When the Royal Academy announced that it would be celebrating the achievements of British sculpture in the 20th century, I was among those who cheered. What an excellent ambition. For reasons that nobody had successfully understood, Britain has proved herself unusually adept at producing sculptors. Britons seem to like sculpture more than most. They seem better at making it than most. The rise of sculpture is unquestionably one of the most important narratives in British modern art. Perhaps, even, the most important.
So, an exhibition recording these circumstances and explaining why they might have occurred is a valuable event. There is a cherry on the cake as well. Not only is the rationale for mounting such a survey particularly clear and strong, but the Royal Academy’s galleries are made for sculpture. The architecture has helpful sculptural ambitions of its own. The vistas have inherent drama to them. Hepworths and Moores always look good in these spaces.
There was, therefore, only one way this show was not going to work, and that is if it set out to tell the wrong story. Step up Mr Sod to enforce his irritating law with alarming enthusiasm. The problems start at the beginning. Indeed, Modern British Sculpture might be breaking some sort of world record for going wrong early. The first thing you see, in the Royal Academy’s courtyard, before you enter the show proper, is a dilapidated stone barn of the sort you might encounter on a ramble through the Lake District: plain, stony, rustic. It turns out that this barn is an exact replica of an actual Lake District barn: the one inside which the German dada artist Kurt Schwitters, who came to Britain briefly during the second world war, produced one of his famous sculptural collages, which he called Merzbau. Schwitters’s original Merzbau has since been removed, but bits of the barn remain in the Lake District, and this is a copy of it.
Hit me over the head with a hammer, please, if I’m missing something, but since Schwitters’s Merzbau was inside the barn, not outside it, since this is a pretend barn and not the actual barn itself, since Schwitters was not even British but German, there is no logic or point to re-creating it here, at enormous expense, in the courtyard of the Royal Academy. The original barn was not a piece of sculpture. This barn is not authentic. Producing this replica is a scheisse idea.
The second exhibit that we encounter is even more phony. It’s a lifelike model of Edwin Lutyens’s austere war memorial on Whitehall, the Cenotaph, re-created in “wood and textured paint”. The ersatz whopper rises most of the way to the roof in the academy’s grand opening gallery and dominates the first vista. Now, in the exhibition ahead, all kinds of authentic and important sculpture that should have been included is not. Entire careers are missed. There is no room for Anish Kapoor or Rachel Whiteread, Richard Deacon or Antony Gormley, Helen Chadwick or Mona Hatoum. Scores of intensely relevant contributions have been excised from the story of British sculpture. Yet two of the academy’s best spaces have been squandered, extremely expensively, in two of the show’s most prominent moments, on a fake B&Q Cenotaph and an entirely irrelevant pretend barn that belongs in Madame Tussauds. If I were the Henry Moore Foundation, which has generously supported this event, I would demand my money back.
The problem, as so often with contemporary-survey shows, is the arrogance of the curators, who have chosen to foreground their own creativity rather than that of their exhibitors. This particular pair of curatorial dunces, Penelope Curtis and Keith Wilson, have an understanding of sculpture’s story that seems to have been picked up at evening classes devoted to the politics of British colonialism. Thus, the first arrangement included here of sculpture made by actual sculptors, rather than by the B&Q workforce, sets out to argue that the British Museum, in its early days, was able to plunder the cultures of the world, vacuuming up exotic sculptural artefacts, and that the influence of this stolen exoticism was to alter the course of modern British sculpture.
The point, an unarguable one, is confusingly made in a busy display modelled loosely on the way the British Museum itself shows its art: which is to say, all jumbled up, relentlessly, one thing after another. A baboon. A sun god. A female torso. A giant head. At first, you are unsure if you are looking at exotic foreign artefacts or modern British sculptures. It turns out you have both before you, simultaneously. Early-20th-century sculptures by Epstein, Moore and Hepworth have been seamlessly mixed in with the ancient originals that influenced them, from Egypt, Mexico and Easter Island.
There are plenty of stirring sights in this cluttered array. How moving to see, at last, the darkly doomy Easter Island head, hacked out of volcanic basalt, that the BM itself never lets out of its stores. And look how powerful is the Egyptian baboon that inspired Epstein. But finding out that, in most cases, the ancient artefacts are sculpturally superior to the modern sculpture they inspired is poor recompense for the confusion thrust into the story of British sculpture by including so many non-British examples. If this had been a show about the influence of ancient primitivism on British modernism, a clear point would have been made. But that is not what this is.
The curators have called their colonial section Theft Through Finding, a typical curatorial phrase in that it sounds good, but doesn’t actually mean anything. All the way through this wilful journey, pretend knowledge is passed off as the real thing. A large case full of exquisite Chinese porcelain pops up suddenly to pave the way for a matching case of clunky English studio pottery. Things get so haphazard, I was briefly uncertain if Honey Pot was a 1930s sculptor I had never heard of or a description of the lumpy piece of 17th-century Staffordshire earthenware that influenced her.
Don’t ask me what the Staffordshire pot was really doing here. All manner of unnecessary exhibits have been press-ganged into this showy game of international snap through the ages. Why, even Equivalent VIII, better known to us now as Carl Andre’s bricks, is here, even though Andre is as fully and irreducibly American as a minimalist can be. There are photographs, too, of the performance artist Keith Arnatt burying himself in the ground, a seminal 1960s happening that seems to turn up in every curated contemporary survey, whatever the topic. Just to be clear: the photographs of Arnatt burying himself in the ground record an amusing event, but they are not sculpture.
Neither is the set of newspaper cuttings about this show, stuck to the gallery wall by “the staff at the Henry Moore Institute” and presented here as an independent exhibit. Curators, stop trying to be such smartarses. This is a load of newspaper cuttings. This is not sculpture. Meanwhile, Alison Wilding is not here, or Liliane Lijn or Shirazeh Houshiary or Marc Quinn or Grayson Perry or the Chapmans.
Saving the event from complete uselessness is the occasional unveiling of little-seen pieces that deserve more attention, and the superb display of several more famous works. Anthony Caro’s gorgeous tangle of agricultural steel, painted pillar-box red, Early One Morning, looks magnificent and makes you question, again, why the Tate so rarely shows it. The Tate also owns Nul Comma Nul, a sinister, scary cage sculpture, strewn with unwanted clothes, by the veteran performance artist Stuart Brisley. Admittedly, this gloomy work has played no discernible role in the history of British sculpture, having never, to my knowledge, been shown by the Tate. But what a brutal and powerful evocation it is of armpit Britain at night.
Damien Hirst’s Let’s Eat Outdoors Today, meanwhile, is vintage Hirst horror: an encased British barbecue, complete with half-eaten steaks, at which most of the invitees are flies. Thousands and thousands of them. How sad and even tragic that these exciting sculptural moments find themselves at an event disfigured beyond usefulness by dodgy curatorial thinking.