‘Carved, cast and modelled’ could be described as an antipode to the capacious sculpture exhibition currently held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London - ‘Modern British Sculpture.’ That is, if the Royal Academy show questions what sculpture is and should be in the future, the Barber Institute efficiently envisages a definition of the tradition of western sculpture in its 2000 years of established existence, in a manner that its curator rightly described as balanced. This is a triumph that a collection of this size can boast such a wide selection. The staff admitted that they have in the past struggled to pass misconceptions locals had, that there is little of wonder inside this one-brick-to-shape-all-bricks building found on the University of Birmingham campus.
The speakers at the opening were keen to labour these points – that the success of the gallery has come out of Sir Thomas Bodkin’s bold directorship in purchasing so bravely many sculptures at a time of war, or worst even, just after the war, when buying art was a major financial risk. This did of course pose one key advantage – the relative cost of works was cheap, and the Barber could afford that which (more or less) the national galleries could. In other words, this is a rather delightful collection. And it is duly deserved that these sculptures be set aside, to be distinguished and made holy as a unique collection within the wider collection.
Speaking of making holy, it is right to begin with ‘Christ as the Man of Sorrows’, a stirring marble relief from the Baroque period, that is far from the expected austerity, and instead has the rough expressionism of the International Gothic period. The sculptor, Orazio Marinali (1643-1720) has carved Jesus’ face with assertion of humility and sacrificial suffering. The tears and the crown of thorns, which are both far from subtle, remind us of the emotional and physical torture endured by Christ. In complete juxtaposition, the nose and cheek have porcelain-like perfection, thus representing divinity. The finest details are undoubtedly for me: the taut skin of the gaunt face, and the deep nostrils that propel the sculpture’s nature to that further than mere relief.
On quite another theme, ‘The Bust of Juliette Recanier’ by Joseph Chinard, c.1800, is perhaps the most beautiful of them all. If ‘Christ as the Man of Sorrows’ touches us, then this calls us to touch. The model’s limp-hands attempt to hold on the shawl to cover her. Between her fingers she gathers the fine, patterned fabric – just compliant enough to remain hooked over her sloping left shoulder, and then to be indecisively stretched from her arm to breast. Although she is half exposed, from a three-quarter view, her lowered glance hides all knowledge of it. In subject matter and handling she couldn’t be more sensitively rendered. This is only furthered by the poetic play on the heroic marble goddess - Juliette is serene like her classical counterpart, but unlike a goddess, her beauty is tainted. She is not untouchable.
One of the key beauties of sculpture resonates: it is a tangible subject, which is so engaging because it allows us to explore, to move about the object, and to find surprises in the revision of each view. Sculpture is, and this exhibition does nothing but prove it, an interactive discipline. It provokes a perceptive response and to know this, you must only go and stand before them.
Photography is care of the Barber Institute.
This exhibition is open until 2nd May.http://www.barber.org.uk/carved.html