Monday, November 22, 2010

50 UK Days: Week 5.5

This is the sculpture I was talking about: Teucer, the young archer from Homer’s Iliad. The sculptor of this lifesized bronze exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881 is Hamo Thornycroft, whose early work was classical in subject but whose experimental techniques gave rise to the New Sculpture movement. I had seen reproductions and miniature bronzes of this work, but I had never before seen the original. The work is exquisite. The archer’s physique draws on the classical tradition of idealized form, but the tension in the muscles, the determined look on the youth’s face, the details in body parts from toenails to nipples to veins, all lead the viewer to realize this is more than just a statue. It is a man in bronze. If there is a critique to be made, it is the ridiculous fig leaf that emasculates the figure and threatens to turn him into a candelabrum. In the 1870s Lord Leighton had already successfully challenged the paradigm of marble in sculpture through his dynamic bronzes the Athlete Wrestling with a Python and the Sluggard, both of which echoed classical precedence respectively in the ancient Laocoon and Michelangelo’s Slaves. In France Auguste Rodin had exhibited in 1877 his Age of Bronze, which was rejected by critics because they believed the nude male’s form was too naturalistic and cast from life. But in Teucer Thornycroft accomplished something new. He not only reinterpreted naturalistic classicism, but explored the fourth dimension of temporality as well. As you walk around the figure, you can see that every muscle is tense, from the slightly raised foot and the tight buttocks to the elongated torso and raised arms. This is body in motion. But the key to understanding the work is in the right hand, elevated and contorted to show the youth holding the (imaginary) string of his bow. Notice, though, how the index and middle fingers are delicately slack. He has just fired his arrow. You realize then as you watch all this, focusing on how the light shines off the bronze, highlighting muscle after muscle, that what you actually are seeing is a moment in time. He is watching the arrow he has fired soar through the air toward its target. His body has yet to relax, as if to do so would veer the arrow off course, but with the simple release of two fingers, the viewer knows you have captured him in a very specific second in a time, a moment that transcends narration or genre or idealization. That is what makes this sculpture an intense visual experience incomprehensible unless seen in the flesh.

Thornycroft’s sculpture was one of many works displayed in the 3-part exhibition This is Sculpture at Tate Liverpool. The other parts of the exhibition were interesting, but they focused heavily on modern and contemporary art with work by artists as diverse as Pablo Picasso and Jacob Epstein to Bruce Nauman and Carl Andre. Tracey Emin’s pink neon companion art pieces “Is Anal Sex Legal?” and “Is Legal Sex Anal?” made me chuckle, but then again I find much of her work sardonic and cheeky. The section where the Thornycroft was exhibited focused on the sculpted body in various media, and rather than show the work as a strictly quiet aesthetic experience the curators encouraged visitors to wear provided wireless headphones playing funk music and to sculpt oneself on the illuminated dance floor. The idea was to explore how the human body could interact with the sculpted body beyond figuration, transcending in a way the gap between sculpture and performance art. But this is Britain: no one here is going to start dancing unless they’re drunk or everyone else is already doing it. Personally, I found the disco effect too distracting and had to ditch the headphones. As tempted as I was to dance the music was way too 1970s funk for me.

On Monday evening, I took a short train ride to Southport to visit the 5th cousins from the Ambrose side of the family. I had a lovely home-cooked dinner with them and enjoyed the time we spent catching up. But the majority of my week in Liverpool was spent doing research at the Walker Art Gallery, a wonderful city museum that has a fantastic collection of Victorian paintings, as well as Renaissance and Baroque pictures and Neoclassical sculpture by John Gibson and others. I was given the opportunity to see everything they have by Gibson in their collection, which was quite extensive. I also took an afternoon trip to the Lady Lever Art Gallery, which was once the private collection of Lord Leverhulme, the owner of the famous Lever soap company. The Levers also became famous for adhering to the principles of the Arts & Crafts Movement and developed a utopian community of sorts for their workers in Port Sunlight Village, where employees were provided with everything they could want for healthy and entertaining living without having to travel for work. The Levers were active collectors of 18th-century paintings, ancient and modern sculpture, and Asian ceramics, but their taste was largely in contemporary Victorian painting, and they have one of the best collections in the UK of Pre-Raphaelite/Aesthetic works of art, including two of my favorites: the work reproduced here, Burne-Jones’s Beguiling of Merlin (1872-7), and Millais’s Black Brunswicker (1860). This wasn't the first time I had ever visited these museums, but it was the first time I had a chance to get to know the collections better.

I also spent time in Liverpool visiting Gibson’s work throughout the city. There is, for instance, a bronze public monument to William Huskisson, a member of Parliament, who was the first man to be killed in a railway accident in 1830. Curiously, Gibson also sculpted a monument to George Stephenson, the railway magnate whose train it was that killed Huskisson. This work was in St. George’s Hall, a beautiful building that was used in the mid-1800s as both a criminal courthouse (with prison cells underground) and a theater and dance hall. Yes, it was possible for Charles Dickens to be giving a public reading in one room while in the next a pickpocket was being sentenced to exile in Australia. I’m not making this up. Come on, you’ve got to love the Victorians just for that alone.

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