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Modern British Sculpture – review

Royal Academy, London

Anyone who thinks Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII (the bricks) has been more reviled than any other sculpture in this country should think again. Jacob Epstein's statue of Day was regularly assaulted in the 20s. His Rima, in Hyde Park, was once tarred and feathered and you can still see the mutilated remains of his nude figures on the facade of Zimbabwe House in the Strand, noses and genitals hacked off in 1935 "on safety grounds" after years of vicious campaigning.

The bricks, by contrast, only suffered a mild dose of paint and the acid aspersions of the Sunday Times in 1976. But still the attack seems to belong to another era, an age of outrage, violence and censorship before sculpture became such a familiar, not to say popular, art form in this country.

For we are used to seeing sculpture celebrated annually on the Fourth Plinth, in the Turbine Hall, at the Turner prize. Our countryside is full of fixed Gorms. We know the art of Mark Wallinger, Cornelia Parker, Helen Chadwick, Marc Quinn, the venerable Richards Deacon and Wilson. Thousands travel to see the ghostly casts of Rachel Whiteread, the poetry of Ian Hamilton Finlay, the radiant illusions of Anish Kapoor. It is no stretch to claim, as Anthony Caro recently has, that sculpture has become our language.

So this feels like the perfect moment for an all-together-now survey of modern British sculpture. How could it possibly fail? Let me count the unexpected ways. To start with, not a single one of these British artists (bar Caro) is included. Perhaps they were not invited, perhaps they refused, but in any case the omissions weaken and distort the story.

You would not learn from this show (curated by the sculptor Keith Wilson and Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain) anything about the Geometry of Fear or the rise of installation art. There's no pop and not much advanced conceptualism. And if that suggests a bias away from Martin Creed, say, towards carving, casting or traditional craftsmanship, then bear in mind that all sorts of relevant candidates, from GF Watts to William Tucker to the Chapman Brothers, are also excluded.

Or, rather, Tucker is represented only in the catalogue, by his 1969 essay on modern sculpture in Studio International, just as all of Gustav Metzger's fiery creations and destructions are bypassed for a boring wall of his Page 3 girls. Half a gallery is devoted to ceramics or, rather, to demonstrating the influence of Chinese stoneware on potters like Bernard Leach, when Japan was surely as crucial.

Wonderful as it is to see the films of Len Lye screening in the Royal Academy, it is not clear why they count as sculpture, even when the definition is so elastic as to include anything (such as a happening, a performance or a Richard Long walk) that exists, or once existed, in three dimensions. And if Andre's Equivalent VIII can make the cut, though the American's minimalism never took root here, then why not Marcel Duchamp, whose influence is infinitely greater? Surely yesterday's headlines were not a factor?

In short, this show is either unintentionally patchy, perverse or a combination of the two. It spurns comprehensiveness in favour of "conversations" between exhibits. But its own tendentiousness gets in the way.

You walk into a gallery containing four flagrantly miscellaneous figures. Alfred Gilbert's neo-baroque Victoria, in which the old queen resembles nothing so much as Gilbert, or is it George, on a throne crowned with gilded lilies; Lord Leighton's classical athlete; Philip King's semi-abstract Genghis Khan and Charles Wheeler's bronze Adam, in which the pierced head admits light in most unfortunate ways, making the eyes come alive in Hammer Horror fashion.

What is the connection – leaders, empires, robes, on the one hand; heroic nudity on the other? The juxtapositions force the issue, but the bathetic answer is that these artists were all Royal Academicians (three former presidents, we're told, as if that matters).

The opening gallery is bent on displaying what every schoolgirl knows, namely the influence of ancient cultures on early 20th-century art. Tremendous loans from the British Museum alternate with modern sculptures so that one sees, definitively, the lessons of Indian carving for Eric Gill, the effect of Aztec figures upon Henry Moore, what Epstein took from Egyptian art.

It is an exemplary exercise, to be sure, but also a knockout for modern art. Every piece here is lessened by comparison. Gill looks like an art deco stylist, Gaudier-Brzeska appears silly, and next to the stupendous Assyrian reliefs he revered, Sargeant Jagger's first world war frieze looks about as sophisticated as sculpted icing.

Too often, the art is presented to make a point, or even two. Moore and Hepworth: figurative v abstract, horizontal v vertical. Gilbert's Victoria: commemoration v propaganda. The approach is vigorous and should keep visitors moving briskly – assuming they are not intent on the sculptures as art.

One hundred and twenty artists to choose from, yet so many poor or unrepresentative works. Why not borrow Gaudier-Brzeska's marvellous Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound instead of his dog? How about Damien Hirst's elegiac Away From the Flock, not another case full of flies. Sarah Lucas, Rebecca Warren, Richard Wentworth: none is well represented. Wilson even asks in his catalogue essay, as if to acknowledge the fact, whether weak works say more than strong ones.

There are brilliant moments in this show, it's true. To open with a replica of Edwin Lutyens's Cenotaph, that soaring monument that seems like the bright, solid opposite of a grave (and what associations with absent Whiteread) is to strike at the whole definition of sculpture right away. To see Epstein breaking free of the British Museum is to understand his thunderous impact on British sculpture.

And Anthony Caro's Early One Morning, with its dazzling array of steel girders, tubes and backboards, shifted and tilted until the forms seem to react to one another, signalling or springing flirtatiously apart, remains forever young. Open, free, airily articulate, its scarlet feet barely touching the ground, it feels perennially new after 50 years.

From Caro to Kapoor, there are so many different strains of abstraction in British sculpture; so many, and perhaps more, of figuration. You could tell a tale of primitive idols, hyper-real effigies and eerie tableaux, of philosophy, memory and the landscape transformed, of ideas made visible and dramatic illusions, of humour and politics and strange beauty: of immense creative richness.

But none of this is touched upon at the Royal Academy, with its joyless chronology and lack of focus, shape or story. In fact, by the time you reach the final room, where the objects are displayed like Hoovers in a shop, you may have lost heart, and no wonder. It would be hard to imagine a major exhibition that showed modern British sculpture to less advantage. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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