I was very glad that I managed to get to see Bronze at the British Academy before it closed at the start of December. There had been a lot of buzz about the exhibition, and I wanted to see how the attempt to combine ancient and modern material worked in tandem with my own obvious interest in the Greek and Roman artefacts on display.
To my great personal satisfaction, the exhibition opened with a statue of a dancing satyr from the fourth century B.C. – one of the few surviving examples that we have, because it spent until 1998 in the sea and thus didn’t get melted down in the time between then and now. This is the fate of most classical bronzes – they get shipwrecked, buried or melted for reuse, so the ones that do survive are particularly interesting, especially given the artistic habit of imitating bronzes in marble sculpture. These imitations obviously aren’t as vulnerable to utilitarian impulses, but marble as a medium also has more limitations – many a marble statue from this period leans against a suspiciously convenient tree trunk to stop the piece losing its structural integrity. So to see this dancing satyr stretching out its limbs in all directions, fully in the spirit of the dance, was absolutely breathtaking. (There’s a video that discusses the statue here.)
I rather suspect that the choice of the objects in the show would have struck me as a lot cheekier if I had a wider range of subject knowledge in this field. I draw this conclusion from the brilliant statue of Lucius Mammius Maximus, fully bedecked in toga and in oratorical pose. He looks like every Roman orator stereotype going, and standing next to a number of other sorts of standing figures (including a brilliant Nigerian piece of work and a Giacometti), that is what a visitor to the gallery would suppose he was, given the information on his exhibition label. But wait! For those of us who shelled out for the audio guide, it is revealed that our man is in fact a freedman, an ex-slave, whose statue had been put up by public subscription in the theatre in Herculaneum. Not for one moment would you guess this from anything about the statue – I presume it’s all in the inscription discovered with it. But the exhibition isn’t about to point out to the majority of its guests that this statue actually subverts many of the assumptions that it automatically invites us to make. (Anybody walking too fast past Pablo Picasso’s Baboon and Young without examining its elements too closely might be drawn into making a similar mistake. And the inclusion of Jasper John’s Beer Cans just made me laugh.)
The broad range of objects pulled together did highlight how many of the works on show were drawing on a classical repertoire. There was a simply amazing Perseus by Cellini, complete with Medusa’s head with dripping spinal cord; a bronze 1690 copy of the famous Laocoon statue by Giradon; and some quite charming 1550 Bacchants riding on panthers. There was also a satyr group which was, shall we say, a little bit explicit for the large numbers of children in the gallery, although they would have to have been paying attention and may have been put off by Riccio’s rather more romantic pair situated towards the front of the case.
I did also come away with a number of questions, the main one being ‘why on earth would the good people of second century A.D. Palermo have required a ruddy great bronze ram?’ Answers on a postcard to the usual address.
However, I think the crowning moment of the whole exhibition was coming face to face with the Crosby Garrett helmet. I had been very sorry to miss this when it was originally exhibited for auction at Christie’s, and when it was purchased by a private buyer had rather given up hope of ever seeing it again. I’m delighted that the new owner is willing to offer it for exhibition and hope that it will be out and about on a fairly frequent basis, because it is simply magical. I have no shame in admitting that I did stand in front of it for about ten minutes, absolutely mesmerised. I think it’s something about the nature of masks – there’s a sense of a personality behind them that one could perhaps see if one just looked hard enough. The helmet was in the last room, and so I walked out of the exhibition with a general sense of awe and wonder.
In terms of the general success of the exhibition, I thought that it pulled together the various sorts of object and combined the various periods in a really interesting and innovative way. As Mary Beard has already observed, you found yourself being drawn into a bit of a guessing game about where this or that object had come from, which must have been one of the aims of the exhibition. I wasn’t always right, but it was quite interesting to find out where and when I was going wrong. The exhibition also drew together material from different geographical areas in a very matter of fact way – it seemed to say ‘well, of course Benin and Nigeria and all these other areas had fabulous metalworking skills and artistic traditions, why wouldn’t we include them?’ There’s no song and dance, and in some ways that means there’s no excuse made for including these objects, or indeed any of the exhibits. They are included because they are all outstanding examples of ways humans have used bronze. That seems like a sensible enough unifying principle to me.