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1988 A Call for the Small

Explore the 1988 catalogue

The 1988 Summer Exhibition was the 220th since its inception in 1769. In his “Introduction” to The Royal Academy Illustrated, Bernard Dunstan announced that 12,543 artworks had been sent in for the Selection Committee to consider. He also remarked on the increased variety of the works submitted, which included “paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and architecture, as well as what we now have to call mixed media”.1 Paintings, and often large ones, dominated that year’s submissions and the ramifications of this for the Hanging Committee and the range and look of the final Exhibition led Dunstan to make a call for the small, making the observation:

If one hanger may express a personal opinion, it would be that the content and interest of the work is not necessarily related to its size; and that perhaps future exhibitions might usefully consider the two ends of the spectrum, in that too many large canvases jostle for a place at the expense of a great number of deserving pictures that are squeezed out; while at the other end, the miniature is a genre which is sadly in need of a renaissance, and is possibly ripe for revival.2

Although Dunstan remarked that “the art of animal sculpture appears to be gently flourishing”, the painting orientation of Dunstan’s comments is interesting in the light of the sculptures exhibited that year. Many of these were small-scale works and a number were preliminary models for larger works. They included sculptures by Barry Flanagan, Sydney Harpley, John Clinch, Denise de Cordova, Ann Christopher, Bernard Sindell, David McFall, Kim Amis, Vincent Butler, Diana Brandenburger, Paul Neagu, John Wragg, Ivor Roberts-Jones, Phillip King, Geraldine Knight, Jane Ackroyd, Constance-Anne Parker, James Butler, Philip Nathan, John Cobb, Karin Jonzen, Willi Soukop, and Eduardo Paolozzi.

Paolozzi turned sixty-four in March 1988. He had been enjoying considerable success in the mid-1980s with Eduardo Paolozzi: Sculptures from a Garden (1987) at the Serpentine Gallery and Lost Magic Kingdoms and Six Paper Moons from Nahuatl at the Museum of Mankind (1985), as well as the publication of Eduardo Paolozzi: Recurring Themes (1984). The sculpture that Paolozzi exhibited at the Royal Academy was just 13.3cm high, including the base, and was titled Study of Newton (after Blake) (Fig. 1).

Bronze as a material for sculpture was prevalent in this year’s Summer Exhibition, with portraits as well as animal studies, as Dunstan noted, being popular subjects. Paolozzi’s figure has a supple, muscular quality, its body merging into both his seat and his scroll, and the figure leans forwards as in Blake’s 1795 colour print, which was the inspiration for Paolozzi’s sculpture (Fig. 2). Study of Newton (after Blake) was a subject Paolozzi turned to again and again, a preoccupation eventually culminating in the colossal sculpture Newton (1995) installed outside the new British Library, designed by his friend Colin St John Wilson and worked on from 1982 before it opened in 1999. Today, Paolozzi’s British Library “Newton” stands as one of the artist’s most well-known public sculptures. Much less well known is this small bronze model submitted to the Academy, standing as it does as an earlier and smaller account of this later, larger work.

Concurrent with the display of this model at the Academy, Paolozzi had a solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, called Paolozzi Portraits that summer.3 Paolozzi had sculpted a striking portrait of the architect Richard Rogers for this exhibition, which he worked on at the same time as developing his series of “Newtons”. The commissioned portrait of Rogers, also in bronze but much larger at 51cm high, is more instantly recognisable as the work of Paolozzi. The head of the architect emerges from blocks and steps, as if from a building, and the face is in fragmented, jagged, sections “stitched up”. It has the collaged quality for which the artist is well known and has much in common with Paolozzi’s colossal Newton (1995) outside the British Library. In the catalogue, which accompanied the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, the art historian Robin Spencer wrote:

The portrait of Richard Rogers began with William Blake’s 1795 colour print of Newton. It is an image which Paolozzi has held in his mind, probably since the 1940s, when Blake was regularly represented as a unique British artist under Sir John Rothenstein’s Directorship of the Tate Gallery […] Blake’s belief in the primacy of Poetic Genius, and the ability of the senses, principally the eye, to see through and beyond materialism to an eternal truth of which the world is only a symbol, is a conceit which might amuse Paolozzi as an allegory for a modern architect, especially a frequently misrepresented one.4

William Blake, a one-time student of the Academy, and a fellow Summer Exhibition exhibitor, was admired by Paolozzi—both stylistically and for his wider idiosyncratic beliefs. Given the opposition of Blake’s religious and spiritual views to many of Newton’s own scientific and philosophical beliefs, it is curious he decided upon him as a subject at all. As has been argued by the art historian John Gage, Blake’s depiction of Newton is itself an adaptation of the figure of Abias on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, primarily in the depiction of the dramatic forward bend of the figure, but also in that the Bible describes Abias as a King whose unbending commitment to Judaic orthodoxy led to mass bloodshed.5 Gage concludes, “he would thus serve, in Blake’s eyes, as a fitting model for Newton, who was also associated in his imagination with the tyrannical figure of the Ancient Days.”6

In his colour print of 1795—made 200 years before Paolozzi’s colossal Newton outside the British Library—Blake depicts Newton’s remarkably defined muscular frame as distinctly delineated from the rock, alive with nature which surrounds his figure, concentrating intently on his work, his scroll, and his pair of compasses, as if blind to the wonders of creativity as represented by his verdant seat. So Newton appears as a warning against scientific materialism’s challenge to imagination and mystical symbolism.

Paolozzi’s Newton (After Blake) is a fascinating amalgam of cultural figures and philosophies, past and present. The pantheon created through this work and its narratives brings together the unusual company of Newton, Blake, Michelangelo, and eventually Richard Rogers. It is a celebration of human and national achievement that also brings Paolozzi as an artist into the mix and into this pantheon of art and science, sculpture and architecture, figuration and abstraction, body and machine. The seated figure’s explicit reference to Rodin’s The Thinker (1880) further adds to this declaratory, if indirect, act of artistic self-fashioning, while reminding viewers that a sculptor and sculpture can straddle all these realms.

  1. Bernard Dunstan, “Introduction”, The Royal Academy Illustrated 1988: A Souvenir of the 220th Summer Exhibition, exhibition catalogue (London: The Royal Academy, 1988), 5.↩︎

  2. Dunstan, “Introduction”, The Royal Academy Illustrated 1988, 5.↩︎

  3. Paolozzi Portraits, London: National Portrait Gallery, 13 May–7 August 1988.↩︎

  4. Robin Spencer, “Introduction”, in Paolozzi Portraits (London: National Portrait Gallery, 1988), 18.↩︎

  5. John Gage, “Blake’s Newton”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 34 (1971): 372.↩︎

  6. John Gage, “Blake’s Newton”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 34 (1971): 372.↩︎

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Explore the 1988 catalogue