October 30, 2009 / 4:37 PM / in 8 years

London show reveals UK sculpture's Wild Things

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - An enormous robotic figure astride a drill, a sculpture of entwined lovers and the head of American poet Ezra Pound tell the tale of how three artists transformed British sculpture at the start of the 20th century.

"Wild Thing" on at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until January 24th recounts the emergence of works by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, American Jacob Epstein and Briton Eric Gill, whose industrial, natural and sexually charged works changed the landscape of British sculpture from 1905-1915.

Royal Academy curator Adrian Locke told Reuters that the three artists looked away from the traditional working-in-plaster-casting-in-bronze approach to sculpture, preferring to work directly with stone and were inspired by native art and carvings in the British Museum.

"They came at it from a different angle," Locke said. "They wanted to return to the primitive way of working directly with stone."

Each artist is given his own room in the show.

Gaudier-Brzeska was only 23 when he was killed in World War One, cutting short an artistic campaign that so impressed Pound that he likened the young artist to "a well-made young wolf or some soft-moving, bright-eyed wild thing," the reference from which the show's name is taken.

Gaudier-Brzeska's works include an oversized sculpture of Pound's head, his evocative "Red Stone Dancer" and the exhilarating "Bird Swallowing Fish" -- which was completed in 1914, the year that the "war to end all wars" began.

Locke said the piece -- in which a bird and a fish appear locked in a battle where the fish cannot escape the beak of a bird that appears unable to swallow it -- could be interpreted in the light of the futile struggle of trench warfare.

"It was this kind of stalemate of trench warfare," he said.

A replica of Epstein's robotic masterpiece "Rock Drill" -- a giant white man-like figure with a fetus embedded in his chest atop a big black drill and tripod -- dominates one corner of the exhibition.

When Epstein first unveiled the work, its combination of man/machine as a procreative figure shocked the art world.

"People thought it was the most depraved thing they had ever seen," Locke said, adding that Epstein later broke the work up, discarding the drill and casting only the torso of the figure.

The controversial carving of the sexual act called "Ecstasy" by the Catholic Gill provides a marked contrast to the number of his religious carvings of the crucifixion, Madonna and child and drawings for his stations of the cross at Westminster Cathedral.

According to biographer Fiona Mcarthy, Gill modeled the figures for this originally unexhibitable piece on his sister Gladys, with whom he was having an incestuous affair, and her husband.

Locke said that of the three, Gill was most inspired by the traditional, the skill of the craftsman or stonecutter. But it was his choice of subjects that most outraged the public.

"Some of the subject matter was highly frowned upon," he said.

The origins of these three artists could hardly have been more diverse. Epstein was a Jew from New York, Gaudier-Brzeska the son of a joiner, and Gill's father a Brighton clergyman.

But between them, in a sustained burst of bold inventiveness before World War One, they brought about the birth of modern British sculpture.

The idea of wildness lay at the center of their revolution, looking far beyond classical art to gain inspiration from what Gaudier-Brzeska excitedly called "the barbaric peoples of the earth (for whom we have sympathy and admiration)."

Editing by Steve Addison

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