Sunday, 4 November 2012

The satyr dances

I don't feel comfortable in Piccadilly.  It's the province of the rich, who can afford its casual extravagances.  Suited and cloaked doormen - they are always men - stand at the entrances of buildings.  I would be reluctant to risk their contempt.  In Piccadilly, Fortnum and Mason's is mid-range while Pret-a-Manger is dangerously down-market.

It's partly my uneasiness with Piccadilly that keeps me away from the Royal Academy exhibitions, and partly the high cost of admission.  It's expensive even with an Art Fund card.  But when I saw the picture of the dancing satyr, I knew I had to brave Piccadilly, pay the admission price and see the exhibition in which he appeared.  It's called "Bronze" and bronze is the linking motif between all the exhibits.  It's about the material and its qualities rather than a period of history or changes in ideas.  Its focus is what stays the same.

 It's not just the material that is a constant in the exhibition.  There was also a repeated response to it from numerous visitors throughout the exhibition.  The gasps of awed admiration began as visitors opened the door to the exhibition and saw the first piece: the dancing satyr, in a room by himself.

The satyr is a recent discovery, found by fishermen in the sea off Sicily only fifteen years ago.  He's slightly larger than life-size and displayed so that viewers have to look up to him.  After his long immersion in salt-water, he's acquired a greenish patina and a slight roughness.  This only seems to aid the satyr's fluid movement.  It's as though his ecstatic dance continued without pause, whether he moved through air or water.  There's a smoothness about the curve of the limbs and body that made me want to reach out and touch him - but the flung-back head and the blank eyes speak of possession and tell the watcher to keep a distance.

So awe was there at the beginning and it continued.  There are massive statues: of saints, statesmen and peasants.  There is even Rodin's Age of Bronze which conveys uses the material to convey masculinity - or perhaps masculinity to convey the material.  There are tiny works.  Perhaps the most disturbing are the tiny copulating grasshoppers, whose image was cast by encasing them in molten metal.  There are gods and domestic objects.  Men ride horses, and panthers, battle monsters,  suffer agonies of torture or gaze sternly on the world.

Women are less in evidence.  There are goddesses and rulers; a stern and prickly Catherine de Medici, showing off the fashion of the day, is particularly memorable.  There are grief-stricken madonnas and a wonderful South Indian sculpture of the infant Krishna with his wet-nurse Mukhara.  And there are objects of desire - often small pieces presumably intended for private collectors.  Venus (naked, of course) removes a thorn from her foot, a satyr uncovers a sleeping nymph and, in another piece, a satyr and nymph are engaged in enthusiastic sexual intimacy.  It's a mark of the exhibition's focus on the craft of casting that my first thought on seeing this explicit and detailed piece was awe at the skill involved in creating so fragile a scenario in bronze.  Most of the workers in bronze have traditionally been men, so far as we can tell, but two twentieth-century pieces by women sculptors had a considerable impact: a large Louise Bourgeois spider mounted high on the wall and a curved abstract piece by Barbara Hepworth, which seemed to echo the sea evoked in the dancing satyr.

It's impossible to go into detail about all that is wonderful in an exhibition so far-ranging.  The Royal Academy has borrowed pieces from many parts of the world, inviting viewers to make comparisons across cultures and time.  I found myself particularly struck by a small chariot from Denmark made of bronze and gold in the 14th century B.C.  No-one knows its purpose or why the horse is placed within the chariot rather than pulling it along.  It is tiny, delicate and magical in its incomprehensibility - and the gilding on the circle which may be a sun, a shield or a great wheel is a thing of wonder.  And, as the films shown in the exhibition display, it was probably made by one of the two main methods still in use all over the world today.

Coming away from this exhibition, I knew it had changed something in the way in which I saw the world.  It had encouraged me to make comparisons and connections across cultures.  It had helped me look at art through the materials it uses rather than just the period in which it was made.  And it showed me the flexibility of that material in conveying a huge range of emotions and evoking numerous responses.  I wondered if there was any emotion it could not show or evoke.  Then I realised what was missing from that range which included desire, ecstasy, pride, fear, admiration and awe.  A word trickled into my mind and reminded me that one emotion and response had been absence.  Maybe bronze is for every emotion, every response - except love.


Kathz said...

And it was worth the admission price - and the walk down Piccadilly. This is one of the greatest exhibitions I have ever seen.

Anonymous said...

It certainly is a wonderful material, can produce gorgeous effects, a wonderful way to preserve an item. Up here there is some questionable public art relating to the coalfield and in my opinion chosen by ppl of dubious taste and ability, bafflingly no-one has yet thought of using the incredible sculptures of pitmen at work by Harry Wilson sculptures p.54 Wm Feavers book 'Pitmen Painters'. And the museum nearby when I went in a couple of years was hung dreadfully.

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