Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

Caro at Chatsworth

Chatsworth, Derbyshire

Beside the baroque pomp of Chatsworth, around an oblong pond with a jet of water whose spout commemorates one of the last Russian tsars, a group of 15 metal metaphors has been parked. The steel assemblages are by Anthony Caro, now 88 and recognised as Britain's greatest living sculptor – enigmatic abstractions, machine-like with their screws and rivets, some of them like farm implements negligently deposited here in an aristocratic garden where they have to keep company with statues of wrestling heroes, wilting nymphs and the lecherous goat-footed god Pan, along with a Madonna by Elisabeth Frink and a gang of bibulous metal picnickers designed by Allen Jones.

Caro's rusted flats and bolted girders, irregularly positioned around the water like guests at a dinner table, ought to look out of place. He has always resisted exhibiting his work out of doors, arguing that it needs tranquillity, enclosure and the neutral background of a white wall; he never wanted to people landscapes with totemic presences like those sculpted by Henry Moore, the mentor whose influence he questioned in an Observer article in 1960. In fact, the Chatsworth collection includes an indoor "Table Piece" by Caro, usually housed in a grotto inside the entrance hall but placed, for the next few months, in a sculpture gallery laid out to exhibit the souvenirs of successive Grand Tours by earlier Dukes of Devonshire.

This harpoon-like item, angled to ensure that its edges don't slice off the legs of passers-by, looks a little silly in a mortuary of bloodless neoclassical warriors and frisky Cupids, under a chandelier on which an eagle has alighted.

But outside, exposed to showers scything down from clouds that have the consistency of boulders, additionally crusted with white deposits from birds that perch on it in passing, Caro's work flourishes. It commands open space because it is so architectural, so comfortably civic. Goodwood Steps, a set of oxidised pyramids, is ranged against the southern facade of the grand house with its rooftop balustrade of urns, its columns and crests and cornucopias; the ducal residence is forbiddingly formal but Caro's construction seems habitable, like an embryonic city being pieced together from Meccano. Although you're not allowed to sit on the steps, I found dripping groups of visitors huddled in the defiles beneath and between them, grateful to have found a refuge from the rain.

The three-dimensionality of sculpture should encourage us to become aware of space, of its constructions and its amplitude, and to recognise the quantity of empty air that our bodies displace. Forum seems ready to accommodate a large public meeting, with an atrium for adult discussion and a climbing frame for restless children: a pity about the notices warning you not to touch or to clamber inside, since Caro's stalwart inventions want and need to be explored, inhabited, put to use.

Capital, poking upright in a coat of orange paint, puns about this architectural motive. Is it imitating a capital letter or remembering the proud thrust skywards that creates a capital city?

Egyptian makes a gloomier comment on the purpose of houses such as Chatsworth, which exist as containers for trophies and trinkets, the spoils of generations that stay behind when their owners dematerialise. It is an empty tomb, its internal passages no longer sealed to protect a treasure – an anonymous, impersonal monument that will outlast the man who made it.

Double Tent, with its droopy wings of silvery stainless steel, jokes about the temporariness of canvas, and doesn't bother to be watertight. For once, the failure to provide shelter hardly matters. Goethe said that architecture was frozen music, and this construction, with a pipe for a roof beam and great dishes of curved metal like cymbals at either end, resembles a silent orchestra, ready to turn air into exuberant sound. A metal box called Scorched Flats adds a legless grand piano to the ensemble. Emma Gate has the same entrancing playfulness. The gate is open, made of rods that don't prohibit entry; even the title, which derives from Emma Lake in Saskatchewan, where Caro made it, ceased to be a puzzle when I noticed that a bucket seat held upright by the cross bars contained a puddle of rain, like a shallow lake that shivered in the chill wind.

Despite Caro's preference for galleries, his work has an immediate affinity with the landscape in which it's exhibited here. Chatsworth is the product of a collaboration between art and nature. The vistas we admire are picturesque illusions, designed by gardeners who planted leafy screens to block the gaunt, bleak moors, and demolished entire villages because they interfered with the supercilious sightlines from the house. A rockery that resembles an avalanche is entirely artificial, piled up in homage to the Alps. Inside the house, cabinets of minerals show rock mutating into jewellery. Everywhere in the park, the elements have been persuaded to perform aesthetic tricks: water cascades down hillsides or shows off in fountains, and a weeping willow squirts actual moisture from its metal foliage. It's Caro's achievement to have demonstrated that steel is equally malleable, as easy to shape as water.

His solid, immovable weights seem thin as paper when you look sideways. He also delights in dodging across the border between machinery and organism. Pleats Flat draws attentions to a ridged spin that is meant to suggest a gathering of pleats in soft cloth; they reminded me of stitches in flesh, as if the steel had a wound that has not yet healed. No wonder so many dogs sniffed the sculptures, attempting to define the exact biological or botanical status of these puzzling monoliths. (Luckily metal has no smell, so the dogs felt no need to lift their hind legs and make a critical comment.)

Cliff Song is the most explicit allusion to geology, a steep, bevelled excerpt from a mountain, with an overhang that forms a suspended cave. Once more the harsh substance becomes squashy, palpable: clinging to the cave is an ungeometrical clump that looks almost obscenely carnal – a female torso perhaps, with breasts and belly but no head or limbs. The excrescence mystified me until I noticed that, thanks to the position chosen for the sculpture, it made perfect sense. Cliff Song has been set down next to a wintry tree whose swollen trunk has a series of corky bunions growing on it, exactly in the shape of the tumour soldered on to the metal. And, since spring comes late in north Derbyshire, the only evidence of life on the skeletal tree last week was the twigs that had optimistically sprouted from these morbid growths.

The pleasure of the display comes from such interactions between art and the spirit of place, and from your own dialogue with Caro's teasing contrivances. As I was pondering Forum, an elderly woman crept up and said: "Excuse me, do you know if this one has a title?" When I told her what it was, she said: "I was just saying to my friend that it looks like an old-fashioned locomotive with a cowcatcher on the front. Don't you think that's better?"

I told her that my own first thought, before I cheated by consulting the catalogue, was that it might also be a whisky still. She laughed and tottered on to decipher the next conundrum.

Thanks to Caro, the grounds of Chatsworth have become an adventure playground for the mind. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Don't be the product, buy the product!