Inspiration from the abstract at the Royal Academy

It is strange to think that when I first started my art course in the autumn of 2011, people were seriously having debates about whether painting had a future. Of course, in truth, artists had never stopped painting but students seemed to be doing it in rather an apologetic way.  I met people who worried that painting pictures of recognisable things was not really contemporary.  Equally, abstract art was not seen as the answer either;  why that had had its heyday with the Abstract Expressionists and was well and truly over. There was nothing more to say, it was implied. Conceptual art ruled.

I was not convinced.  In the summer of 2012 I wrote a post about my disappointment that in one Art and Design Degree Show, there was not a single painting to be seen; it was at the same time as cave paintings were being attributed to  Neanderthals and I argued that if painting had been around for approximately 41,000 years it was unlikely to stop any time soon. Just as in the financial markets, at the very point that people are saying that the price of shares or  oil, or cotton or houses will never go up again or, conversely, never fall, the change is already happening. It turns out that, four years later, painters of all kinds are doing well and are decidedly less apologetic. More paintings are appearing in degree shows. My friend Jesse Waugh appears to be making headway with his declared movement Pulchrism . A contemporary gallerist told me  recently that there was strong demand for paintings with a representational element. So paintings of things or people are now ok.

What about abstract art? Is that thriving too in the art college?. Of course it too has never entirely gone away but has been simmering on the back burner.  Thanks to the Abstract Expressionist Exhibition at the Royal Academy, new and young artists could be inspired afresh; I predict that in a reaction to the recent popularity of representational and semi-representational works there will soon be an explosion of new abstract paintings appearing in galleries. Indeed,  Cass Art and the Royal Academy have launched a competition for those who  make contemporary abstract works inspired by the Abstract Expressionist movement for an exhibition that will take place this November in Islington.

Jackson Pollock: Blue Poles

Having visited the exhibition twice I find it hard to believe that artists could not be inspired. It is always interesting to see paintings that one has previously known from reproductions and in this exhibition there were so many -including the drip paintings  by Jackson Pollock, extraordinary colour studies by Rothco and the enormous and dramatic works of Clifford Still . What I found particularly fascinating was the way that the RA arranged the exhibition so that you could see the sources and roots of the movement arising from cubism and surrealism, the innovation and energy that was current in the 40s and 50s when the movement loose enough for artists explore very different avenues but at the same time united by some common principles that came to have a political dimension of their own. It was also evident that the later works were less impressive, so that they became almost pastiche on themselves. Enough time has passed now that artists today can feed on that excitement without feeling constrained by the sense that the movement is over.

Clifford Still: PH -950

For entrants in the RA/Cass art competition creating the perfect response will of course be difficult, particularly as the competition limits the size of 2D works to 1 metre on the longest side. Size was certainly a dominant characteristic but then so was colour, so was vigour and in some works so was violence. Abstract Expressionism was a response to the horrors of the period, two devastating world wars, the atomic bomb and the cold war. In this new millennium we have dark days of our own. It will be interesting to see how a new generation of artists use the abstract to express their own emotions about the state of the world.

Abstract Expressionism is running at the Royal Academy until January 2 2017.

The deadline for submissions to the Royal Academy and Cass Art competition is October 16.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

It was only the day before yesterday that a friend told me of her intention to make an artwork about the refugee crisis which set me musing about the role of the artist as political commentator. I felt that while there had been great paintings and sculptures in the past, the most effective points were now made by the photo-journalist, the documentary film maker, the cartoonist or graffitist. Then I visited the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy and did a complete 180 degree turn. The exhibition is everything you could want art to be: thought-provoking, moving, original and beautiful – and undoubtedly political.

It was brilliant timing by the Royal Academy to be running the exhibition at the same time as the visit by  President Xi Jinping. It proved that while the long arm of the regime was able to ensure that he was cheered the length of the Mall, and that although our leaders smiled and fed him turbot and venison, he would have been aware that not everybody in the UK had forgotten China’s record on human rights. Along with the pointed absence of Prince Charles, it maybe rankled a bit to know that less than a mile away were huge banners celebrating an artist that the regime had so ineffectively tried to suppress. If President Xi’s minions had passed on to him news of what was in the exhibition,  as surely they must, he would have known that it included tableaux of Ai himself being held in detention as well as pictures of the studio which the authorities first of all encouraged and then knocked down.

