Magazine article The Spectator

For the Love of Stone

Magazine article The Spectator

For the Love of Stone

Article excerpt

Carving Mountains (Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, till 26 April)

Sculptural energy is the mountain,' wrote the young Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in 1914. `Sculptural feeling is the appreciation of masses in relation. Sculptural ability is the defining of these masses by planes.' In articulating this wonderfully confident, even mystical, formalism he defined the ambitions of a couple of generations of sculptors - the early British modernists whose work is reassembled in the admirable exhibition Carving Mountains at Kettle's Yard (then at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea from 2 May until 28 June).

Mountains are made of stone, and one of the things that these young sculptors were determined to regain was a love of their sculptural material for its own sake - the stoniness of stone, its texture, weight and colour. Or rather, a love of all the innumerable different stones from which sculpture could be made. By the end of the 19th century, in the work of Rodin for example, sculpture had tended to come down to a choice between coffee or tea, white marble or bronze (though there were exceptions such as Alfred Gilbert).

But a glance round this show is like a dip into a geological museum -- where in fact Henry Moore and co. spent many hours of happy research. Alongside ordinary marble, there are works made from ironstone, Armenian stone, translucent alabaster, highly polished grey-green, speckled verde di prato, serpentine, Hopton Wood stone, African wonderstone, Corse Hill stone with the colour and granular texture of brick. It is a miniature mineral world.

The two watchwords of the day were `truth to materials' and `direct carving'. The first of those sounds a mite puritanical and was, since it implied a disapproval of marvellous artists such as Bernini. 'Sculpture in stone should look honestly like stone,' declared Henry Moore in 1930. `To make it look like flesh and blood, hair and dimples is coming down to the level of the stage conjurer.' (Twenty years later he acknowledged the absurdity of this as the sole criterion of quality in sculpture, `otherwise a snowman carved by a child would have to be praised at the expense of a Rodin or a Bernini'.)

But along with the puritanism went a novel sort of sensuality: truth to materials meant a new enjoyment of materials. Once you had stopped trying to make stone look like skin and drapery and whatnot, you could start taking pleasure in what it was. Thus the sooty hue and rough grain of the sandstone from which Frank Dobson carved his `Kneeling Female Figure' are part of its strength, rather than just being signs of unsuitable stone for sculpture. Indeed, the material partly dictated the forms - the smooth green glassiness of the verde di prato Moore used for his `Head and Shoulders' of 1927 are complimentary to its flattened, stylised, slightly Aztec appearance - in a way that Dobson's sandstone would not have been.

As to direct carving, it may come as a surprise to discover that sculptors ever did anything else. One instinctively thinks of them as looking rather like the photograph of Gaudier-Brzeska in the Carving Mountains catalogue -- hammer in one hand, chisel in the other, chipping away at a great big block of stone. But, in fact, as Rudolf Wittkower explained in his excellent book Sculpture (Penguin, 16), for several centuries many sculptors left off doing anything so dusty and exhausting. …

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