The Royal Academy: Antony Gormley & Dame Laura Knight


Body and Fruit by Anthony Gormley

A comprehensive show of work by this internationally renowned British sculptor, which explored his unswerving obsession with the human body as – “A place of experience, emotion, consciousness, memory and imagination”.
This remarkable exhibition provided a detailed insight into Gormley’s output over very nearly 40 years, testing the iconic display space of the RA to its very limits. One associates his work very much with bronze or lead casting – and there was plenty in evidence here, but also the use of more unusual materials including linseed oil, blood, rabbit skin glue, crude oil, carved blackstone – and water!… Gallons of saltwater sitting on top of a ‘sea bed of clay’ as an installation in Gallery XIII; as he puts it – “a kind of primordial soup of matter, space and time.

In the Courtyard approach to the RA the smallest ever installation used here – Iron Baby, 1999 – sets the scene. One then moved, pretty speedily, from the diminutive to the enormous.

Clearing (7), 2019, in Gallery III, was an installation seemingly consisting of miles of aluminium tubing, filling the larger of the Weston Rooms from floor to ceiling, with the viewer left to pick his or her way through it.

Matrix (3), 2019, was an extraordinary, suspended piece consisting of six tonnes of 6mm mild steel reinforcing mesh, creating a form where 21 ‘cages’ appear to intersect; the whole held rigid by hundreds of thousands of spot welds, all done by hand! The entire construction only made possible by reinforcing the ceiling of Gallery V, the largest within Burlington House, with steel bars.

Cave, 2019 was a unique sculpture on an architectural scale. Seemingly little more than a jumble of cuboid structures but in fact forming a hollow human form, crouched on its side. The viewing public were encouraged to walk though it, enjoying an acoustic experience, while literally feeling their way through the darkness…

Contrasting work that really caught the eye was Mother’s Pride (5), first created in 1982. Certainly I recall seeing it in another London viewing space, in its original incarnation: 43 slices of sliced white bread, preserved by immersion in liquid paraffin wax, with the cut out (or, should it be the ‘bitten out’) shape of a human being, in foetal posture, removed from its centre. Each slice of bread, whole or partial, had to be individually attached to the gallery wall.

So, one surprise installation after another. All serving to remind us that this is a man who works harmoniously with the Earth (and its elements), fire (his foundry processes) and water (the source of life – with Another Place, 1997, his permanent installation on Crosby Beach perhaps his defining work). Fascinating – and, with a number of the galleries literally providing an immersive experience, certainly rather different from the West End norm!


Dawn by Laura Knight

This small but delightful (and free!) exhibition was an unexpected bonus to a day largely spent in Burlington House.

Laura Knight, noted as being the first woman elected to full membership of the RA in 1936, was known for painting amidst the world of the theatre and ballet in London, and often managed to work unobtrusively in ballet dancers’ dressing rooms (…an opportunity, understandably, rarely afforded to Degas!). She was one of very few women employed as a war artist during the Second World War; specifically to make a record of the Nuremburg Trials; images which form a unique archive in themselves. She was also greatly interested in, and inspired by, marginalised communities and individuals, including gypsies and circus performers. An echo here of Alfred Munnings, with whom she was well acquainted from her time in Cornwall, having joined the Newlyn Artists’ Colony in 1907.

Showing in this little exhibition were a selection of sketch books, always a valuable extra in giving a real insight into what really motivates, and often preoccupies, an artist. Working in pen and ink, pencil or black chalk, Laura Knight’s collection all portray a confidence and an un-erring economy of line. Her sketches of Mousehole and the lovely drawing of Ella Naper in the Apple Orchard at Trewoolfe, c.1916, particularly caught the eye.
Anecdotally, she had been excluded from nude figure drawing classes during her time at Nottingham Art School and it was only in her thirties, once established in Cornwall, that her obvious talent for depicting the nude figure finally flourished. Dawn, 1932-33 (oil on canvas), on show here, underlines her confidence in taking on this genre; a truly magnificent work.

Bob Williams

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