Ai Weiwei: Tree Sculpture

The exhibition starts with the impressive and somewhat ominous reconstructed trees in the courtyard and the grand scale continues inside. Nearly everything seemed out-sized. Unusually, photography was allowed for this exhibition, I imagine Ai Weiwei is against institutions forbidding things. Amid the visitors clicking away, the photo police, usually so diligent in the pursuit of their duties seemed at a bit of a loss, though one did manage to point out that I had got too close to these beautifully joined stools – I had missed a magic line on the floor; presumably you or the art turned into dust if it were crossed.

Ai Weiwei sculpture showing linked stools
Ai Weiwei: Grapes

Indeed, throughout the exhibition there is much carefully crafted joinery to admire. Ai has commissioned craftsmen to carve intricate metre high cubes, to intervene with antique tables so that they stood elegantly but uselessly on two legs. Work after work bore testament to a vanishing China but also made you question value in art both for the ancient and the contemporary.

Ai Weiwei: Bed
Ai Weiwei: Bed

This work Bed is made of dismantled temples and represents a map of China which you can apparently only see by looking at the cross section. My geography was not up to identifying the similarities: I was just bowled over by the extraordinary skill with which it has been put together.

Ai Weiwei: Bed (detail)
Ai Weiwei: Bed (detail)

Of course Ai does not take out a chisel himself. If there is a debate about the role of the artist as political commentator, he is also a prime subject about that other perennial debate about whether an artist should make his or her own works. Ai’s skill lies not in his making abilities but in his extraordinary powers of conception. By harnessing armies of artisans he can create on a truly monumental scale.

At the centre of the Royal Academy, in the grandest room, was the most moving work. It was made out of steel reinforcing bars and is a memorial to all those who died in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, where some twenty schools collapsed, killing more than five thousand students. Ai clandestinely purchased the substandard steel that should have saved them and had 200 tonnes transported to his studio where it was painstakingly straightened by hand. The result is Straight. Around the walls are the names of the students who died.

Ai Weiwei: Straight
Ai Weiwei: Straight

Before signing up China to build nuclear power stations in the UK, David Cameron and George Osborne should visit the Ai exhibition; they should look at the pile of straightened steel and read the 5,000 names on the wall. They should think of the children who had died because corrupt officials had skimped on earthquake proofing for personal gain. If China has such a poor regard for its own citizens, and if, rather than tackle corruption, it would prefer to muzzle an artist of Ai’s stature, why does our Government imagine they will have any regard for the well-being or safety of people five thousand miles away?

They should also note one of the smaller works: two books about art published by Phaedon. They appear identical, and are open at the same page. Then you notice that they are not the same: in the Chinese edition, the entry on Ai Weiwei has been omitted and replaced by another artist. Dealing with the Chinese comes at a price.

Ai Weiwei is showing at the Royal Academy until December 13

Would Rubens recognise a Kebab?

Back in 1994, the New York police mounted a sting by circulating a leaflet saying that a film crew wanted to film graffiti artists at work and those featuring in the film would get a free trip to Los Angeles.  When the unfortunate youths had demonstrated their style and identified examples of their work, the film crew whipped out the handcuffs and nabbed them. I thought of this when, unexpectedly, I received an invitation from the Royal Academy to attend a bloggers evening to see the new Rubens and his Legacy Exhibition.  I kept expecting the photo police to jump out from behind the bar and cackle– “you lot are the worst offenders for taking unauthorised photographs,” and then herd us into some lock up in the basement.

But of course they didn’t and instead gave us a glass of wine, asked us very nicely not to take photographs of the exhibitions (and because I was  their guest I haven’t,  though a glass of wine does not necessarily buy my good behaviour on future occasions.) One of the RA’s experts also gave us a talk and told us quite a bit about Rubens which included the fact he was one of the most successful artists of his time and made over 5,000 paintings and drawings during his lifetime, making him very rich. Also that four years after his wife died, he married his niece, Helen Fourmant when she was just 16. He was 53, which was thought distasteful at the time. And remains so today.

The speaker also told us about a conversation he had had in the modern part of the exhibition which has been curated by Jenny Saville and includes Sarah LucasTwo Fried Eggs and a Kebab. A member of the public had maintained that it was not art and it surprised him that such attitudes still existed. I was surprised that he was surprised . But I did possibly have something in common with that unnamed member of the public, while I was happy to agree that the work is art, I couldn’t see what it possibly had to do with Rubens.

