A soul in eternal torment was an excellent choice as poster-boy for the Royal Academy of Arts’ thought-provoking exhibition, Bronze (until December 9).
The Damned Soul by 18th Century artist Benzi (see illustration) was forged in fire, but also shows just how unbeatable this remarkable alloy is for freezing forever an image, a moment or a piece of human history.
Light enough for a life-size fourth century BC Dancing Satyr to stand on one leg, malleable enough to form the folds of a Roman’s toga and bright enough to be burnished to represent the Sun in a chariot dredged up from a Danish bog, bronze has been telling the history of humanity, its gods and myths, for more than three thousand years.
The exhibition is cleverly arranged in sections, not along a timeline, allowing visitors an insight into the changing ways our ancestors saw themselves through images of their kings, models of animals and objects from different eras.
Thanks to the tin which is alloyed with copper to make bronze, the material is tough yet easily worked, and the exhibition demonstrates how it has brought the illusion of movement and life to three-dimensional objects through shine or texture.
For example, the bust of King Seuthes III, dug up in 2004 after centuries in the Bulgarian earth, glowers out of a glass case, his eyelashes still intact and scars carefully reproduced, with such intensity that you just know you would have obeyed his every word.
Here, too, are plenty of gods: a distinctly tipsy Bacchus who you expect to fall over, despite having been on his feet for a couple of hundred years; an emaciated Buddha, almost like a Holocaust victim; and a host of multi-limbed Eastern deities, including one couple who are having more fun with each other than ought to be possible with seven of their eight feet on the ground.
But it is the Etruscans, those pre-Roman inhabitants of Italy, who take the award for the best range, with something spectacular in every category - from what looks like cutting edge modern art in one figure of a three thousand year-old chieftain, to exquisitely perfect renditions of a young girl from 300 BC.
Bronze is virtually indestructible, and these objects have been found buried in the earth, raised from the depths of the sea and survived centuries in peat bogs, and their polished glow casts a searchlight into the minds and lives of our ancestors.
The only exhibits which defied rational explanation or appeared to be bereft of any meaning were the modern ones. Jeff Koons, for example, has created a bronze basketball which according to the catalogue “confounds our ideas of equilibrium.” Luckily, there’s no other such balls like that in the show, so don’t let it put you off: Bronze is a celebration of human life by mostly forgotten artists which you will never forget.
See www.royalacademy.org.uk for tickets and times.