16 MARCH 2002, Page 57


Earth and Fire: Italian Terracotta Sculpture from Donatello to Canova (Victoria and Albert Museum, till 7 July)

Fluttering vitality

Martin Gayford

Terracotta — cooked earth — is about as inexpensive an art material as could easily be imagined. If you live in an area of heavy soil, you could probably dig the basic ingredient — hydrated aluminium silicate — out of your garden. Cook it at about twice the temperature of the Sunday roast, and bob's your uncle — art. If, that is, you've also added skill, and some enlivening idea to prevent it coming out of the oven boring and stodgy. The extraordinary range of possible results can be examined

in a remarkable, pioneering exhibition Earth and Fire.

The cheapness and ease of clay as a material was both its glory and its shame. Nothing, with the exception of wax which, understandably, lasts much less well, can be shaped so easily. Thus clay — as the German critic Winckelmann noted long ago — has many of the same characteristics as a painter's works on paper. It can be used to record the most fleeting of ideas in what the Italians call a bozzetto, or sketch model.

That is one of the themes of this exhibition, most stunningly in the series of bozzetti modelled by Bernini for his personal contribution to the angelic procession that crosses the Tiber on Ponte Sant'Angelo (one of the most memorable set pieces of Baroque Rome).

In these little terracotta figures one can see, as connoisseurs have long recognised, the fluttering vitality of the artist's creative imagination expressed in the most direct way possible. (The FBI have examined the fingerprints on the Bernini bozzetti at the Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachussetts, and apparently discovered Berninfs dabs on them.) Similar brilliant sculptural sketches are on show by Canova. Giovanni Bologna and at the beginning of this tradition in the late 15th century, Verrocchio.

But making rapid studies of compositional ideas was by no means the only use that sculptors found for this versatile medium of thick, glutinous earth. In the 15th century and before it was used to make full-scale sculptures. One startling example — not at all the kind of thing you expect from the Italian Renaissance — is a hyper-real 'Mourning Woman' (presumably a Virgin Mary from a Lamentation), by the Ferrarese sculptor Guido Mazzoni. This object, realistically painted and including such life-in-the-raw details as a broken tooth, is more the kind of thing you might expect from contemporary artists such as the American Duane Hanson who makes figures so naturalistic you find yourself queuing up behind them, or asking the way.

Indeed, one of the many merits of this fascinating exhibition is that it suggests how complex and, sometimes, modern in feel the history of sculpture has been. It is revealing, for example, to discover the sculptor of a bust of the portly Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici — later Pope Leo X, on which elevation he remarked, 'God has given us the Papacy, now let us enjoy it' — using the technique of life-casting. The face of the cardinal was moulded from his own features in much the same way — though a little improved to add a relaxed expression — as the work of fashionable artists such as Marc Quinn and Antony Gormley.

The history of art seems to be concertina-ing in a similar way when one looks at Canova's late 18th-century bozzetto of 'Venus and Adonis' which is so loosely modelled that the two figures seem about to disintegrate into a haze of light and atmosphere. The impressionist sculptures of Medardo Rosso, from a hundred years later look much the same. The reason is probably that Rosso was putting sculptural sketches in the foreground in much the same way that the Impressionists exhibited as finished paintings that looked to their contemporaries like sketches.

But the reason why the secret history of sculpture represented by terracotta may come as a surprise is that a snobbery of material crept in during the 16th century, and is still with us. Michelangelo, and his biographer and spin-doctor Vasari, believed that there was a distinction between the noble media of marble and bronze, and the more workaday one such as terracotta. Clay had its place in the hierarchy, which is in part based on cost. It was suitable for models — indeed, Michelangelo was a key figure in the development of the bozzetto, and the lack of an example is the one big gap in this exhibition (they are so rare, fragile and precious that apparently the organisers did not even dare to ask for a loan). Vasari and Michelangelo also believed, like early modernists, in truth to materials. Marble should look like marble, and terracotta like cooked earth; neither should be painted to resemble something else.

Well, call me old-fashioned, but I'm inclined to agree with the old boys on that one. Or, at least, I don't think that the Florentine habit of glazing terracotta sculpture so that it turns into a variety of art pottery was a very good idea. The works of the della Robbia clan were popular in the Victorian age, and doubtless still have their fans (there are characteristic examples by Luca and Andrea on show). But, for my money, the glaze produces a boring, slippery surface much less pleasant and expressive than the raw — that is to say, the cooked — terracotta. In that condition, ter racotta has a porous, slightly crumbly looking appearance like — what in a way it is — some delicious bakery product.

That gives some of the appeal to several of the most beautiful of the exhibits — the Bernini and Canova. And in the case of several outstanding 15th-century pieces —such as the splendid bust of 'Young Man' by Antonio Pollaiuolo — it is no sadness to me that the original gilding is largely worn away.

The most dramatic confrontation of clay and its greatest rival is between two busts of Filippo Strozzi by the late 15th-century Florentine, Benedetto da Maiano. The terracotta version seems to have been a fullscale rehearsal for the finished marble, but it is quite different and in some ways more impressive. The clay head is more living, more human, more careworn; the marble has grown a little loftier with a more erect carriage of the head, but also more impassive, idealised and — in fact — everything one associates with the word 'marmoreal'.

Sculpture — at least sculpture before 1900 — has long been the Cinderella art in London with no exhibitions, and at the V&A antediluvian displays. This exhibition puts it back on the map. Indeed, with Andy Warhol at Tate Modern and Paul Klee at the Hayward, it is currently the most recommendable show in town.