The exhibition does have a few fine paintings by the Master, including Garden of Love where all the women are disconcertingly modeled on Helen Fourmant. But if Rubens really did paint something in the order of 5,000, you would have thought that the folks at the RA would have managed to lay their hands on more of them. They have only managed to bring together six of his major works and, to make up for this,  the exhibition is padded out with a job lot of paintings that are supposed to have been influenced by him.  But it doesn’t really work . I can’t believe that when Constable was sketching out the Haywain he was thinking much of the fact that Rubens had also done a landscape; I think he was looking at the wide open skies around Dedham . Similarly artists had been painting Nativity scenes for centuries before  Rubens and it was hardly surprising that they continued to do so afterwards.

But it was  in the contemporary gallery that this kind of pretence that Rubens was single-handedly responsible for virtually all art became the most ridiculous. I often find that viewing contemporary works at the same outing as more classical paintings is a bit indigestible. It’s like starting a meal with wonderful roast beef and then finding the next course is a delicious spicy curry. Both are good It’s just not what you want together. Nonetheless, having started on this course of bringing in a whole lot of other painters who were supposedly influenced by Rubens, I can see why they chose Jenny Saville to do the curation of the recent stuff. In her large fleshy nudes, it is possible to see a line of direct influence. But Saville chose to include a work of her own that she made specifically for the exhibition. A near monochrome in charcoal with just touches of colour it was surprisingly different in style; it is called Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela).

The Rubens  influence appeared researched rather than emotional. Doing away with her habitual obsession with flesh, Saville has chosen to do her own version of the grisly myth, told by Ovid, in which  Philomela is raped by her brother in law Tereus, the king of Thrace who then, for good measure,  tears her tongue out.  She becomes a nightingale, whilst her sister revenges her by serving  the king his own son’s flesh at a banquet. Whilst Rubens indeed painted this subject, it is hard to imagine that Saville would have gone there if not asked to curate the exhibition. In some of the choices the links become extremely  tenuous. Lucien Freud’s works clearly shows signs of having benefited from the Rubens legacy, though the painting on show is not one of his better ones, but what about  William de Kooning? He used pink paint sometimes; Rubens used pink paint; is that it? As for the Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, surely the fried eggs metaphor depicts flat chested women, hardly the best example of Rubens’ influence.I can’t believe that Rubens himself would have claimed responsibility.

So if you go to the exhibition you can expect annoyances. Even so, I felt it was well worth the visit if only to see two paintings. The first was the hunting scene widely used in the RA advertising. This is quite extraordinary, the tensions, the detail and the sheer virtuosity is dazzling,  But my favourite was Maria Grimaldi and her Dwart. I spent ages looking at it. Seen full-size it is immensely powerful. You cannot help but want to know  more about their lives.  There is such a contrast between her beauty, her perfect proportions, his enormous head and unreadable expression.  I still keep wondering about his opinion of the portrait and whether he liked how he was depicted.

Rubens and His Legacy is showing at the Royal Academy until 10 April 2015.

Is the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition getting better?

I finally caught up with the Royal Academy Summer Show and found some works which I thought really exciting. This of course shouldn’t be a matter of surprise; there is always work there which is interesting and innovative. But the Summer Exhibition does not always give that impression: the sheer numbers of works on offer and the density of the hanging can make the good stuff  hard to spot. This year it felt a little more authoritative and a bit less like a local art show multiplied a hundred times. It was helped by the fact that the organisers had managed to bring in several really major works. I particularly admired the Anselm Kiefer;  I have seen loads of photographs of  Kiefer paintings but not enough of the real thing so I was pleased to discover that the RA is having a  major Kiefer retrospective from September 27 to December 14.


There was also a fine sculpture by the late Sir Anthony Caro


and a small and rather desirable sculpture by Phyllida Barlow which would be rather easier to place around the house than  Dock now showing at the Tate. It costs £60,000, and I idly tried to work out how much the Tate exhibition would be worth if it were priced pro rata by volume: I reckoned something of the order of £25 billion.



