Thursday, 14 March 2019

Dinosaur



Regular visitors to London's Natural History Museum may recognise the statue at the heart of this new "Guardians" picture: it's the imposing marble rendering of Darwin, enthroned at the top of the staircase in the main entrance hall. Although positioned and unveiled there in 1885, from 1927 until 2009 it had been usurped in that prominent spot by a bronze of the museum's founder, Richard Owen. Owen was a complex Victorian figure, a gifted comparative anatomist, able to taxonomise, reconstruct, and predict the appearance of a creature from a few bone fragments, an ability which led him to identify and name the dinosaurs as an extinct group of lizard-like creatures. However, despite broadly accepting the principle of evolution, he fell out with Darwin over the central idea of natural selection, favouring a more creationist view, and became a spiteful establishment enemy of Darwin and his allies. As Darwin said, "It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me." It is quite surprising that it took the museum so long to re-right that wrong, if only symbolically.

But what strikes me is the excellence of that statue, carved out of solid marble by Sir Joseph Boehm. Is there anyone alive today who could achieve such a vivid likeness? On the evidence of the few statues that have been erected in recent decades, the answer is emphatically no. Setting aside abstract sculpture, or semi-figurative work like Antony Gormley's endless series of casts made from moulds of his own body, when it comes to statuary we seem to be stuck with kitschy stuff like the St. Pancras station monstrosity (The Meeting Place), or well-meaning but pedestrian efforts like this statue of that alternative Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace. I mean, seriously, if that were a six-inch plastic figurine it would be pretty good – I can easily imagine a series of Great Naturalists action figures, with switchable nets, hats, cleft sticks, and other collector's impedimenta – but at seven feet tall and cast in bronze it surely lacks any real sense of weight, volume, texture, or presence, doesn't it?

I suppose one of the motivations behind my "Guardians" series is precisely that uncanny sense of presence that inhabits so many pre-20th century sculptures, often of dignitaries whose names have long faded from history, but whose likenesses still gaze across museum galleries and civic spaces. Biologists are always at pains to point out that evolution is not teleological: it is not a process of refinement towards some ultimate end (maybe you, possibly even me), but an endless series of adaptations to changing environments and the niches they offer or cease to offer to life-forms. I'm not sure most of us believe that in our hearts, but then we also don't really believe that the sun only appears to go round the earth, do we? Or, for that matter, that the entropic heat death of the universe is inevitable. Somehow life and entropy seem to be fighting different battles, don't they? Something that, I now realise, my new Guardians image might be seen to express.

Similarly, when it comes to the art of sculpture, I suppose there are perfectly valid sociological and economic reasons why no-one today has the time or skill or motivation to release a truly lifelike simulacrum from within a block of cold marble. For one thing, quite apart from its sheer difficulty, it's too bloody expensive: even that oversized bronze Wallace action figure cost its commissioners £50,000. So our current lack of skill and sophistication ought not, in theory, be seen as a backward step, just as a new way of making public art, appropriate to the prevailing socio-economic conditions. But, come on, it really does feel like a falling off, doesn't it? And it's something I feel acutely in nearly every exhibition of contemporary work of any sort I visit: I'm tired of seeing the easy shortcuts, the lack of finish, the ironic promotion of calculated ineptitude over skill and craft, and the universal elevation of idea over execution. But then, as I am beginning to realise, I'm just a dinosaur...

Darwin in Berlin
(Museum für Naturkunde)

7 comments:

Zouk Delors said...

I'm not really sure what it is about the Wallace statue you hate? I don't really understand what you mean by (sense of) "weight" and "volume". Speaking literally, those are physical properties of this particular lump of bronze. It could do with a good going over with Brasso, imo, but I don't know much about art. It's hard to judge on texture in a 400x600 photo. Have you seen it in real life? The idea of naturalist figurines with interchangeable kit (you would have had 'em all!) is amusing, but obviously it would never be as detailed as that. Mind you, the Darwin physiognomy is very life-like. Great representation of "the naturalist at rest" (swap my butterfly net and binoculars for your armchair?).

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

I don't hate it, I just think it's "well-meaning and pedestrian", an example of what now passes as acceptable figurative sculpture. Obviously, everything has properties of weight and volume, including a feather, but you'd want a sculpture of a feather to say something about its lightness and insubstantiality compared to say, the actual lump of bronze it was cast from. The Wallace statue just doesn't convince me or compel my attention: his legs and boots are also very odd, anatomically.

In comparison, the Darwin face, for example, is quite astonishingly expressive. Boehm seems to have been the go-to guy for Victorian busts and statues of public figures.

As to detail, you should see some of the figurines aimed at the adult nerd market (Star Wars, Marvel comics, etc.)! Check out Forbidden Planet, should you ever be near Shaftesbury Avenue...

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

I wouldn't need to go that far, as I discovered to my astonishment the other day when I walked into a tiny Star Wars boutique in Baker St, Stevenage thinking it was Coda's. It did explain the life-size dalek that's been hanging about there for a while. I didn't examine the figurines for craftsmanship.

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

Nerds are everywhere! Never mind the detail, check the prices... Hard to believe anyone able to afford such things would actually want them. Still, that's why we have estate agents.

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

How about this one, currently being assembled up the road from you:

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/mar/18/huge-bronze-statue-messenger-crouching-female-actor-arrives-plymouth

Get your skates on and have a look

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

Blimey! Though you may be confusing Plymouth and Portsmouth? Easily done -- I once caught a train from Bristol to Portsmouth, under the impression our regional NALGO meeting was being held there. Wrong...

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

Oops!