Exhibitions United Kingdom

Bronzes take first place at Royal Academy

Five millennia of sculpture aims to connect Cellini, Koons and Benin bronzes

Who likes bronze the best? Giovanfrancesco Rustici's The Pharisee, St John the Baptist and The Levite from The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist, 1511, from the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore (Photo: Antonio Quattrone, Florence)

Museums aren’t all about painting, as the Royal Academy’s “Bronze” exhibition (15 September-9 December) aims to prove. “We’re trying to bring objects together in a surprising way, so maybe [visitors] won’t rush past the sculpture wings in museums anymore,” says David Ekserdjian the co-curator of the exhibition along with Cecilia Treves, the curator of exhibitions at the Royal Academy, London.

To keep the installation interesting, works from wildly differing time periods and movements have been placed next to each other, showing how the material has been used in artistic production through the ages. The show includes over 150 bronzes from Asia, Europe and Africa and covers a period of five millennia. “The idea sprang to me by considering the relationships and correspondences that are especially evident with bronze—it has both range and kinship across different cultures,” says Ekserdjian.

For example, Louise Bourgeois’ Spider IV, 1996, on loan from the Easton Foundation, lies not far from the Etruscan Chimaera of Arezzo, around 400BC, from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence; Umberto Boccioni’s modernist Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, from the Tate, leads the viewer to a confrontation with a large 1844 cast by Clemente Papi of the Renaissance masterpiece Perseus and Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini, from the Italian Gardens at the Trentham Estate; Jeff Koons’s irreverent bronze Basketball, 1985, from the JP Morgan Chase Art Collection, gives way to Henri Matisse’s increasingly abstract Back series of four nudes, 1908-31, also on loan from the Tate.

Bronze has found favour with many artists because of its strength and malleability, Ekserdjian says. “It’s the antithesis of stone and marble—there is a huge range of poses available with this material,” he adds, pointing to the energetic and extravagant pose of The Dancing Satyr, the two-metre bronze sculpture from the fourth century BC, on loan from the Museo del Satiro in Marzara del Vallo, Italy, which greets visitors as they enter the exhibition.

There are no controversial Degas bronzes on view because “they were made posthumously”, Ekserdjian says, while most of the Benin bronzes on view come from the National Museum in Lagos rather than the British Museum, London. “We preferred to show Benin bronzes that people are less likely to have seen before”.

Ekserdjian had dreamed of putting on this show for around 20 years but was unsure that anyone would accept it, given the wide range of works and the sheer number of institutions involved in lending them, from private houses to international museums. He accepts that some works, of course, are “too iconic” to move, such as Donatello’s David, or the Riace Bronzes, and that this is just a selection of a vast genre. “We deliberately avoided a didactic or academically pedantic show —we wanted every piece to be a visual knockout.”

Head with Crown, Nigeria, Ife, 14th–early 15th centuries, from the National Museum, Lagos (Photo: Scala, Florence)
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