‘How old is it?’ asked Professor Mary Beard as an introduction to the bronze stand she curated for Hauser & Wirth at Frieze Masterpiece. ‘It’s impossible to say. It could be 1,000 BC could be AD 1,900. But that’s one of the things about bronze, it is very hard to date.’
The Bronze Age dates right back to the start of our story, with humans learning how to cast this glowing metal and use it to trade and fashion art. The groundbreaking Royal Academy exhibition of 2012 showed 150 timeless bronze sculptures spanning human history and opened my eyes to the infinite possibilities and subtleties of this metal.
From the very earliest times up to the 20th century — sculpture from Brancusi and later Alberto Giacometti, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, and furniture from Diego Giacometti and the Lalannes — bronze has offered sculptors a wonderful medium, one that can be gilded, patinated, polychromed or simply polished to a soft glow. Brancusi, for instance, insisted on patinating his bronze heads himself and spent upward of six months finishing a sculpture until he was satisfied.
There is a sense of ancient ritual about bronzes — even those from the 20th century — and looking through what’s on offer at Christie’s this season, I have discovered a numinous quality in objects in a wide variety of categories, dating from 3,000 BC right up to almost the present day.
From early China, there’s the bronze ritual wine vessel from the Late Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BC), which is offered in London on 7 November from the Michael Michaels Collection of Early Chinese Art. The 13in you is cast each side with a large taotie mask and the shoulder and foot are decorated with bands of stylised kui dragons, with a central animal mask to the lower shoulder.
It is difficult to date African art — it could come from any age. This Akan lidded vessel from Ghana is made from a bronze alloy using the cire perdu method, in which the object is first carved in beeswax with sharp details. This is then used as a mould on to which the molten metal is poured.
Forming the handle of the cover is a lively and beautifully modelled fight between a leopard and an antelope. These kuduos were used in purification ceremonies and placed in the tombs of their owners. This piece will be offered in the sale of African and Oceanic Art in Paris on 21 November.
Moving forward in history we come to the work of Charles Cordier, the most celebrated ethnographic sculptor of the 19th century — indeed he invented the genre. Two beautifully modelled bronze and polychromatic busts of exotic women — one Sudanese and the other Moroccan — were a major factor in the development of the lush Orientalist movement in 19th-century France and beyond. Venus Africaine and Mauresque d’Alger were shown to great acclaim in Paris and then at the Great Exhibition in 1851 where Queen Victoria bought versions for Osborne House. These pieces are offered in The Collector, a new series of decorative arts sales in London.
Recently sold in the Paris Avant-Garde sale for almost €25 million was Giacometti’s Grande femme II, a monumental standing figure in bronze and his tallest sculpture. ‘What struck me above all is its majesty,’ said Pierre-Martin Vivier, director of 20th Century at Christie’s Paris. ‘It was as though I was in front of a statue from Chartres or an African totem. With this piece we are in the order of the sacred,’ he said. ‘There’s something almost religious about it’.
To see all the bronze objects and artworks offered this season, browse the Recommended Lots section below. What you will find will underline that while bronze is buried deep in our cultural past its delights have been enjoyed over the span of our history, and are still being discovered by contemporary sculptors and designers. What they are making in this mysterious and subtle metal will, I am sure, come up at Christie’s in the future, and doubtless inspire new generations with wonder.