FROM MOLTEN METAL TO MATISSE

~ Posted by Rebecca Willis, November 26th 2012

We've all known since junior school that verbs are "doing" words. But can you guess just what has been done if something has been sprued up, invested, burned out, fettled, repaired, chased and patinated? The answer—I can tell you, having just been to "Bronze" at the Royal Academy—is that a 3-dimensional metal form has been cast. The exhibition has been acclaimed for many reasons, but it deserves particular plaudits for the pains it takes to explain how the exhibits themselves were made.

I have tried hard to understand the cire perdue ("lost wax") process before—notably at the Henry Moore sculpture exhibition in Kew Gardens a few years ago—but only now have I grasped it. The RA has dedicated a whole room to the explanation of this (and other) methods of casting metal. There are cases with models showing each stage of both the direct and the indirect processes of cire perdue casting; in the former the original is destroyed, whereas the latter can be used to make several casts and the original is preserved. There is also a five-minute video to make double-sure that you've got the message.

This knowledge enhances the exhibition as a whole, which is organised by theme (human figures, animals, groups, gods, objects, reliefs and busts). There are works spanning five millennia: from ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and China; by Donatello and Ghiberti; from Africa and India; by Brancusi, Jasper Johns, Moore and Matisse. A lot of bronze sculptures were made for outdoor, often architectural, settings, and bringing them indoors under gentle, caressing lights changes how we relate to them. But above all, knowing how they were made—the complexity of the process and the dangers of dealing with incandescent, molten metal in a world before A&E departments and burns units—adds to the awe the exhibition inspires.  

"Bronze" runs at the Royal Academy until December 9th

Rebecca Willis is associate editor of Intelligent Life. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Let there be darkness and Talking of mental disorders