Carving Mountains (Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, till 26 April)
For the love of stone
C Sculptural energy is the mountain,' wrote the young Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in 1914. 'Sculptural feeling is the appreciation of masses in relation. Sculptural ability is the defining of these masses by planes.' In articulating this wonderfully confident, even mystical, formalism he defined the ambitions of a couple of generations of sculptors — the early British modernists whose work is reassembled in the admirable exhibition Carving Mountains at Kettle's Yard (then at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea from 2 May until 28 June).
Mountains are made of stone, and one of the things that these young sculptors were determined to regain was a love of their sculptural material for its own sake — the stoniness of stone, its texture, weight and colour. Or rather, a love of all the innu- merable different stones from which sculp- ture could be made. By the end of the 19th century, in the work of Rodin for example, sculpture had tended to come down to a choice between coffee or tea, white marble `Square Form, 1934, by Henry Moore on show at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge or bronze (though there were exceptions such as Alfred Gilbert).
But a glance round this show is like a dip into a geological museum — where in fact Henry Moore and co. spent many hours of happy research. Alongside ordinary mar- ble, there are works made from ironstone, Armenian stone, translucent alabaster, highly polished grey-green, speckled verde di prato, serpentine, Hopton Wood stone, African wonderstone, Corse Hill stone with the colour and granular texture of brick. It is a miniature mineral world.
The two watchwords of the day were `truth to materials' and 'direct carving'. The first of those sounds a mite puritanical and was, since it implied a disapproval of marvellous artists such as Bernini. 'Sculp- ture in stone should look honestly like stone,' declared Henry Moore in 1930. 'To make it look like flesh and blood, hair and dimples is coming down to the level of the stage conjurer.' (Twenty years later he acknowledged the absurdity of this as the sole criterion of quality in sculpture, 'other- wise a snowman carved by a child would have to be praised at the expense of a Rodin or a Bernini'.) But along with the puritanism went a novel sort of sensuality: truth to materials meant a new enjoyment of materials. Once you had stopped trying to make stone look like skin and drapery and whatnot, you could start taking pleasure in what it was. Thus the sooty hue and rough grain of the sandstone from which Frank Dobson carved his 'Kneeling Female Figure' are part of its strength, rather than just being signs of unsuitable stone for sculpture. Indeed, the material partly dictated the forms — the smooth green glassiness of the verde di prato Moore used for his 'Head and Shoulders' of 1927 are complimentary to its flattened, stylised, slightly Aztec appearance — in a way that Dobson's sandstone would not have been.
As to direct carving, it may come as a surprise to discover that sculptors ever did anything else. One instinctively thinks of them as looking rather like the photograph of Gaudier-Brzeska in the Carving Moun- tains catalogue — hammer in one hand, chisel in the other, chipping away at a great big block of stone. But, in fact, as Rudolf Wittkower explained in his excellent book Sculpture (Penguin, £16), for several cen- turies many sculptors left off doing any- thing so dusty and exhausting. That was left to assistants, who ran off a marble version of the master's clay or plaster model with the aid of an ingenious device called a pointing machine. So a marble such as Rodin's 'Kiss' is actually the reverse of direct carving — it is indirect carving, done at second-hand by studio assistants.
All of this was anathema to the direct carvers — who gloried like Barbara Hep- worth in the 'hard resistance' of the materi- al, the physical work. So much so that for a while modelling in clay was regarded in some quarters as an unsound, backsliding option — which was silly, as Epstein point- ed out.
But the interest in stone was part of a huge shift in sensibility, the results of which are still with us. From being aware only of the Western tradition from Classical Antiq- uity to the Renaissance they moved to an understanding of other times and places. For a while, artists had been interested in the Middle Ages and Japan. But for some of these sculptors more distant models the prehistoric, the Aztec, the African suddenly became more important than the Greek.
Epstein's 'Female Figure in Flenite' has a strong, though superficial, look of an African tribal piece. Gaudier-Brzeska's `Imp' shows more effectively digested sources; it looks, if anything, like an alabaster alien from a science fiction film. One of the lessons of this beautifully select- ed and installed show is how good Gaudi- er-Brzeska was; his early death was one of the heaviest artistic losses of the first world war.
All the same, there were a good deal of what Moore called 'Greek spectacles' around — although looking through them tended to result in weaker work, such as Frank Dobson's 'Torso' of 1930. Again, Gaudier-Brzeska's lithe, wiry 'Torso I' of 1913 is far more original and strong (the model for this celebrated work, the painter Nina Hamnett, was in the habit of raising her jumper in Soho pubs with a cheery, and increasingly alarming, cry of, 'Do you want to see the torso?').
Progressively, as the Twenties wore into the Thirties, these sculptors turned towards abstraction. One can see it in the work of Moore and Hepworth, whose figures become ever more blobby and amoeboid, aspiring to the condition of eroded rock and pebbles. This era was the height of the cult of the pebble — quantities of them are to be seen in the interiors of the Kettle's Yard house, arranged by the late Jim Ede with inspired discrimination. Much later Hepworth had the idea of mounting an exhibition on the Cornish coast, but was dissuaded — fortunately, since the beaches thereabouts are strewn with natural Hep- worths.
Even at its most schematic there are ref- erences in her work to the natural and organic world. The globular 'Three Forms' of 1935 irresistibly suggest eggs, which in turn put one in mind of the triplets to which she had just given birth (the daugh- ter of one of them, Dr Sophie Bowness, contributes an anthology to the catalogue from which my quotations come). Running through almost all of this early modernist sculpture there is a sense of the landscape, ancient art and living things. Even Ben Nicholson's rigorously geometric 'White Reliefs' might put one in mind of megaliths. It is that which makes this phase of British modernism in practice not puri- tanical and austere, as it might sound, but humane and serene.