Sculpture Victorious?

Sculpture Victorious

Tate Britain

25 February – 25 May 2015

The marketing material composed for Sculpture Victorious at the Tate Britain is as brash, bold and boastful as the works featured inside of it. Visitors are promised exhibits that best represent this ‘Golden Age’ of British Sculpture, a time when sculpture was apparently prolific, ubiquitous, innovative and commercial. They are therefore invited to simultaneously consider the beauty and power of these works and marvel at their multiple meanings and reasons for production.  This is a lot to expect from objects, and it is maybe for this reason that the exhibition has been largely abused by the critics.

Despite the mid-twentieth-century exhibition held at the Victorian and Albert Museum on Victorian and Edwardian Decorative Arts, a lingering prejudice remains about the design and objects of the nineteenth century. Victoriana is just not popular – it’s difficult for today’s eyes to appreciate and admire because it is so different from our contemporary notions of taste and beauty.  This becomes clear when walking around Sculpture Victorious. Even the editors of visit1862, lovers of all things nineteenth century were struck by how difficult it was to relate to the sculptures on display. Indeed, the exhibition’s large gathering of such hyperbolic and exuberant objects is a visually demanding experience that has clearly taxed visiting critics. This is, of course, a shame because there are some fascinating objects in the exhibition, including Minton’s magnificent Peacock of 1873 that was shown at multiple international exhibitions, and the same manufacturer’s spectacular Elephant of 1889.

Upon reflecting on our own visit to this exhibition, the editors of visit1862 find that our sympathies largely lie with the critics. We find that the way in which the exhibition has been curated does not help the visitor navigate with the demands made by the objects on display. The curatorial team have found it difficult to navigate through the complexities of these sculptures and how they are beautiful objects that radiate power, undercurrent with tones of racism and oppression and other unpalatable themes.

We would suggest that to understand these works, you have to think like a Victorian. The exhibition leaflet does provide a broad framework that attempts to do this, but it provides too little guidance to successfully achieve such difficult a task. The general arrangement of the exhibition also attempts to engage in sophisticated analysis of a range of themes, but is potentially over optimistic in the number of stories it can tell, resulting in its main argument becoming unclear. The exhibition is arranged around six principle themes accompanied by more complicated narratives that are threaded throughout the exhibition.  To achieve this the show is divided into six rooms, one for each theme: The Image of Victoria; The Presence of History; Art and the Antique; Great Exhibitions; Commemoration; and Craft and Art.   These overarching stories are then joined by comparative discussions about sculpture techniques, the role of the sculptor and the influence of new materials on sculpture practices. At times these stories are successful, but in places the curators attempts to bring so many narratives together is overly complicated and results in a weaker and sparser narrative.

The thematic discussions in the exhibition are also undermined by the way in which the sculptures are presented as single artworks in the exhibition, displayed alone on their plinths and portions of wall space.  We were struck by how airy and open the exhibition space was and the way in which even felt sparse at times. This is probably because, as historians of international exhibitions – where many of these works in the exhibition were first displayed – we’re used to seeing photographs of displays of objects presented en masse in spectacularly overcrowded arrangements. In contrast, the objects in Sculpture Victorious have been put upon literal and metaphorical pedestals, the space around them creating a kind of vacuum that separates them object from other objects on display and the visitors coming to see them. In some ways these Victorian sculptures are able to hold their own during their surgical segregation from other sculptures and visitors. Many were originally intended to be viewed from a distance and were therefore grandly made in splendid in colours and huge scales. As a result they possess an innate confidence. Nevertheless, their removal from their original contexts leaves them vulnerable to the criticism of twenty-first-century critics. By arranging these sculptures in a twenty-first-century display pattern, the curators have welcomed critics to judge them using twenty-first-century values.

Further problems arise as a result of exhibitions’ text boards attempting to discuss the sculptures as designed objects, but from an art historian’s perspective.  Although their attempt to engage with sculptures as designed objects is an encouraging move, it is a misstep nonetheless.  Their discussions are incredibly frustrating and perplexing from our design historical point of view. After looking at the catalogue we noted that there are obvious gaps in its bibliography, why is there no reference to the work of Glenn Adamson when entire section of the exhibition is devoted to craft and art? Indeed, their failure to engage with recent design history, craft history and theoretical discourse is particularly disappointing when it could have immeasurably improved the exhibition.  For example, many critics have been left yawning and uninspired by the exhibition’s opening gambit – Queen Victoria’s glum countenance – and the way the exhibition engages with it through the use of well established themes of memorialisation, imperialism, historical revivalism and classicism. If the curators had paid more attention to recent developments in design and craft history they may have been able to tell more interesting stories about the dispersal of Victoria’s image, its after life and material significances.

Nevertheless, the show does allude to the marvellous machines that were designed in the nineteenth century to create reduced copies of sculptures in various materials, such as the Reducing Machine by Benjamin Cheverton (1794-1896).  Perhaps further discussion of these machines and what they produced could have made the exhibition more interesting. Why not then assemble a whole host of these portraits, rather than the paltry handful put in the room?  Why not replicate the machine?  Are they afraid to do this because the exhibition is in an ‘Art’ museum?

It must also be acknowledged that attempts are made throughout the exhibition to complicate the narrative of great male sculptors; discussions also considering the relationship between sculptors and industrial manufacturers, the media coverage of sculptural display and presentation, and public responses to sculptures.  However, the story of the great male sculptor still dominates and it is very noticeable that only one female sculptor is included in the whole exhibition.

Despite the exhibition’s curatorial problems, the exhibition was still exciting for the editors of visit1862 because it contained objects directly related to the 1862 International Exhibition. Most notably, we would recommend that our readers go to visit the exhibition just to see the Outram Shield, produced by silversmiths Hunt & Roskell to a design by Henry Hugh Armstead (1828-1905) specifically for the 1862 International Exhibition. Made of silver, gold and damascened steel, this enormous shield was a commission by friends of General Sir James Outram to commemorate his role in quelling the uprising against British rule in India in 1857.  Multi-layered Indian figures are fighting, dying, falling to British swords in heaps upon themselves in this uncomfortable tableau; sculpture and metalwork, according to the object label, are united in this piece to create a technical display par excellence.  But the horror of the scene is passed over by the curators.  We are asked to appreciate the beauty, be overcome by the power of the objects – but not to engage beyond the surface.  This object encapsulates many of the issues and questions raised in this review.  There are important design threads that do run through the exhibition narrative, including issues of reproduction, material, consumer culture, dissemination, craft and technology – but the traditional war of art vs. design must still be raging at Tate Britain.  So we have a strange mix of traditional art history (feeling conventional, in the comfort zone) and attempts to discuss making, craft skills and international exhibitions that fall short.  Marks for trying though.

On the whole, we feel the curator’s title for the show connotes wishful thinking on their part.  But the sculpture is unstoppable – overpowering the exhibition design, the curatorial narrative, the visitor – exerting palpable agency, they claim a victory of their own.

© Helen Cresswell and Ruth Mason, 2015

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