What is wonderful in any show, is when you find a new artist whose work you really like. The Caro and the Barlow were both in Gallery IV, curated by Hughie O’Donoghue and so was this piece by Irish artist Paul Mosse. It doesn’t photograph as well as it appears in real life, but, even here, you can see that the texture is fascinating.  It seemed, so far as I could judge, to be made at least in part by splintered wood. It made me look up Mosse’s other work. The interesting, muddy pink, fleshy colour appears quite a lot and on his website there were larger ones that I liked even better. Mosse tends to use unconventional and abject materials including packaging, dust, nails,  the everyday detritus of modern life. He works a lot by constructing,  deconstructing and restructuring  to produce a layered effect with fracturing and fissuring playing an important part. Though some of his works are proper 3D sculptures others, like this,  he describes as 2½D


Also in this room were works by the Guyanian born artist Frank Bowling. Bowling is known as a colourist and I particularly liked the vibrancy of Buttoned it up again from Barney and Marko. These pieces have a simplicity which is entirely deceptive. This work  essentially comprises three bands of  shaded colour plus some gold bits; anyone could do it, you might think,  but try yourself to produce banded colour that works and you suddenly find  how difficult it is. Those edges don’t just happen like that by themselves. Look at the photograph of the Caro and you can also see hanging above it, another of Bowling’s banded works – this time in blues and pinks and reds.


There was of course loads of stuff which I  did not like at all, some because it just seemed boring, or garish, other times remarkably amateurish, or all three. It made me muse about the Grayson Perry sentiment quoted on the RA website that “the difference between an amateur and professional artist is interesting. A professional is someone who got lucky and found an audience willing to pay for their work.” There is luck and luck. As I went round every now and then I would see a small picture which I liked and look it up only to find it was done by a name I recognised; often it was Cornelia Parker. Those that get lucky appear to have something that differentiates them from the rest.

However, I continue to be unimpressed with Martin Creed. Really, what is the point of a neon spelling out Assholes? Apart from anything else, Creed is British and should know that it is spelt Arseholes.

work illustration

I have this image of Creed’s headmaster telling him, “it is not clever and it is not funny.” The headmaster was wrong;  it may not be funny, but  it certainly is clever when you can get the British public to pay for them. They come as an edition of three each costing £53,036.

There were the oddities too. Towards the end of the exhibition was a work by James Turrell  called Sensing Thought which comprised a rectangle of light which the blurb on the wall said drew viewers in and held their attention. Surprisingly, I found it did just that, though the contemplative atmosphere was somewhat marred by a rather anoying soundtrack which I initially took to be part of the work but which then appeared to be coming from an exhibit next door.











In the architectural room there was a bicycle by Ron Arad, mystifyingly  called Two Nuns. It  was a striking enough object and which I took at first to be entirely sculptural.  A video on the wall showed that it could actually be ridden and suddenly it became a whole lot more interesting, though costing £100,000 it might be prudent not to use it for the daily commute and leave it chained up at the station bicycle rack.



You see I have put the price in again. That in itself is part of the fascination of the Summer Exhibition – the prices are visible. Everywhere you go, you hear people muttering, “do you know how much that cost? And if that is more generally said in shocked disbelief than in anticipation of a purchase, there is still plenty that is affordable. The rooms showing smaller works were as busy as ever. A couple of years ago I pointed out the pulling power of cats. It is still there, as are robins and scenes of London.  Tracey Emin was doing pretty well too with some small and moderately priced etchings. They have probably all sold out by now.

I suddenly realised that rather than survey the exhibition as a whole, you could get a pretty good impression of what was popular with the public by looking at the greetings cards. So here they are; the cards of the 2014 Exhibtion.


You can see on the bottom row that the robin is present and correct; oh, sorry it is Spare Stonechat.  There is the questionable sentiment that All schools should be art schools; there is a cat; there is a horse. What is that? There on the second row up is the Frank Bowling I admired. It does admittedly make rather a nice greeting card. Of well; it is still a very fine painting.

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition runs until Sunday August 17.


Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy

The quality of the architecture that surrounds us is something that affects us all, day in day out. Yet I normally find looking at architectural displays somewhat boring. Maybe I have a general inability to scale up in my mind little model buildings or plans (I blame it on not being given Lego as a child) but even glossy photo montages normally leave me cold. So,  it was all the more surprising to be completely riveted by Sensing Spaces, currently showing at the Royal Academy.

 The Royal Academy had asked six architects to give visitors a new perspective on architecture. The results were stunning and very different. Materials included the traditional: concrete and timber but also twigs, and even plastic.

