The Sculpture Show

January 2012

Publication: The Times

This show of 150 sculptures and sculpturally-related works spanning the last 110 years has been divided into a number of historical and chronological sections. These cover impressionist and cubist sculpture, the work of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson as well as their near- contemporaries Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill. One area is devoted to British sculpture in the ‘50s while another explores the medium in inter-war Germany. Performance art is also represented, as well as surrealism and minimalism.


Clearly, these categories are fairly loose and are by no means wholly representative or comprehensive. They do, however, give some indication of the SNGMA’s strengths because the vast majority of the work comes from the gallery’s own collection. Given the constraints of budget and that fact that the collection is only fifty years old, it is, in many instances, of high quality. Judiciously, the curators have chosen to bolster the show through a variety of loans, gifts and recent purchases. The results make for an outstanding array of work.



The “centrepiece” of this show is Ron Mueck’s recent work, ‘A Girl’. Mueck’s hyperrealist sculpture – often greatly over- or under-scaled – divides opinion like almost no other artist. Some find is engaging and absorbing while others find its extreme mimeticism cold, clinical and soulless.


Some works do not rely on sheer scale to make an impact. These include Käthe Kollwitz’s ‘Tower of Mothers’. Kollwitz witnessed the harsh privations of inter-war Germany and much of her subject matter was derived from the observation of life in a working class suburb of Berlin. This powerful work, which was made in 1937, was, like the rest of Kollwitz’s output, banned by the Nazis as ‘entartete kunst’  (‘degenerate art’). The motif of mothers joining forces to protect their children recurs both as a woodcut and a painting neither of which, sadly, is exhibited here.


Another work of poignancy is Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s ‘Bird Swallowing a Fish’. It was created in 1914 – just a year before the artist was killed (at the age of 24) fighting in the French army. Gaudier-Brzeska was clearly ahead of his time and even now the work, with its bold simplified forms, seems fresh and vigorous.  It clearly begs the question about how the artist’s work may have developed had he lived.


The diversity of this show allows one to dip into vastly differing areas of historical development and genre. The work of Bruce McLean, Joseph Beuys and Charles Ray shares certain similarities. McLean’s ‘Crease Crisis’, Beuys’s aktion ‘Three Pots For the Poorhouse’ and Ray’s ‘Plank Piece I & II’ –were made within a year or so of each other in the mid-1970s. They involved the body as an essential element in the artwork. McLean, in particular, seems to have received less attention in his homeland than his work merits and so it is gratifying to find him represented here.  This may act as precursor to the retrospective exhibition his work clearly merits.

In the 1950s the new town of Peterlee in County Durham appointed the artist Victor Pasmore as consulting director of urban design. Pasmore’s intervention, completed in the ‘70s, came to be known as the Apollo Pavilion and can be seen as a large three-dimensional encapsulation of some of his relief artwork and sculpture. Two of these reliefs, from the early ‘60s, can be found near a work by Toby Paterson who was born in Glasgow in 1974.  Hamburg Relief develops Pasmore’s language through the sparse juxtapositioning of shape and colour.  Pasmore’s pavilion was previously the subject of one of Paterson’s works and so the connections form a kind of neat circularity.


Although the claim that this historical survey is “definitive” is over-ambitious, the fact remains that – despite the eclecticism and some patchy representation – many of the works are engaging, hugely enjoyable and, at times, greatly moving.