Auguste Rodin, 'The Age of Bronze', 1877. Victoria and Albert Museum/ Given by the artist, A.33-1914/Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. As I write, the 2012 London Olympics are drawing to a triumphant close. Bronze, of course, comes third place in the medals table, but it has a very special place in art. The first man-made metal, it is strong and enduring, an alloy of base metals that becomes more than the sum of its parts, a product of human ingenuity and created by almost every civilization. Indeed, in his feature on the RA’s Bronze exhibition, the broadcaster Michael Wood writes, ‘Civilisation came with the working of bronze.’
Across the globe, as human beings learned to smelt bronze, they came together at the forge to create art and culture, craft gods and rulers, fashion tools of war and peace. The RA is presenting over 5,000 years of art in bronze, from the Bronze Age to today, juxtaposing art from around the world to look at the power of this compelling medium. Rodin’s Age of Bronze (1877) on our cover seems to reach back through the millennia of artistic endeavour, just as Tony Cragg RA’s work looks forward.
Hughie O’Donoghue RA also looks backwards and forwards across time to create moving paintings that explore war and peace and his troubled relationship with his father. In his ‘Artists’ Laboratory’ show his enigmatic figures, either swimming or drowning, recall his father’s experience crossing the Rapido river in the Second World War Battle of Monte Cassino. But they also evoke the ancient Greek Tomb of the Diver at Paestum and suggest a leap into the unknown.
Stephen Chambers RA also sees his images as ‘jumping-off points’ into broken narratives. In his massive print The Big Country (2012) which takes over an entire gallery wall, he is creating a print on an epic scale: ‘It is… my Alexander McQueen moment – the unwearable dress, an anti-print. But then the “Artists’ Laboratory” is meant to be experimental.’
While these ‘Artists’ Laboratory’ shows focus on individual artists, RA Now is inviting all of the Academicians to show a signature work at the RA’s new space in 6 Burlington Gardens. This selling show will raise money to develop the Academy’s site, while also offering the public the chance to see the broad range of the Academicians, from Sonia Lawson and Ken Howard to Gary Hume and Tracey Emin. For Antony Gormley RA, the show is ‘a once-in-a-generation opportunity. I’m full of hope that the RA will indeed become an agenda-setting institution… it has begun to elect people who are shaking the tree of possibility.’
As we look forward to the Academy of the future, it is worth considering the artists who may join it. The critic Robert Hewison writes, ‘Something is rotten in British art schools,’ as he raises concern that high tuition fees, slashed teaching hours and elimination of training in traditional art skills will harm the formation of future artists. ‘Although politicians set so much store by the creative industries, they have no idea how creativity works,’ he says, fearing the fatal combination of government meddling and funding cuts could kill Britain’s golden goose of artistic creativity.
The Olympic success of Team GB has recently shown that with enough investment and nurturing, the diverse talent of this country can punch far above its weight on an international scale. The arts have long done this – indeed the magnificent arenas of the Olympic Park, many designed by RAs, bear witness to the creative power of this country. So as we consider what a lasting Olympic legacy means, let’s remember that the arts – like sport – can fire the imagination and ambition of future generations.