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The wax and the fire

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At its best, the Royal Academy’s autumn show, Bronze, has an alchemy that conjures the luminous and sublime out of dense surfaces and forms

‘The past,’ as LP Hartley wrote in his 1953 bestseller, The Go-Between, ‘is another country: they do things differently there.’ Differently, but still implicitly part of our sensual, emotional and imaginatively charged present. Bronze, the Royal Academy’s new show, allows us to experience the past not as if it were in a vitrine, but as an alchemy of form, materiality, light, time – and human presence.

The exhibition opens with a Grecian showstopper: the damaged, almost limbless Dancing Satyr from 400BC, his cranium trepanned, his body covered in an exquisite psoriasis of stippled verdigris and darker, smoother patinations. Raised, beautifully lit and alone in the first room, we have everything: formal poise, temporal and emotional tensions, death and, most significantly, a life force that transcends this wonderfully crafted figure.

How many artfully surfaced and detailed modern buildings achieve anything like this sense of presence and communication? How many seem merely virtuosic, or cleverly referential, or expressing dutifully murmured ‘haptic qualities’? Why only those qualities? The Bronze show, mounted with restrained clarity by Stanton Williams, may offer some answers and consolations.

The translated Latin inscription on a 13th century German bronze door-knocker reads: ‘The wax gives what should be, the fire takes it away, the bronze gives it back to you.’

And here’s Louis Kahn’s flipside: ‘A great building must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed, and in the end must be unmeasurable.’ The exhibition gives us a sense of both ideas. Craft and the human touch at this level of imagination, execution and range are instructive to any kind of designer.

Yet the figuration of these bronzes is not always their most compelling aspect, despite the brilliantly arranged formal dynamics in pieces such as Barye and Gonon’s 1832 Tiger Devouring a Gavial, and Girardon’s Laocoön and his Sons from 1690.

The essential magic of most of the pieces lies in qualities of light: not the light that their surfaces reflect, but the light their forms seem to possess in some inherent way. And the most sublime proof is found in one of the show’s darkest pieces, Rodin’s The Age of Bronze, whose nominally black surface throws out tones of darkest red and toffee that seem to be lit from within, as if the bronze was about to return to its molten state.

There can seem to be too much light. The abstract bird form of Brancusi’s Maiastra, with its polished, high brass-content gleam, creates a brilliant graphic punch that is mute. But the bronze stands on a faux ancient, fragmented stone column-head of variable texture that is etched with carved lines and shadow. Presto: a small but potent object-lesson in the tensions of starkly contrasting forms and materials.

Sometimes – just as in crudely illuminated architecture – light is a destroyer. Rustici’s otherwise superbly impressive 16th century ensemble, St John Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee, is rendered as Las Vegas baroque by the way it’s lit. We experience little more than a sense of surface, as if the trio had been made of plaster and rescued from a Hollywood props museum.

No such ambiguities in Tony Cragg’s 2007 sculpture, Points of View – a fascinating study of the dynamics of light, profile and surface quality. The wobbly whirls of Cragg’s asymmetrical bronze spindles morph into distorted facial profiles; sharp edges melt into softness; cold gleams into darkened calm. Umberto Boccioni’s Futurist piece, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, dating from 1913, seems uniquely and discontinuously turgid by comparison.

The bronzes at this exhibition give us more than protean riddles of surface, light and texture; they can also possess dense concentrations of stillness – a stillness that somehow seems alive, as in the 14th century shamanistic Seated Figure from Nigeria, whose tranced gaze is eerily hypnotic. There is a similar gnomic power in the 600BC Winged Feline from Spain, a beautifully poised, intensely concentrated Ur-Art Deco figure.

Matisse’s massive series of bronzes, Back, generates the same degree of concentration, yet also a wild sense of freedom. His abstracted figures seem half-sunk into bronzed rectangles of earth, their surfaces scarified with brusque scrape-marks and cylindrical indentations. Two of the bronzes, Back III and Back IV, are Corbusian or, rather, what Corb might have dreamed of achieving.

The show’s art-historical gravitas is not entirely overwhelming – Benzi’s 17th century head, Damned Soul, is a screaming Thomas Heatherwick; Adriaen de Vries’s Seated Christ from 1607 gives us an oleaginous Blairite dissembler, desperately trying to hold back a seismic fart; da Firenze’s conjoined Satyr and Satyress, circa 1540, is pure twistys.com penetrative porn; the Pop Art bronzes by Jasper Johns and Jeff Koons are turdishly witless; and, though one should admire the 12th century Krodo Altar from Saxony for itself, it does have the look of an architectural satire by Hans Hollein.

No matter. In the penumbral, living glow of that 2,400-year-old Dancing Satyr, we have the complex pleasure of standing on the edge of other times and other places where, as Hartley said, they did things differently. But the go-betweens – the eye, hand, touch, light – are proof against such pat thresholds: they’re always with us, vividly, in the here and now.

Jay Merrick is architecture critic at The Independent

Exhibition: Bronze, Royal Academy, London W1, until 9 December, £14

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