Magazine article The Spectator

Unexpected Discoveries

Magazine article The Spectator

Unexpected Discoveries

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 2 Unexpected discoveries Playing with Fire: European Terracotta Models, 1740-1840 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until 25 April; Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, 12 May to 29 August

Cheap, prolific and infinitely varied, clay has been an artistic medium since the dawn of time. Its directness and spontaneity make it comparable to the painter's sketch; yet when fired clay becomes terracotta, acquiring a hardness and durability comparable to stone. The paradoxical nature of clay - in part ephemeral, in part permanent - is splendidly evoked by Playing with Fire, currently on show at the Metropolitan Museum. The exhibition assembles more than 100 works from European and American collections, highlighting the versatility of clay during the 18th century, the golden age of terracotta sculpture. Venerable figures, like Canova, Flaxman and Sergel, are present, but there is also a host of lesser-known petits maîtres on show, sculptors who deserve a second look.

Modelling in clay had become essential for every stage of the sculptural process by 1700, and small studies were collected by artists and connoisseurs alike. But the popularity of the medium revealed a paradox about sculpture itself, something best expressed by the French writer Diderot: 'The artist throws his fire into the clay, but boredom and coldness take over when he gets to the stone.' Playing with Fire wisely concentrates on the first half of Diderot's observation by presenting the gamut of sculptural tasks, ranging from sketches and academic exercises to the creation of monuments and mythological groups. The first pressings of artistic inspiration can be seen in one of Canova's dazzling models for 'The Three Graces', in which the élan of dance is evoked by movement and gesture. Canova injected passion into his modelling, calling his sketches invenzioni.

One can also trace an idea from initial sketch through subsequent revisions with three versions of Joseph Chinard's 'Perseus and Andromeda'. Here, the roughly defined quality of the first model disappears in the second, competition version, which acquires the smoothness of marble; a smaller, third variant, probably made as a reduced copy for a collector, reintroduces some of the sketchiness of the original while heightening the sensuality of Andromeda's expression.

The gods, nymphs and centaurs were the hardy perennials of the sculptor's studio, and clay models were prized like small bronzes during this period. Sometimes, an artist like Philippe-Laurent Roland achieves a graceful variation on an old theme with his 'Bacchante Riding a Goat' or Gilles-Lambert Godecharle with 'Pan Pursuing Syrinx'. …

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