The exhibition has no set pathway but, like many people, the first installation I encountered was Mauricio Pezo and Sofia Von Ellrichshausen’s Blue Pavillion. Unlike most of the works, this one had a title but it seemed designed to confuse as it was not blue at all but constructed out of untreated pine board with a steel handrail. It looked solid and monumental and smelt like a timber yard, which is good by the way.

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Getting closer,  you noticed that there were stairways inside the huge pillars. These led up to a platform. What was interesting here, was that you could not see the hall from which you had come and, importantly,  the purity of the structure was not cluttered up by your presence peering over the top, so that visitors coming into the room had themselves to discover the pillars were not as solid as they appeared. Because you can not see the room itself  from above, you concentrate on the ceiling. This must be the best chance to see the very fine angels close up. In a way tha angels were incorporated into the whole.

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Eduardo Souto de Mouro used the RA’s doorways as a source of inspiration. At angles to the classical doorways were a pair of  arches cast from ultra high performance concrete reinforced with steel fibre, they were of the same general proportions but very different having an industrial feel but the two doorways enhanced each other and clearly demonstrated how well modern techniques can sit beside more classical architecture.

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Japanese architect Kengo Kuma’s work was far more ethereal, comprising scented bamboo wands which were lit to create an elegant forest.  The result was was both calming and relaxing. I am not sure how much work I would get done in a Kuma designed house but, I wouldn’t care as I would be really laid back.

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In contrast the work by Li Xiaodong felt strangely disturbing. Made primarily out of hazel sticks it formed what appeared to be a labyrinth.

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In the film which you can see at the end of the exhibition there were shots of a library which Li Xiaodong  had created in China from the same materials.But there the effect of light through the hazel had appeared soothing, echoing the shape of books. There was something about the floor lighting in this version which made you uneasy. It was only in the centre when the labyrinth opened up revealing a room with a floor covered in pebbles, as though the beach had come inside, that the tension was released.

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Perhaps one of the most exciting works was by Diebedo Francis Kere. Here I was so pleased that I had come to the exhibition late in its run. The primary structure was made of honeycombed plastic panels but Kere had allowed visitors to collaborate with him by providing brightly coloured straws which could be inserted into the holes provided by the honeycomb. The result was the most extraordinary bower. Small children loved it of course, but few adults could resist adding to the construction. If you visited the exhibition when it first opened in January, do go back now and have another look if you didn’t, go before it closes and add a few straws of your own.

Sensing Spaces is showing at the Royal Academy until 6 April.


Manet at the Royal Academy

A few months ago I visited the pre Raphaelite exhibition at Tate Britain and then went straight in to see the Turner Prize shortlist which seemed weak in comparison. I had not quite the reverse experience this week but close. I visited the new Manet Exhibition at the Royal Academy and then almost immediately went to A Greater Splash over at the Tate. To my mind A Greater Splash had it over the Manet and seeing the two together provided an object lesson on why art has to keep moving and innovate even if you don’t always like the innovations.  I will talk about the Greater Splash soon. Today it’s Manet.

Luncheon on the Grass
Déjeuner sur l’Herbe: the version you want to see is in Paris

The retrospective of Manet’s portraits Portraying Life  has been trumpeted by the RA as “singularly important” and  “unmissable”.  According to the Sunday Times 45,000 tickets were pre sold, more than those sold for Van Gogh at the same point, so getting there early in the run seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, it is  the paintings you probably most want to see that are missing. There is no Olympia, the  Musée d’Orsay in Paris keeps it safely behind their walls and doesn’t let it go; there is only a small and rather miserably fuzzy Déjeuner sur l’Herbe borrowed from the Courtaulds, that pesky Musée d’Orsay has hung onto the big, bold, superbly painted one and the curators  had not even managed to persuade the Courtaulds to lend them the The Bar at the Folies-Bergère.

Music in the Tuileries Gardens: normally on show in the National Gallery

True there was the Music in the Tuileries Gardens, though this is normally hanging in the National Gallery, so not worth a special visit, the Railway and Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets which is currently plastered over posters on the underground. But they were diluted by what the RA described as status portraits, in other words portraits designed  to make their subject feel important. While wandering around this exhibition it was possibly intellectually to appreciate the loose brush work  which was to make Manet the father of  modern art, but I found it  impossible to feel emotionally why he was so revolutionary.

