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Presence: Sculpture Show at The Holburne

Mask 11 by Ron Mueck

Presence: The Art of Portrait Sculpture newly opened at the Holburne Museum in Bath is a brave and exhilarating show which totally explodes the myth that you cannot see great art outside the capital.

It is the brainchild of the Holburne’s cutting edge new director Alexander Sturgis who has borrowed important works from the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert, the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate, so that astonishing portraits from Ancient Greece to Degas,  Brancusi, Giacometti and some of today’s most iconic sculptors are assembled together in one smallish room.

It is fascinating and uplifting in equal measure.

Sturgis’s starting point was that we had lost our connection with portrait sculpture, all those embarrassing self-important busts of 19th century philanphropiststs and industrialists had somehow made this art form veer towards naff. In this exhibition he takes us on a 2000 year journey examining the relationship between realism and idealism and urging us to reconnect with this most potent form of portraiture.

You walk in and find yourself face to face with a lifesized Madame Tussaud’s waxwork of Henry Moore, in itself a paradox as the abstract sculptor was known to reject what he called “the second hand life of realistic waxworks.’ It was only after his death that his daughter Mary gave permission for the work even  supplying clothes from his wardrobe and advising on an exact likeness to his hands. The waxwork is modelled on photos of Moore in the 60s; it is astonishingly life like and surprisingly small for a man who created such mammoth works.

Henry Moore by Karen Newman for Madame Tussauds

By contrast is the ancient Greek siltstone head of a youth from 100 BC lent by the British Museum – one of the first known sculptures to show a recognisable likeness to its subject and in extraordinary condition for a relic from 2000 years ago. Features of exaggerated perfection add to its beauty yet there is also a slight asymmetry to the face here, a combining of idealism and realism.

Green siltstone head 100-75 BC from the British Museum

Next door a painted plaster Egyptian Mummy mask is juxtaposed next to Marc Quinn’s cloned DNA self portrait – DNA set into jelly within a stainless steel frame. This is what I love about the show – Sturgis’s sharp insightful contrasts  underscore the artists’ unfailing ambition to portray the essence of humanity – and mortality.

Few will fail to be moved by John Dwight’s small scale portrait of his dead six year old daughter Lydia, hands clasping flowers and a grim, deathly set to her tiny mouth. And next to it a sculpture of the resurrected, angel-like Lydia.

Touching too is the painter Thomas Lawrence’s death mask, cast against his pillow with his bed sheets curving around his chin.

The wow factor is high with Presence – Alberto Giacometti’s Chiavenna Bust 1 stands next to an exquisite eyeless bronze head by Brancusi, both lent by the Tate. You’d venture out to see these two alone. The Giacometti head is fascinating – his entire purpose was to render the sitter’s gaze, in this case his brother. He said: “if I can hold the look in the eyes then everything else follows” and it is true that you feel the head's piercing stare.

A favourite work, Degas’s 14 year old dancer, is shown next to contemporary sculptor Don Brown's detailed rendering of his wife Yoko in knickers and wedges.  I’ve always liked the unexpectedly snooty nose, jutting chin and protruding belly of this dancer and it’s interesting to learn that these sculptures caused outrage at the time and were described as 'bestial.'

Dressed Dancer by Edward Degas from the National Museum Wales

Yoko XX1 by Don Brown

Contemporary sculptor Daphne Wright's Sons Heads - two busts of her sons, eyes squeezed shut against the casting process, bodies on the brink of adolescence - are suprisingly intimate and touching, rendered in a pinkish white. I loved them.

The centrepiece to the show is unquestionably Ron Mueck's sensational gigantic self portrait (main picture) Mask 11 - each nostril hair, stubble, wrinkle swelled to scale - a mesmerising focal point which seems to question our need for self-aggrandisement. The sleeping head, seen in superhuman scale is both moving and disconcerting, wavering, it seems between life and death.

A truly amazing show, then -  you won't want to miss it.

Presence: The Art of Portrait Sculpture runs til 2 September 2012.

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