Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

A Coherent, National 'School' of Sculpture? Constructing Post-War New British Sculpture through Exhibition Practices

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

A Coherent, National 'School' of Sculpture? Constructing Post-War New British Sculpture through Exhibition Practices

Article excerpt

In 1952 the art critic Herbert Read introduced international audiences to 'New aspects of British sculpture' through his essay of that title, which accompanied Britain's sculpture display at the Venice Biennale.1 Over half a century earlier, the Art Journal had featured a series of articles by Edmund Gosse, which confidently announced 'The New Sculpture' in Britain.2 Published in 1894, Gosse's articles supported a new group of men who were loyal to a common ideal and would promote 'our national sculpture', as he described it.3 Read's essay title promised, a little more cautiously perhaps, some new 'aspects' of sculptural practice in Britain, but this seminal text and the 1952 display shaped definitions of New British Sculpture that persisted throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s in Britain and internationally.4 In 1963 Read was called upon once more to write an Introduction to the works on show at the London County Council's Sculpture in the Open Air exhibition in Battersea Park.5 This display was one of a series of open-air shows that were organized triennially by London County Council (from 1966 the Greater London Council) and ran from 1948 to 1966 (with a further three shows in the 1970s).6 With the exception of Eduardo Paolozzi, all of the Venice artists were also selected to participate in the 1963 open-air exhibition, which included exclusively British and American works.7 Eleven years on from Venice, Read and contemporary critics were speaking with new-found confidence about the British sculptors. While they were no longer presented as 'new', the importance of national groupings, sculpture schools and parentage persisted and was reinforced with increased vigour. By focusing in detail on the 1952 and 1963 exhibitions, the aim of this article is to demonstrate how post-war exhibition practices such as catalogue writing, display and the reception of these shows played host to constructions of New British Sculpture. Defining or describing the formal qualities of what might constitute newness or delineate a group of artists' works was arguably often a secondary concern for writers, curators and critics in this period, whose focus rather centred on the promotion of 'Britishness' - an unstable term that was relational and continually in flux. Henry Moore, as will become clear, was frequently used as a key pawn in games of shifting definitions and symbiotic relationships.

'Moore is in some sense no doubt the parent of them all'

The British Pavilion in 1952 housed paintings and works on paper by Graham Sutherland and the late Edward Wadsworth. Outside it stood Henry Moore's bronze Double Standing Figure (1950) (fig. 1), which the Italian critic Guido Perocco suggested was 'like a warning' of what was contained within.8 Perocco's description echoed Read's own positioning of Moore both literally in the display, and metaphorically in his catalogue essay, where he discussed the work of the other eight sculptors who represented Britain in that year. Read stated 'Moore is in some sense no doubt the parent of them all, and a single work of his, more recent than anything yet shown by him at Venice, stands at the entrance of the Pavilion to give an orientation for the surprising developments that will be found within.'9 Double Standing Figure was indeed new to the Venice stage. However, visitors to the London County Council's second open-air sculpture exhibition in Battersea Park, or to the Tate Gallery's Sculpture and Drawings by Henry Moore show in the previous year, would have been familiar with it: a bronze and a plaster cast of Moore's identical but this time single Standing Figure (1950) featured in both of these exhibitions.10 Double Standing Figure was the only work by Moore in the Biennale show. It is significant that Read chose to stress Moore's presence outside the pavilion, omitting any reference to Reg Butler's Woman (1949), which was also sited there as a pendant to Moore (fig. 2).11 Double Standing Figure was also the only sculpture from the British Pavilion to be illustrated in the comprehensive Biennale catalogue. …

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