's easy to go too far.'

Caro's wariness points up the contrast between his approach to the Iliad and that of the 18th-century neo-classicists who were the last artists to tackle his subject. The second half of the 18th century saw an explosion of interest in Homeric subject matter, from the two series on the Iliad produced by the Scottish painter Gavin Hamilton and the founder Royal Academician Angelica Kauffmann in the 1760s and 1770s to David's magnificent Funeral of Patroclus submitted to the Academie in 1781 and John Flaxman's celebrated volume of line drawings on the Trojan War commissioned in 1793.

Of these, it is only Hamilton with whom Caro shares a purpose, both artists using the story as the basis for an inquiry into human nature.

For Hamilton, Homer was a natural poet; the pre-classical bard who bridged the gap between barbarism and classical restraint and through this he becomes the precursor of the modern cult of primitivism. Even for Hamilton, though, as with his contemporaries the chief concern was to create a noble, 'classical' elegance in the appearance of his protagonists. Caro's Iliad, by contrast, is uncompromisingly brutal, a Bronze Age conflict, unadorned by the trappings of an imaginary Arcadia.

Ironically, Caro is closer to the 'reality' of his Trojan War than any of his predecessors. We should remember that Homer was a poet of the 8th century BC writing about events which had occured some 500 years earlier. The classical 4th-century BC Greek reading the Iliad is similar to today's reader encountering Shakespeare's Macbeth. For David and Hamilton to clothe their heroes in armour based on 4th-century findings of 18th-century archeologists was as anachronistic as Shakespeare dressing the Thane in a doublet. Similarly, true Homeric warfare compares less to Flaxman's gentlemanly heroics than to an ancient spaghetti western. There are no plumes or gold breastplates here, just leather, bent metal and bare flesh. Such is the nature of Caro's heroes, whose flesh of clay contrasts starkly with twisted metal shapes in which the viewer is tempted to identify specific pieces of armour: here a greave, there an armlet. Such elements are most evident in Hector; a mass of clay / flesh and metal / armour, graphically transfixed by what can only be a spear. Caro does not deny such specificity: 'The metal in the warriors is all to do with armour and physicality.'

For 'physicality' read 'brutality'. Homer's Iliad doesn't pull any punches. When Achilles' spear pierces Diomedes' helmet we are told: 'boring through the metal and skull the bronze spearpoint pounded, Diomedes' brains spattered all inside his casque.' Homer's theme is violence. The war is provoked by one man's lust for a promiscuous woman. As Caro says: 'Helen's the pin-up. She's the golden girl and she doesn't have any feelings at all.' As a sculpture too Helen is bland and gilded. The most abstract of these works, she is also an abstraction of female beauty.

Likewise, each major character can be seen as an archetype of a human characteristic and sometimes of a condition of humanity. Caro's Achilles; a taut framework of hard steel, is both the archetypal warrior and war itself. His Andromache, two triangles balanced together at a central point, surmounted by a veiled 'head', is at once the mourning wife of Hector and all grieving women. Equally, she is an archaic sculpture and a brutalist abstract, working both literally and through pure form. The triangles, which suggest hands held in grief, also contain a geometrical tension which, transformed into emotion, is directed into the stomach, the womb. Only Caro could have achieved this. He has not, after all, abandoned his principles, but has married his characteristic rigour to a secondary level of meaning, to achieve a remarkable tour de force. Colour too has been unusually important, as he explains: 'Because you're not looking purely at the form. The colour accentuates the emotion.'

Such human emotion is central to Homer's epic and the same can be said for Caro's work. Although his sculptures are not strictly narrative, they do imply a dialogue. 'It's a kind of narrative,' he admits. 'It's something I've never done. I've always said that I wanted sculptures not to be that. Yet it seems to me now that my abstraction is strong enough in itself to bear a lot of strain. The room is a kind of battlefield. You are invited in by Death and Sleep and you see the gods sitting up on a stage. Then you have the Acaeans, then the Trojans and finally Troy.'

The city towers over everything: the archetype of the 'polis' - the seat of learning. In patinated steel and fluid clay, Caro's Troy is burning. This is a city of raped women and of children hurled from battlements. It is a civilisation obliterated; a final solution. Troy is total war. It is every war and a requiem for the dead of all wars. In Caro's hands, Homer's tale is revitalised as a parable of hubris, friendship and revenge, of folly and the ubiquitous necessity of war. As Caro says: 'War is such a human propensity. You think, 'Why do they do it?' It's hard to believe that people can behave like barbarians. You ask, 'Is my Trojan war anything to do with contemporary events? It's more to do with the sort of brutality we've seen in Bosnia than with the Greek and Trojan heroes we're meant to admire. It's about fighting and it's about being human.'

On show at Kenwood House, to 6 April. The exhibition will reopen at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in November.

(Photograph omitted)