Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Sculpture Victorious. Art in an Age of Invention, 1837-1901

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Sculpture Victorious. Art in an Age of Invention, 1837-1901

Article excerpt

Martina Droth, Jason Edwards and Michael Hatt (eds), Sculpture Victorious. Art in an Age of Invention, 1837-1901 (exh. cat.), Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 11 September- 30 November 2014, and Tate Britain, London, 25 February- 25 May 2015. New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2014, 448pp, c. 380 b&w and colour illustrations, £50. ISBN 978-0-300-20803-0.

The vaunting title of this exhibition may have drawn down on it some of the press battering that it received. Overcoming forebodings, and after a brief perusal of the accompanying volume, I went twice and enjoyed it, as did several acquaintances. The curators were as interested, it seemed, in showmanship in the present day as in the period under scrutiny, and furthermore their choice of exhibits had that same attractively heteroclite quality that had characterized the international and colonial exhibitions of the nineteenth century. Now that the dust has settled it seems appropriate to review the volume, which not only served as a catalogue to the two shows in New Haven and London, but represents the critical apparatus behind them, and features quite a few things that were not present in either. The first impression, which further inspection does not entirely dispel, is of an incoherent assemblage of objects, thoughts and opinions. Pursuit of red herrings and littoral drift among the entries, are scarcely held in check by the drogue or drag-anchor of the introductory essay and the groynes of the interspersed thematic essays. It hardly helps that the main essay is the work of a trio, whose individual members are inclined to soar off on improvised cadenzas. So, what hope that such a miscellany would secure us, as the directors claim it does, 'a thorough account of Victorian sculpture'?

As has been pointed out, the chances of this were limited by the almost perverse omission of most of the major figures of the high Victorian period: Weekes, Foley, Munro, Woolner, Lough, MacDowell, Noble, Durham, Theed, W. C. Marshall and others. It seemed to be left to John Gibson and John Bell to represent the main current of 'ideal' sculpture, and, of these two, one was a determined Roman outsider, and the other, a maverick with a side-line in the industrial arts. How to explain this, as the authors do not? Do they suffer in the presence of marble figures that sensory deprivation that modern audiences experience when confronted by black and white films? If so, their aversion is certainly prejudicial to the thoroughness of their account. In the almost complete absence of such things, different lines of development are proposed, which, though they do not tell the full story, do open new avenues of inquiry and, refreshingly perhaps, dispense with some old clichés. This version of the story privileges general social and historical phenomena, particularly colonialism and industrial progress, over such artistic cliques as Pre-Raphaelites and New Sculptors.

First, then, industrial production. The argument here is that, in the case of large amounts of sculpture shown at international exhibitions and exploited commercially, the mode of production was as much the message as any poetic, moral or political content. In addition, in the so-called 'industrial arts' artisanal input combined with mechanical process to create objects whose production values were every bit as interesting as those of the fine art turned out in studios, where division of labour was increasingly in evidence. In this area, a particular emphasis is put on electroplating, pioneered by the Birmingham firm of Elkington and Mason, partly because this was also a process exploited by some of the supposedly more hands-on sculptors associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement at the end of the century. This line of argument does corroborate the directors' claim that Sculpture Victorious has investigated 'the overlooked ground that lies between the classical nude of the 1840s and the so-called New Sculpture'. However, it is only in this one area of process that the continuity is established. …

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