Indeed, for the most part, the paintings appeared decorative, safe and a little boring. They provided a glimpse of 19th century Parisian life, interesting if you recognise the spot where Music in the Tuileries Gardens were painted.  It was also instructive to note  how he used a dab of light to suggest noses or expressions and how well he could paint eyes. He had his failings too, which is encouraging for all artists whose work does not always go as planned.  I noticed, for instance, that he did not really enjoy painting hands. Of course he could if  he put his mind to it – he was Manet. But when he was doing portraits in a hurry either to satisfy rich clients or simply because he wanted to get on to the next canvas, you will see that hands get hidden more than the law of averages suggests  should happen. They were tucked in pockets, or in muffs,  behind backs or just below the bottom edge of the canvas.

Manet: Portrait of Georges Clemenceau
Isabelle Lemonnier with a muff
Manet: Isabelle Lemonnier with a muff

He was also not great at  horses, Look at the Cavalier (Equestrian Portrait of Mr Arnaud) the horse’s head has a slightly cardboard cut out feel. Apparently the x-ray evidence shows the portrait was completed by another hand – maybe it was the horse’s head that was painted by someone else – or  its hind legs, or ……well actually none of it is very good.

Manet : The Cavalier (Equestrian Portrait of Mr Arnaud) apparently finished by another hand

There were of course several superb paintings there, and ones which are not so easy to see without travelling further afield than Paris. The Luncheon painted in 1868 is particularly intriguing.

manet luncheon
Manet: The Luncheon – the young Leon looks past us with a haughty expression

Look at  the rather haughty  and bold expressions of the young man Leon, who might or might not have been Manet’s son. It  is similar to  the expression of the young prostitute staring boldly out of the picture in Olympia and also that of the nude in Déjeuner sur L’herbe . Whereas both the woman looks at us in the other two pictures, Leon’s gaze goes beyond us, looking at something or somebody he sees over our right shoulder but it still has the boldness, the quality of taking stock, that is part of what makes  both Déjeuner and Olympia so arresting.

I enjoyed seeing the Luncheon; I also liked the portrait of Georges Clemenceau, shown above; and Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, though I had seen it so many times in the publicity for the exhibition, it was hard to summon up more of a reaction to it than – ‘oh yes, there it is.’ I now know more about Manet than I did before I went, but overall there just weren’t enough of the most celebrated pictures there to be satisfying. It was as if the Musée d’Orsay had put up a virtual sign at the exit saying, “you’ve seen the rest, now see the best.” I went as a guest of a member, but I can’t believe you wouldn’t feel a bit short-changed if you were paying the full suggested £17 entry fee. There was something else too. Without the best, the works seemed so strongly rooted in another time. Manet may have been the father of modern art, but at the Royal Academy, in this exhibition, you could really feel the generation gap.

Bronze and the art of getting paid

Could an exhibition change the course of contemporary art? Probably not, but if there were one that could do so, it would be the widely acclaimed Bronze Exhibition currently showing at Royal Academy. It was a brilliant concept bringing together works linked by the material with which they were made rather than by geography or era or subject matter. The thing that strikes you as you go round is that many of them are just so amazingly old – 3000 BCE or thereabouts,  that is 5,000 years ago, a thousand years before the point that the Bronze Age officially started in Britain.  There were plenty that were 2,000 years old.

There is an obvious moral: if you want your work to last and so ensure yourself a little bit of immortality you need to work in something durable. Bronze will survive being immersed in peat bogs, or indeed being under the sea. That is not true of clever things made out of plastic or stuffed tights, or of performance art, or the photographs of performance art not even of paintings and certainly not true of vitrined sharks. At a time when contemporary art is getting something of a drubbing from art critics, could it be that we see more artists moving back into creating art works from this extraordinary material that not only has the strength to allow a statue to stand on one leg but provides what appears to be an infinite variety of finishes?

Dancing satyr – he would originally have been standing on one leg

If it happens, it will not be that artists up and down the land, inspired perhaps by the RA’s informative videos on how it is done, will wake up one morning and say “you know what, I think I am going to turn out a bronze today” though I suppose a few may be inspired to so.  I certainly wanted to. It is rather that collectors who have seen the exhibition might start hankering after something with durability that can be guaranteed to outlast them. It is interesting that Damien Hirst recently produced a  bronze clad sculpture, albeit one that is 20 metres  high which has produced some controversy in Ilfracombe where she is stationed for the next twenty years.

