Michael Glover: Of the 'greats' on display, Hepworth is the best of a bad bunch

Share
Related Topics

How much great 20th century British sculpture has there really been? Surprisingly little. When painting was transforming itself almost beyond recognition in the early decades of the 20th century, sculpture seemed woefully absent, as if it didn't really know what role to play, as if it lacked confidence in its own purpose.

Eric Gill is, frankly, poor and Epstein only fitfully convincingly wild. By the 1930s there was Henry Moore, of course – but Moore, even the early works, strikes you as oddly dated and lumpen and derivative of much older things when compared with the innovations of, say, a Frenchman called Rodin, who died in 1917.

All that slightly effortful yearning after monumentality. The tasteful, clean-lined abstract work of Hepworth was the best of all – but that is not to say a great deal. The truly exciting work in Britain before the Second World War, it has to be said, had been made by emigrés who happened to be here: another Frenchman called Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who died too soon for his own good, and a German, Kurt Schwitters, who will be represented in the Royal Academy show with a reconstruction of his Merz Barn in the courtyard. That's something to look forward to.

After the Second World War things picked up a bit. Anthony Caro, following the American example of David Smith, dragged sculpture down from the plinth, and made brightly coloured abstract works out of painted steel, but in recent years much of Caro's work has found itself queasily inhabiting an oddly unsatisfying space between figuration and abstraction.

Among recent works, the show promises to show us Hirst's 'Let's Eat Outdoors', which is a glass-enclosed picnic table covered with live flies. That sort of thing doesn't really contribute to a serious debate about the nature and role of British sculpture.

What then has been the problem with British sculpture in the 20th century? Why such timidity? Why this lack of vision? In part, it may be to do with the nature of the kind of thing that sculpture is. A successful sculpture is something seen on all sides simultaneously. It is a collective statement which exists, like architecture, to be embraced by many simultaneously.

Unlike a painting, it is not, in part at least, a private act. The Greeks knew this. The Assyrians knew this. The ancient Egyptians knew this. It requires a robust sense of nationhood to force it into being. Britain, little by little, has been losing its sense of collective purpose, its reason for being. That may be one of the reasons why its sculpture has been gurgling down the drain.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Don’t pity me for eating alone, just give me a better table

Rosie Millard
Aerial view of planned third runway at Heathrow  

Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Chris Blackhurst
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map