This exhibition of British sculpture in the 20th century presents a dizzying array of artworks.
Each of the 12 rooms is organised around a theme. So, one titled Theft By Finding, seems to deliberately court controversy in its exploration of British artists’ debt to the art from the British Empire.
Here 20th century sculpture carved in stone and wood stands beside ancient artefacts from around the world.
It opens up a debate on what Western artists owe to what many of them would have called “the primitive”. The exhibition is far from straightforwardly staid or conservative.
And, it examines the Royal Academy’s own role in the art of the last 100 years. Three past presidents of the Academy have a sculpture in a room alongside Alfred Gilbert’s extraordinary overblown fantasy of Queen Victoria (1901).
Normally, on public display outside in Newcastle, Gilbert’s bronze monarch dwarfs spectators as she sits on her throne among a clutter of architectural trappings.
By contrast in another room you will find a Damien Hirst’s mangy Let’s Eat Outdoors Today, a dysfunctional barbeque complete with rotting meat and scenes of cruelty to flies.
Elsewhere is an apparent attack on monotheistic religion by John Latham, in his God is Great, where copies of the Torah, the Koran, and the Bible seem to be jammed into shattered glass like stuck projectiles.
You are unlikely to see these works again in the same setting as a full size mock-up of Edwin Lutyens’s Cenotaph (possibly you last saw the original in the heart of a student demonstration with a protester swinging on it).
Sometimes the exhibition tries too hard to avoid foisting single view of official sculpture. Instead it tries to have it both ways, simultaneously cherry-picking well-known sculptures and including artworks that try to subvert this history.
It is prominently sponsored by American Express.
Though that doesn’t stop it presenting Gustav Metzger’s collage of the latest arts news that seems to equate the art industry with, on the other wall, the objectification of women on page 3 of the Sun.
Sculpture can overawe and dominate—look at Jacob Epstein’s colossal, phallocentric marble figure of Adam—and here this combines with attempts to direct the viewer’s thoughts. Eventually this sent me off to seek respite.
It was good to escape from too much stone and bronze with lighter works. Take Ben Nicholson’s small abstract relief, made of flimsy materials or the welcome humour of Self Burial, a series of nine black and white photographs by Keith Arnatt, which show the artist in deadpan mode being buried stage by stage.
Given its overarching title, I was worried about the artists who have been omitted—there is no Rachel Whiteread or Mark Wallinger. But this exhibition is more than just a tick-box list of well-known names. And that is its strength.
Modern British Sculpture
Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD until 7 April. £12. www.royalacademy.org.uk
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