Just recently there has been what could turn into a back to basics approach in contemporary art. First there was Frieze which decided to run Frieze Masters then Will Gompertz complained that many curators thought that the works of the YBAs were overrated. Celebrated New York critic Dave Hickey said that he was quitting the business, because it had become obsessed with celebrities and money. Evening Standard publisher Evgeny Lebedev then claimed in an article yesterday that society was obsessed with celebrity, money, consumerism and greed so it was not surprising that art reflected it. He went on to say that tutors complained that instead of asking ‘how do I get my art better?’ students  would ask ‘how can I get the right gallery to represent me?’

But thinking that artists in the past would have been unconcerned about money is clearly a fallacy. Artists have to live; materials are expensive; studio rentals astronomic and an artists who are not making income from their art will find themselves too tied to the day job to produce much. Nearly all the works in the Bronze exhibition would have been commissioned by somebody. The wonderful Cellini sculpture of Perseus holding the head of Medusa aloft was first commissioned by Cosimo I dei Medici, after he had just been named grand duke. The one in the exhibition is full scale 19thcentury cast taken from the original in the Loggia dei Lanzi and made for the garden of a country house now demolished. So this particular sculpture was the subject of double commissioning.

Cellini’s Perseus
Strigil with young woman handle dated 300 BCE

Other pieces would have been commissioned by priests, by warriors or simply by the rich. On a far more modest scale I was impressed by a delightful bronze strigil,   a grooming tool used by athletes to scrape off oil and dirt after exercise, dated to 300BEC, its handle is of a young woman who herself is holding a strigil. Perhaps like mirrors of mirrors, the sequence went on and though too small to see it the tiny strigil in her hand  also had a handle of a woman. This piece was not made by the artist simply for the fun of doing so, though he  may well have gained satisfaction from the task – it would have been made because somebody wanted one and was rich enough to pay for it.

Though made originally  for rich patrons I was struck by the freshness of the pieces that had been chosen. Many seemed somehow to have a modern feel despite their antiquity. Take the Chimera a wonderful mythical beast, part serpent, part goat part snake as and surreal as anything produced by Salvador Dali.

It was almost as if you could feel the excitement and trepidation of those artists two thousand years ago as they cracked open the cast to see whether the sculpture within had come out as they had hoped.  I rather regretted the fact that whereas in times past the artists were likely to have been closely involved with the casting process today it will be a matter of commissioning a specialist foundry.

Chimaera of Arezzo Etruscan Bronze dated 400BCE

At first I felt hat modern artists might as well give up, that everything that could be created in bronze had been made.  But among the pieces of great antiquity there  were some modern pieces that stood up well to the older competition. There was a beautifully patina’d bronze by Barbara Hepworth, a distinctive spider by Louise Bourgeois but it was  the huge lacquered bronze made by Anish Kapoor this year that has me most impressed by its perfection and the way that it reflected the surroundings of the Royal Academy upside down. It sounds  gimmicky and I wouldn’t be totally surprised to find that Kapoor was  one of the celebrity artists on the Hickey/ Gompertz hit list.  He has been pilloried for his Olympics tower.  In fact the work was simple, engrossing – and beautiful. It made you ponder also on the way the brain works and the process of vision itself.  I wondered whether if one looked at it long enough the brain would reverse the upside down effect as  it does from the image created by the lens within the eye.  The work proved beyond doubt that bronze can be as contemporary as any more modern material, though that being said I had my doubts whether the lacquer would last 5,000 years.

Dr Salter’s Dream presumed stolen for its scrap metal value

One bronze that could not be included in the exhibition was Dr Salter’s Dream. This had been a favourite of mine and used to be a surprise to anybody walking along the Thames in Bermondsey. It was created by Diane Gorvin to commemorate  Dr Alfred Salter who worked tirelessly to improve the health of  the poor in Bermondsey but who lost his eleven year old daughter to diphtheria. The statue of Dr Salter was seated on a bench which you could share with  him and was looking at two other statues – one of his daughter and one of her cat, dreaming of happier times. Almost exactly a year ago Dr Salter was stolen presumably for scrap. It would have fetched the thieves no more than a few hundred pounds at most.

I don’t know whether a cast remains of Dr Salter and whether the work could be recreated – if it could be I really would like to see him put back; sadly he would need to be resin; if he were cast again in bronze the same thing would happen again until the government finds some effective way of regulating the scrap metal industry.   Bronzes can last 5,000 years and withstand flood and burial but they cannot survive being melted down.

Bronze is showing at the Royal Academy until 9 December