“Sculpture Victorious: Art in an Age of Invention, 1837-1901” opens this Thursday at the Yale Center for British Art. The News sat down with Martina Droth, associate director of research and curator of sculpture at the Center as well as one of the exhibit’s curators, to discuss the exhibit and some of the themes it explores.
Q. Tell us a little bit about “Sculpture Victorious.”
A. There never has been an exhibition on [sculpture in Victorian Britain] before and sculpture really has been kind of overlooked and ‘written out’ of the history of the Victorian period, which is kind of surprising given how much interest there is in the period and in other aspects of Victorian arts — the Pre-Raphaelites, for instance, have made a huge splash in exhibitions. So we wanted to make an exhibition that reasserts the place of sculpture in the Victorian period, and demonstrates that in order to understand the Victorians — a very recent past that has shaped our modern world — and in order to really understand it, we need to look at the sculpture, and recognize what an important part it played in Victorian culture.
Q. You’ve chosen to organize the exhibit into various thematic categories. Does any one of these categories stand out more than the others?
A. No, I don’t think one category is more important than the others. Obviously, one has to be selective in the story one wants to tell, and what we wanted to do — that perhaps is different to how some stories of Victorian sculpture have been written — was to look not so much chronologically as at stylistic developments in sculpture … really to understand what were some of the support structures that allowed sculpture to flourish and blossom in the way that it did, in order to understand why it became the prominent form of representation that it became for the Victorians. And there are just certain themes that seem to speak for the whole period, [such as] preoccupation with craft.
Q. Alongside the sculptural objects themselves the exhibit showcases academic studies, ceramics and other objects. Was this incorporation of other mediums into ‘Sculpture Victorious’ always your intention, or something that just evolved naturally as you were selecting objects for the exhibition?
A. I think a little bit of both, really. I think the convention in art history is to make compartments of objects … But if one thinks of sculpture as a profession, you can’t separate silverwork or ceramic-work from bronzes and marbles because it’s the same artists making these things. And ceramic firms always had major artists working for them; you know, the famous example is Rodin, who worked for Sèvres, so I think our first sort of approach was really to think about how the objects had historically functioned in the culture — so, really, to get away from our art historical taxonomies and instead to think about the objects historically as much as possible. So, at the time, these objects contributed to the way in which sculpture was intended to function and the purpose it was intended to serve. So I think our approach was to try and almost take a ‘fresh look’ and step out of our learned art historical taxonomies, and really take on board ‘how did these objects function at the time?’”
Q. Is there anything in particular that you hope visitors take away from this exhibit?
A. Because it’s been such an undervalued subject and because it’s had such little exposure, we did want people to feel excited about the subject, to walk in and think ‘oh, I never thought that these objects formed part of the culture of the Victorians and that sculpture had this prominent role.’ So I’m hoping it will, in some ways, serve as an introduction to the subject. I hope it will excite people and make them want to know more. But I guess our key theme is that we really need to take account of sculpture in order to understand the period, and the history of the Victorian period … so it’s not just about putting lots of beautiful objects together and getting people excited about them, but there’s a reason for that, because we should really understand and realize that this is an important part of the history. So I guess those things kind of work in tandem. And what I’m really excited about — I come from England, and I’ve sort of known a number of these objects for some time — and you have to really travel to see them. None of the objects that have come to us from overseas [have] been in this country [before.] And in many, many cases, they’ve never been seen by a wider public, even in England. So I think it’s a great opportunity just to get to know the material, which is hard to find and hard to see.
Q. Among the objects on display, do you have a favorite?
A. I love [the] bust of Queen Victoria. I love it for curatorial reasons, as well as an object, because it’s not a bust of a beautiful woman and maybe it sort of defies the conventions…we have so many portrait busts here, but we have nothing like this. And I think it makes this message that this woman is a towering presence that is looking down upon her subjects. In a way, that’s what her sculptural representations were about … to — whether you liked it or not — impose this powerful, humongous presence upon all parts of the empire; to make sure that her subjects knew ‘here is Queen and Empress’ and the ‘power that be.’ I love the juxtaposition of the ‘Greek Slave’ and the ‘American Slave’ statues. I absolutely wanted the American Slave in the show for our American audiences, who know this object so well as an icon of American sculpture, to see it re-contexualized, and to realize that the history of this extraordinary object begins in London, in 1851. It has this sort of very prominent place in the histories of American art and culture, but it also has a history that begins in Britain. And the sculptor John Bell made another work, [also titled ‘The American Slave,’] — directly in response to Hiram Powers’ statue — as a critique of this American artist depicting a white woman and effectively not addressing the problem of American slavery, by making this very stark depiction of an African woman about to be transported to America as a slave. So I hope that that’s meaningful to our audiences and reopens the way we think about objects that we might be very used to thinking about in particular way.”