I heard a critic on the radio the other day claiming he'd almost fainted in front of one of the exhibits at the Royal Academy's latest exhibition, and I'm afraid I gave a little plosive puff of derision. "Oh do get over yourself," I thought, assuming he was just parading the refinement of his sensibility. Then I went to see the exhibition – Bronze – and found myself wondering whether I'd perhaps been a little harsh. And it wasn't that my own consciousness fluttered in the face of a masterwork (I've never succumbed to Stendhal's syndrome, despite a secret longing to one day crumple to the floor in an excess of aesthetic rapture). It was just that I could understand why the show itself might have rendered him a little breathless. It is, by some considerable stretch, the best thing I've seen at the Royal Academy in the past 10 years, and it's one of those exhibitions that leaves you feeling oddly emotional.
Emotions aren't supposed to be odd in art galleries, of course. They're meant to be indispensable. But they're usually associated with one work at a time. You feel something discrete in front of a single object or artwork, and it would almost seem like a diminution of your feelings if you were to indiscriminately paste this response over the other exhibits. But in Bronze, there's definitely an accumulative effect. Individual works are remarkable and very moving. But there's something about the whole that is distinct from its individual components. It's not just that it's full of remarkable things and that they start to get a bit overwhelming (though that's true). It's that there's a connection between the individual works that strengthens with every room you go into. And – rather obviously, perhaps – it comes from the material from which every work here is made.
One of the show's pleasures is its depiction of just how many effects bronze can deliver. If you fear a study in shiny brownness your fear will be dispelled almost instantly, by the sight of the fourth-century Dancing Satyr, which capers alone in the darkness of the opening room, offering a sculptural reminder of the leaping god in Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne, and a surface that recalls all the colours of Titian's trees.
There are pieces here that are massy and pieces that are minutely detailed, some that are prodigies of smoothness and polish, others that exploit the rough texture that bronze can preserve. But one of its greatest strengths is a levelling effect. This comes partly from a curatorial boldness about mixing works from different eras and cultures. But the bronze magnifies the effect enormously. A work made less than 10 years ago can have a finish that makes it look more venerable than one made 2,000 years ago. And because of that you find yourself reacting to these pieces as if they share the same conceptual space.
You could argue that this is a sentimental delusion. Presumably some disgruntled scholars will, indignant at the fact that a Nigerian votive figure (made for religious motives we know little about) sits close to a piece that owes more to the traditions of European art history. But whether the sense of common purpose is an illusion or not it's very powerful and very touching. You look at a Hellenistic horse's head from the fourth-century BC and see that there's a direct connection with work being made a millennia later, by artists humbled by the talent of their predecessors.
Or you examine a South Indian bronze of the infant Krishna being breast-fed and understand at once how little the specifics of religion matter, given the universality of that gesture. Erasing time altogether in some cases, and blurring the borders between cultures in others, Bronze offers a paradoxical thing – a group show by creators who lived thousands of years apart. As I say I didn't feel like fainting but I can't stop thinking about the things I saw.
Marginalia without frontiers
English PEN, the writers' fellowship that promotes free expression and literature across frontiers, is cleverly exploiting added value in a fund-raising idea. Its president, Gillian Slovo, tells me of a scheme ("First Editions, Second Thoughts") inviting authors to annotate a first edition of one of their own books. Writers can make marginal comments, add doodles – and copies will be auctioned. Many past Man Booker prize winners will take part, and there is a plan to make a selection available on a website. Perhaps when the e-book comes of age we'll get author commentary as a standard extra. Until then, this ingenious idea is the next best thing.
Warning! This film is art-core
We've become familiar with warnings about strobe effects at the entrance to theatres – but, as far as I'm aware, I've never seen a similar disclaimer in a cinema. I wondered why when I watched Guy Maddin's Keyhole, a delirious exercise in arthouse surrealism which mashes film-noir lighting with early montage techniques. It's intermittently very funny, intermittently very beautiful, unremittingly baffling – intermittence is its main aesthetic quality. And since it features deep contrasts of dark and light, plus shock cuts, I'd say it's the flashiest film I've seen for years – in a literally visual sense. I don't imagine a huge section of the population will be exposed but if you have photosensitive epilepsy, you've been warned.Reuse content