The Royal Academy’s current exhibition is, unusually, devoted not to a particular artist, period, or culture, but to a single material: bronze. Choosing to display works from so many different cultures in a thematic arrangement was certainly a bold move on the part of the RA, but it has produced a spectacular exhibition, incorporating works from ancient Egypt, classical antiquity, the Etruscans, Bronze Age Europe, the medieval and Renaissance periods, the Middle East, China, South-East Asia, and Western Africa, alongside 19th-and 20th-century and contemporary art; the sheer visual impact of so many bronzes collected in a single place is quite stunning.
Following an introductory room in which the Hellenistic Dancing Satyr is beautifully displayed in the round, the exhibition’s thematic arrangement takes the visitor through ten rooms devoted to Human Figures; Animals (two rooms); Groups; Objects (two rooms); Reliefs; Gods; and Heads (plus a room devoted to explaining the different techniques of bronze casting, via an excellent series of models and videos). The effect of this thematic arrangement is unfortunately rather hit-and-miss. When it works – as it does to great effect in the Human Figures and Heads rooms in particular – it works extremely well; the juxtaposition of similar types of objects from different cultures highlights their differences, not only introducing the viewer to previously unfamiliar objects but forcing them to rethink the more familiar ones by comparison. Perhaps the best example of this, for me, was the placement of Ghiberti’s St Stephen, which directly faced the Roman statue of Lucius Mammius Maximus from Herculaneum. Stand between these two statues and their similarities – both are slightly larger than life, in fairly similar poses, with similar attention to the detail of the drapery – only make the two contrast more strongly; while next to the Ghiberti, a small seated figure from Nigeria shows marks of wear and even missing limbs from its use as part of a ritual in which the priest would take it to a river and scrub it all over with gravel. The contrast between this small, intimate figure and the over-sized, aloof saint could not be greater.
Unfortunately, the thematic arrangement is considerably less successful in the other rooms – in particular, the two rooms devoted to ‘Objects’. ‘Objects’ isn’t really much of a theme at all, and it doesn’t seem that the curators had a very clear idea of what they meant by this. In some cases, it stands for ‘functional objects as opposed to art’ (water jugs, bridle-pieces, etc), but it also includes ‘representations of objects’ (e.g. a model of two beer cans) and even abstract art (pieces by Barbara Hepworth and Anish Kapoor). What these two rooms really reveal is the difficulty the curators faced in trying to combine a viewing of objects as ‘art’ with a viewing of them as ‘artefacts’. Choices of objects like the model beer cans suggest that to some extent the aim of these rooms was indeed to explore the question of when an ‘object’ becomes ‘art’ (and vice versa), but this wasn’t consistently presented as a theme, with the result that the rooms lacked coherence with each other and with the rest of the exhibition.
The labelling of the exhibits was similarly hit-and-miss: although selected objects were given detailed labels, most had only minimal labelling (provenance, date, name, owner), where at least a couple of lines of context would have been welcome. The audioguide content similarly focused in great detail on a small selection of objects; personally I would have preferred less information about more objects rather than the other way around. I also always feel that an audioguide you have to pay extra for should be an addition to label content, not a substitute for it, but here it was pretty clear you were expected to have both (for instance, terms like ‘bodhisattva‘ were explained on the audioguide but nowhere on the labels).
Anyone who read my last exhibition review probably realised that I tend to be pretty critical of exhibitions’ layout, particularly when there’s no obvious route through the exhibition to give visitors a sense of progression. I have to confess that this is the first exhibition I’ve been to where the lack of a route of this kind actually seemed, for the most part, like an advantage – the fact that there was no obvious intended route through any given room worked very well with the thematic arrangement, encouraging the visitor to wander around as they chose and find their own connections between different objects. That said, there were a couple of ways in which this fell down. Introductory text panels were often sited next to the exit from a room and, in the most irritating case, gave more information on the object next to the room’s entrance than its label did. More importantly, the labels and audioguide clearly did assume the visitor to be following a particular route through the room: I frequently found the audioguide explaining the meaning of a term I’d already seen on two labels, or announcing that ‘This room is devoted to…’ when I’d already seen half of it. Which showed pretty clearly that the lack of an obvious visitor route was due to a failure in signposting rather than any thematic concerns.
These criticisms don’t mean I wouldn’t thoroughly recommend this exhibition – I spent a fantastic two hours looking around it (and when I got to the end I had to walk all the way back through the whole thing just to see each room again). I can’t repeat too often how absolutely stunning the collection is, and what an achievement it is for the RA just to have gathered all these works together in one place, let alone organised them into what is in many respects an extremely good exhibition. I definitely encourage anyone who hasn’t been yet to go and see it (and hurry, it closes on December 9th!) – and anyone who’s already been, please let me know what you thought in the comments!