Uproar! at the Ben Uri Gallery
ENTERING the Uproar! exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery was like opening a favourite box of chocolates.
My first layer was walking around the sculptural works on display, a delicious Frank Dobson Seated Torso from 1923 made from Ham Hill stone, a wonderful example of what sculptors try to achieve, so very three dimensional, actually breath-taking, like a modern computer-generated image of an ancient Egyptian masterpiece with Dobson’s special twist – literally.
On to Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a rock star of his time, dying early on the battlefields in 1915, aged 23, leaving a wealth of wonderful sculptural works in his wake. Bird Swallowing a Fish, 1914, is a torpedo-like Vorticist sculpture, ironically cast in gunmetal. His work has the touch of genius.
Next Jacob Epstein’s Flenite Relief, 1913: a tombstone-like sculpture, an ode perhaps to birth and death, a duplicitous twist on the eternal event, optimism and pessimism, a yin and yang, with references to Egyptian shallow relief carving; strangely unsettling.
The only ceramic piece is by Rupert Lee: New Born Calf, 1918, a sweetly modelled poem to domestic country life.
There is a sense of déja vu – with the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy, 1997. The show feels like a time parallel – contemporary artists aiming to shock, to look at things differently, change the thinking of the time, embracing change and a new society – though it is more of a shock to me to see how easy it was to shake things up at that time. Jacob Kramer’s painting The Anatomy Lesson shocked everyone in 1928, because the subject matter was seen as unacceptable for a work of art. How quickly our expectations change. The Nazis were so outraged by much of the work on show that it was consigned to the degenerate pile, but somehow stolen from its owners rather than burnt, interesting that.
Experience a curious effect with sculptor Kenneth Armitage’s People in the Wind, the more you look at the piece the further away you find yourself leaning. Totally three-dimensional and speaking the language of Sir Anthony Caro, who sadly died last month, the work repositions the horizontal plane, by suspending it right in front of you; quite audacious.
This is a seriously interactive collection of sculptures. Mary Martin’s Columbarium, 1951, interacts directly with your digits, I had to stop mine running over it, pushing its “buttons”. I wish my iPhone was that seductively designed. Husband Kenneth Martin – they were a Hampstead family, Small Screw Mobile 1953, your own body’s air movement interact with it as you walk past, great fun, almost as good as touching it.
Lyn Chadwick ‘untitled’ iron sculpture wants you to chase it. The Barbara Hepworth, another Hampstead Artist at the time, is elegantly simple. Gertrude Hermes walnut carving brings design into the sculptural equation. Never a dull moment in this show.
My second delicious layer, consisted of the paintings which create the extraordinary atmosphere, a beautifully curated environment. Dorothy Mead was a revelation, if Hampstead painter Tim Benson has a fairy-godmother of painting, this is she – he is currently exhibiting at Highgate Contemporary Art. And John Piper’s painting embodies the architectural: inspiring.
A lovely Henry Moore Head of a Woman sits modestly hiding its bushel. It has a magnificent hairdo, that transforms the portrait into a landscaped dream of rhythms. Moore said he felt “like a starved man having Selfridge’s grocery department all to himself” on visiting the British Museum’s non-western art collection.
There is a resounding feeling that painting and sculpture had a social role to improve life, something Hampstead School of Art inherited from Henry Moore, one of its Founder Patrons.
The exhibition’s breadth and ambition is an education in history, painting and sculpture – a celebration of the first 50 years of The London Group, which celebrates its centenary this year. With this selection of 50 painters and sculptors, the Ben Uri Gallery is to be congratulated.
Uproar! runs from November 1-March 2 at the Ben Uri Gallery, 108A Boundary Road, NW8 0RH, Monday 1pm-5.30pm, Tuesday-Friday 10am-5.30pm, Sunday 12-4pm. Closed Saturdays, 020 7604 3991, www.benuri.org.uk
Isabel H Langtry is a sculptor and principal of Hampstead School of Art. She is exhibiting at ING Discerning Eye Exhibition at the Mall Galleries, SW1, from November 14-24.