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Model Forms: Sculpture/Architecture in 50s and 60s

Britain Wonder: Painted Sculpture from Medieval England At the Henry Moore Institute, 74 The Headrow, Leeds, until 5 January 2003

It was with models that Sophie Warren and Jonathan Mosley largely determined the design of their house in Bristol (see pages 2227). Frank Gehry famously relies on them, while a visitor to Daniel Libeskind's office tells me that elements of models for earlier schemes lie in wait there as fodder for the future, to be recycled in new combinations if a project so suggests.

The role, then, of the architectural model in evolving or communicating a design could be the premise for a fascinating show, but Steven Gartside, curator of Model Forms at the Henry Moore Institute, has done something different. The eight models he has selected, all from the 1950s or '60s, are completely removed from their context of production.

They sit on red cubic plinths with just an unattributed quotation for company. On the wall, where we might expect some supporting information, is a mural by the young artist Toby Paterson, who is making a speciality of Modernist architectural motifs.

In the range of projects they encompass, and the architects of the period they represent, the models are well-chosen: from Mary Martin's design for part of the 'This is Tomorrow' exhibition to Leslie Martin's proposed redevelopment of Whitehall, with a couple of Goldfinger housing schemes and the Smithsons' Coventry Cathedral in-between. But, shown in a gallery dedicated to sculpture, what are we meant to make of them?

If you pick up the £3 booklet that accompanies the show, you discover Gartside's intentions. In part, he appears to welcome a blurring of boundaries between architecture and sculpture. More clearly, he enjoys the ambiguity that surrounds these models when seen as stand-alone objects.

'The viewer is presented with something that, out of time, has no official/real state. It could be the confident statement of final intent, or a more problematic middle point, ' writes Gartside, suggesting that 'the viewer is invited to play a role of speculation, tracing threads towards an imagined end.' And he goes further. 'The state of grace that can exist around a model can also confuse the viewer.

While the form still remains stubbornly present, there is a stripping away of rules, formula and frameworks of assessment.'

While Gartside seems happy that visitors might be 'confused' by the exhibition, he should worry that they are not left indifferent. For non-specialists, only the names Coventry and Whitehall are likely to spark recognition and possible engagement, so the models have got to deliver. As sculpture?

Well, in a loose way, they do: in the massing of different volumes, the interconnecting parts, of the Goldfinger housing schemes, for instance; or the soaring roof of the Smithsons' Coventry proposal. Most emphatically sculptural is Victor Pasmore's Apollo Pavilion, Peterlee; as no more than a Constructivist folly, it has the liberty to be so. Its model is decidedly crude, the white paint patchy, as if anticipating the neglect that the built version would suffer.

But just to isolate any sculptural qualities they possess, or 'speculate' about them uninformedly as Gartside suggests, is to underplay the potential of these models.

With some indication of their role or context or outcome, they could be eloquent;

such knowledge would encourage speculation, not negate it.Here, though, the models are left in a vacuum, which Paterson's wall painting only intensifies. It is of Modern Movement buildings, or parts of them, in a blank, pristine setting: is this meant to resuscitate Utopianism or criticise it? It is only decoration.

Many of the items in the institute's other current show are in even worse condition than the Pasmore. 'Wonder' is devoted to polychromy in medieval sculpture but, given English iconoclasm during the Reformation and the Civil War, most examples of it were reduced to rubble. So this is largely a display of fragments.

It is instructive to see just how unconcerned the medieval church was about 'truth to materials', even alabaster being routinely painted and gilded. Objects in the first room are presented one-by-one in an intimate, conventional manner: albasters borrowed from the V&A, a painted oak effigy of Sir Robert du Bois, recumbent in armour, from a Norfolk church. In the main gallery, however, the fragments are organised as an ensemble.

Their sources are various - Tewkesbury Abbey, Winchester Cathedral, a church in Wells - but most of the 30-odd pieces are placed on two tiers of metal-scaffolding and grilles down the length of the room. This installation is meant to simulate the architectural setting in which such sculptures would once have been found, but the silvergrey scaffold-structure that supports them is all too redolent of a left-luggage department, and the fragments look brutally out of place.

Their pathos is undiminished, however, and no doubt current taste responds more to their fading pigments, their pale traces of paint, than to their once intact polychromy.

Most accord with medieval formulae for piety or grotesqueness, but in a few the combination of crafsman's dexterity and psychological insight make the statue into an individual, and colour becomes superfluous.

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