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Carved, Cast, Constructed: British Sculpture 1951-1991

Diving into the pool of 40 revolutionary years of British sculpture, this exhibition includes artists such as Lynn Chadwick, Kenneth Armitage, Allen Jones and, as any retrospective of 20th-century sculpture is obliged to, the inimitable Henry Moore. Presented by Marlborough Fine Art as an examination of the rapid development of British sculpture in the decades following the Second World War, the show offers a close-up look at several of the key pieces that came to spawn a plethora of groundbreaking new theories and ways of practice.

One of the intriguing things about the post-War period is that it came to represent one of the first eras, at least in modern art history, where the effects of increases in arts funding could truly be felt by young, aspiring artists across the nation. As the economy slowly recovered after the challenges of wartime, public funding for culture surged, including tax-supported funding of art schools and colleges. Suddenly, being able to practice art was not strictly limited to the aristocratic and leisure classes, and their offspring. As more schools were able to open their doors to students from different backgrounds, British sculpture, in particular, bloomed as a medium; students were educated and encouraged to experiment in a noticeably more inclusive environment than ever before, though it was an environment still infused with the cultural conservatism of mid-century Britain. Along with education, the public also saw an increase in government spending on museums and exhibitions. This not only prised open previously-closed doors for artists to exhibit their work, but, also, it introduced fine art to a much wider audience. No longer was the active enjoyment of the arts a frivolous luxury only accessible to the gentry, the bourgeois, or the nouveau-riche, but something for the public at large.

The upswing in funding did not come without some prior indication to the financial gains that could be made from the strongly flowing currents of post-war expression. Paving the way for his successors, Henry Moore wowed critics with his presentation during the first post-War Venice Biennale in 1948, significantly boosting the international reputation of British sculpture. With the increased interest and encouragement from the general public came the sorely needed investments. In the wake of Moore’s early pieces, Chadwick, Armitage, and Paolozzi burst onto the scene to further develop the rough-cut aesthetic he established, where sharp angles were juxtaposed against softly-rounded geometric shapes; echoes of this particular style could later be detected in the so-called Brutalist movement. In this sense, the exhibition is as much an exploration of the styles and ideas that led up to the period immediately preceding the rise of the YBAs, as it is an attempt at an explanation of how and why things moved in the directions they did.

So, what did I make of the show as a whole? To be completely honest, it left me feeling rather conflicted. The presentation itself is extremely crisp, and the space has been beautifully curated, mercifully free from typical Mayfair foppery or palpable pretension. Outstanding in its honest simplicity, it is rather disappointing to see it fail with its positively retro dearth of non-male artists. Out of the eleven selected sculptors presented during the private view, only one was female. Since the private view, the press release has mysteriously been expanded by two more artists, one of which is Barbara Hepworth. In my first draft of this review, I questioned the exclusion of her, specifically. Regardless of this addition, an update of the ratio of women to men, from one out of eleven to two out of thirteen, is hardly what I would call impressive. Furthermore, this blatant erasure seems to suggest that female artists simply did not successfully work in the medium for four decades, which is as perplexing as it is untrue. Female artists most certainly existed and saw success, if perhaps not as widespread as their male contemporaries. These female sculptors rightfully influenced generations to come, not least YBAs, and near-YBAs, like Rachel Whiteread and Cordelia Parker. Ignoring their influence comes across as a bit archaic, especially for gallery priding itself on its modern grasp of British contemporary art. I suppose one could applaud this stance for providing a historically accurate description of the appalling discrimination of the time, but in all honesty, is that really necessary for a correct understanding of the climate as it once was? After all, these were all artists who worked for change and the expansion of the status quo, so it does not make any semblance of sense to carry the limitations they challenged into the present day. Having said that, the exhibition is still a joyous experience, should one choose to ignore all the technical difficulties; its no-frills approach lends itself well to the subject and it obviously inspires both reflection and further research. This is why it is such an honest shame to see the gallery trip over its own feet simply because it decided to stick with a frankly ludicrous level of patriarchal conservatism.

Carved, Cast, Constructed: British Sculpture 1951-1991
Full list of artists: Kenneth Armitage; Anthony Caro; Lynn Chadwick; John Davies; Barbara Hepworth; Allen Jones; Raymond Mason; Margaret Mellis; Henry Moore; Eduardo Paolozzi; Victor Pasmore; Roland Piché; William Turnbull
Marlborough Fine Art
6 Albemarle Street
W1S 4BY, Mayfair
25 October – 25 November 2017

Image: Kenneth Armitage, Model for a Large Work, Version B, 1963, Bronze Painted, Edition of 6, 83.9 x 35.5cm, Copyright Marlborough Fine Art, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art