Friday, 22 January 2010

where the wild things are

Yesterday I caught the Royal Academy’s show of Gill, Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska, ‘Wild Thing’, also in its last week. Cramped in three smallish rooms with a still sizeable audience the exhibition at times made me think of Ad Reinhardt's famous statement: that sculpture is what you bump into when you stand back to look at a painting. There were indeed works on paper by all three artists but you had to navigate between these and the pieces on the plinths. Gaudier was, alas, to die within a couple of years, but since the show concentrates on work these artists did in the few years before the First World War they are placed more or less on equal footing. I’d say that Gaudier comes off the best of the three. Wonderful works like the fish swallowing a bird together with the sketches make the viewer wonder what this artist might have produced. His head of Ezra Pound (middle above) is larger than I’d imagined from viewing reproductions. What is initially astounding about the work of all three artists is the overwhelmingly phallic nature of the works, from Gaudier’s head of Pound and his ‘Birds Erect’ through to Epstein’s ‘Rock Drill’ (top above) which seems to grant the stone figure an immense prosthetic penis (Gill’s personal propensities gave his perhaps less obviously phallic objects their own overtones). All three artists produced work of considerable power nonetheless. Gill’s work (bottom above) has perhaps dated more than the others but for reasons that are not entirely his fault. To the present viewer Gill’s pieces have the slightly false sleekness of Art Deco though of course they were shaped some ten years before the French exhibition that gave that style its name.

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