The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
The first thing you see is a lone dancing satyr.
Cast in bronze with inset alabaster eyes by Hellenistic foundry workers about 3000 years ago, it was rescued from the sea bed by fisherfolk in 1997. Its presence is breathtaking. Dramatically lit and larger than life, so expressive are its pose and facial expression and so finely observed and modeled are its anatomy and musculature that despite having lost its arms and one leg it still exudes the abandonment and grace of a young dancer.
Its survival is partly due to the enduring quality of the materials and processes from which it was made. Cast bronze's durability, versatility of surface finishes and ability to incorporate other materials has led it to be used by almost all major civilisations in Africa, Asia and Europe.
The Royal Academy's ambitious exhibition ranges over time and space in a dizzyingly rich display of over 150 bronze sculptures. These range from the Nordic Chariot Of The Sun, elegantly modeled and gilded with tooled gold 14 centuries before the Christian era, to Anish Kapoor's Untitled, a gleaming lacquered convex disc which reflects all who gaze into its inscrutable surface.
Instead of grouping the works according to chronology or culture they are presented according to their subjects - human figures, animals, objects, reliefs, gods and portraits. Facing the Hellenistic satyr is David Smith's mid-1950s Portrait Of A Painter in which geometric shapes denote limbs and body, a painter's palette becomes a head while a cobbler's last forms a foot. Initially created as an assemblage from welded steel and found objects it exemplifies the modernist rejection of the classical tradition, yet like many modernists Smith had his work cast in bronze, that most traditional material and process.
Such juxtapositions can lead us to make unexpected connections and discoveries.
Smith's figure stands between two 19th century ones - Rodin's naked youth personifying the Age Of Bronze appears to stretch and awaken to the progressive age before our very eyes. In contrast the tired face, exhausted stance and crudely fashioned clogs of Dalou's realist Great Peasant signifies the exploitation of his class. A precursor to countless portrayals of peasants in the ex-Soviet block it is the only overtly socialist work in the exhibition.
Among numerous other smaller figures is an equally realistic male Seated Figure created in Nigeria in about the 14th century and used in fertility rituals. Facing it is the 11th-century Cambodian Kneeling Woman, the pared down graceful curves of her body and drapery conveying her yogic serenity.
The finesse of selection from closely observed nature which underly the naturalistic 16th-century Nigerian Ife and Benin portraits, with their delicately judged decorative surfaces, make their contemporary European counterparts appear fussily detailed in comparison.
There is humour among the continual surprises. A dumpy rotund elephant from 11th century China makes you want to laugh out loud. Its ornately tooled surface echoes that on a pair of 16th century Benin leopards, aloof as aristocrats, while Nandi, cast in 12th-century southern India, is a well fed bull who almost chuckles with contentment.
Grouping by subject celebrates the creativity and skilfulness of all humankind and provides a commendable challenge to residues of Eurocentric superiority.
Yet it underplays the sculptures' different socio-political contexts and risks limiting our responses to the works' aesthetic and technical aspects.
Satiated by the sheer richness and variety available, like children in a toy shop we dart wildly across millennia, centuries and cultures, marveling at the undoubted beauty and craftsmanship of these works so having little energy left to consider their vastly differing conditions of patronage, creative intention and function.
Far from being a cute animal the 12th-century Indian Nandi bull represents a Hindu deity, a doorkeeper to the god Shiva. It shares no ideology or function with representations of animals such as Barye's Tiger Devouring A Gavial of 1832, a European sculpture which celebrates naked aggression and domination.Yet both are displayed under the same category.
However, while discouraging ideological interpretations of specific works such curating may spark questions and ideas which could be followed up by further study.
The exhibition's design and lighting are excellent as is its stress on the collaborative nature of cast sculpture in which interdependent sculptors and foundry workers work closely together. An excellent and popular room is devoted to demonstrating various complex and dangerous casting processes and the variety of possible finishes. Burnished, bejeweled, lacquered, polished, gilded, inlaid with gold or silver, etched with decorative patterns bronze is fashioned into a multitude of surfaces.
Finally the sheer quality of craft, feeling and intellect which underlies the works gathered under one roof is stunning.
The figure sculptures in the first two rooms alone would make a visit worthwhile. It is expensive but if you get a chance to see this exhibition, grasp it.
Runs until December 9. Box office: (020) 7300-8000.
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