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    Saturday, March 02, 2024

    Sculpture Gets Recognition it Deserves in YCBA Exhibition

    Zenobia in Chains, 1859, marble by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer.

    The Victorian era was a fertile time in the arts in Great Britain, yet sculpture isn't a medium people most identify with this period, even though sculptors were producing a multitude of imaginative, original, and diverse works.

    In its current exhibition, Sculpture Victoria: Art in an Age of Invention, 1837-1901, Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) has brought together a wide array of sculpture rarely seen by the public, as many of the objects are on loan from private homes and estates.

    Created for both public institutions and private display, the exhibit examines the cultural and political significance of the pieces in the framework of the

    19th century.

    Included in the exhibition are figures and reliefs in marble, bronze, silver, wood, porcelain, ivory-as large as Minton's six-foot-high majolica elephant (in the main lobby) and as small as an intricately carved cameo studded with gemstones.

    The exhibit is co-organized by YCBA and the Tate Britain galley in London, where it will travel this spring. It is curated by Martina Droth, associate director of research and education and curator of sculpture at YCBA; Jason Edwards, professor of history and art at University of York; and Michael Hatt, professor of history of art at University of Warwick.

    An Under-studied Era

    The three curators were on hand to discuss the exhibition at a recent media preview at the museum.

    "It is important to do this exhibit because sculpture of the Victorian period has never been subject to this extent of examination," Droth said, introducing the exhibition. "So we're really pleased to have had the resources to present the subject in the rich and significant way it deserves."

    "Even though there has been extensive interest in other aspects of Victorian history: the pre-Raphaelites, for example, have been the subject of many exhibitions," Droth noted, "It's really striking that of all art forms, sculpture in the Victorian period hasn't had that kind of presence, and it really doesn't make sense, as the Victorian period is so close to our own, and has so much shaped our contemporary world that we really do need to look at its sculpture to understand that period fully."

    Hatt discussed the overarching themes of the show.

    "The opening bay lays out a lot of the key themes and main takeaway messages of the exhibition," he noted. "In the 19th century in Britain and right across its Empire was the most extraordinary efflorescence of sculpture. It's everywhere-it's in homes, it's worn on bodies, it's in civic spaces, buildings. It's hard to get a sense of exactly how many millions of sculptural objects are circling the globe."

    Hatt pointed out that while the image of Queen Victoria is very well known in Europe and the U.S., what's crucial is that it's a sculptural image.

    "It's an image made in sculpture and then circulated in sculpture through monuments and portrait busts, [from] great monumental busts to more modest productions; mass produced objects for middle class homes; service medals, commemorative medals made in hundreds of thousands; coins from all parts of the Empire. All stand with this sculptural, iconic image of Victoria."

    Hatt pointed to a life-size figure of a knight and said, "It's hard to believe this object is here. It's from the House of Parliament, the seeds of British government."

    Particularly noteworthy, he said, is that "although this is a medieval figure with its splendid chain mail and ax and gilding, it's made in the most modern way. It's a zinc statue with a very thin coating of copper on it; a real innovation. So, in a sense, it's not simply that he connects past and present-Magna Carta to the House of Parliament-it actually embodies that sense of past and present; a great figure from Britain's past made with the most up-to-date Victorian technology…and very splendid he looks there, too."

    Edwards discussed a number of significant sculptures in the exhibit, including the death mask of George Gammon Adams, the first Duke of Wellington.

    "He was the single most important military figure in 19th-century Britain and had a tremendous cult following," Edwards said. "Thousands upon thousands of people lined the streets to watch Wellington's funeral car pass by. It was by far the largest civic spectacle in the history of Britain.

    "The cast of his face [for the death mask] was taken immediately after he's died," Edwards continued. "It's an incredibly poignant, private, intimate kind of portrait on the one hand, which really gives you a sense of the man and became a model for many busts. It exemplifies how moving people found busts of this period. Unveilings of these objects often had 70- or 80,000 people in attendance to see the moment when the [bust] was revealed."

    A Center of Discussion

    Another highlight of the exhibit is the Greek Slave by Hiram Powers on loan from the Newark Museum. Although the woman in chains was sculpted by an American artist, the work was first shown in London, at the Great Exhibition of 1851 where the white marble figure became one of the most talked about and controversial sculptures of the era.

    Powerfully juxtaposed with the Greek Slave is British sculptor John Bell's The American Slave, an African woman sculpted in bronze, standing on the shore, waiting to be transported into the slave trade in America-Bell's direct response to Powers's statue, Droth explained.

    "In 1851, the Greek Slave was one of the most talked about, written about sculptures in Victorian England-perhaps one of the most famous objects of 19th century sculpture," Droth said. "It plays a very important role in the history of American culture. But we particularly wanted to show the [two figures] here to give a sense of the international world coming together and the important political role that sculpture played, and particularly in Britain."

    Droth commented that one of the other important points the curators wanted to make in the show was that in the later part of the Victorian era there was a shift in the way in which craft was practiced and presented to audiences, and that sculptors wanted to be seen as the craftsman themselves.

    "While earlier on we had a very opportunistic sense of the ability for art and sculpture to be a collaborative venture with manufacturers and industry, later there's a kind of retrenchment from that idea and more of a sense that sculptors had to be their own craftsmen and that industry was in fact a threat to the arts and to sculpture in particular," Droth said. "And in a way, it was kind of an intellectual idea because sculptors still had to send their objects to the bronze factory, as they always had, but there is a sense that the objects are more individualized and unique."

    Sculpture Victorious: Art in the Age of Invention, 1837-1901 is on view at YCBA, 1080 Chapel Street, New Haven. For a listing of related lectures and talks on the exhibition, visit britishart.yale.edu or call 203-432-2800. Hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission to the museum and most programs is free and open to the public.

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