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2006 Sculpture Inside the Salon

“The Summer Exhibition is a salon”, began Tom Phillips in his “Introduction” to the Royal Academy Illustrated 2006, occasioned by the 238th Summer Exhibition.1 This declaration might suggest the power and presence of painting, conjuring up all those nineteenth-century images of framed canvases wall-mounted from floor to ceiling in Parisian salons. Phillips points out that this 2006 Summer Exhibition goes beyond painting and “represents a greater variety of arts constituencies than ever before”, combining both lesser-known and well-known artists, both the commercially supported and those unsupported by a gallery. This Summer Exhibition not only had breadth and depth, but was also a well-considered, curated set of smaller exhibitions, overseen by Edith Devaney.

Explore the 2006 catalogue

In retrospect, 2006 was a particularly rich and exciting year for sculpture, which shone through that year across the multi-generational range of artists represented, the varied displays, and the publication itself. This well-designed book was edited by the sculptor Alison Wilding, and included illustrations of a selection of exhibits, many of which were sculptures. The Exhibition was also prefaced by sculpture, with Damien Hirst’s large bronze The Virgin Mother (2005) taking centre stage in the courtyard, its divided, half-flayed body both greeting visitors and dividing the critics. This macabre entrée served as a tenth anniversary marker of the famous Sensation exhibition (1997), the impact and legacy of which was on Phillips’ and others minds, as he wrote:

Having also appropriated two maquettes by Damien Hirst which echo the gigantic courtyard sculpture which acts as the bronze overture to any visit, I set about rounding up other artists who had featured in the Academy’s 1997 Sensation exhibition to make a small reunion … Thus eight of the artists who participated in “Sensation” (including Gary Hume RA) make a welcome return to the scene of their still controversial triumph.2

Phillips was thus able to include works in the Summer Exhibition by Marcus Harvey, Tracey Emin, Gavin Turk, Sarah Lucas, and Jake and Dinos Chapman. If the evocation of an earlier controversy and an interest in looking at its enfants terribles ten years down the line charged this Summer Exhibition, so also did a more open and searching attitude towards the idea of sculpture.

Sculptures, of different forms and materials, featured in nearly all the rooms and included works by many Royal Academicians: Anthony Caro, James Butler, Bryan Kneale, Allen Jones, Gus Cummins, Anish Kapoor, Bill Woodrow, Richard Wilson, Alison Wilding, Keith Wilson, and Richard Wentworth. “The Lecture Room” was now “The Sculpture Room” and on display there were works by artists including Nigel Hall, Richard Long, Teo San José, Vincent Jackson, Ann Christopher, Anya Gallaccio, Sam Porritt, Geoffrey Clarke, and John Cobb.

This was curated by Alison Wilding and David Mach who, in Phillips’ words, transformed the space into “an aesthetic playground, and the fact that all the obvious ‘major works’ are not crowded into the hallowed Gallery III but command attention by their sudden appearance at strategic and unexpected intervals.”3 The 2006 Summer Exhibition also paid tribute to two recently deceased Royal Academicians, Patrick Caulfield and Eduardo Paolozzi. Works by Paolozzi, who had died in April 2005, were showcased in the Wohl Central Hall. Early and later work combined to celebrate the work of another enfant terrible, who became an RA and the recipient of a CBE.

Amidst all the attention given to sculpture that year, we also find the curious story of the sculpture submitted by David Hensel. Hensel was a member of the Royal Society of Sculptors, a lecturer, and jewellery designer, who had previously had a work accepted for the Summer Exhibition in 2003. He had one accepted this year too and the sculpture, which was called One Day Closer, took the form of a disembodied head with a gaping mouth placed on top of a slate plinth, the human head apparently caught in a moment of extreme laughter or acute pain, intended by the artist as a meditation on the proximity and mystery of death (Fig. 1).

On looking around the Exhibition at a private view, Hensel was left confused by being unable to find his work. The Guardian’s Sam Jones describes, “he came across the slate slab and the tiny piece of wood that supported the sculpture, but the macabre countenance was nowhere to be seen.”4 Somehow, during the selection process, the jesmonite head had been separated from its tiny boxwood support and the plinth below, which had been carved from a slate mortuary slab (Fig. 2). The mistake can be explained somewhat by the fact that Hensel could not attend “varnishing day” on the Monday prior to the show opening due to teaching commitments, and only made it to a preview at the end of the week. The Royal Academy issued the following statement:

David Hensel’s work was submitted to the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 2006 as two separate pieces. Given their separate submission, the two parts were judged independently. The head was rejected. The base was thought to have merit and accepted; it is currently on display. The head has been stored ready to be collected by the artist. It is accepted that works may not be displayed in the way that the artist might have intended.5

This mistake not only taps into modern sculpture’s frequent base/sculpture ambiguity, but also into popular puzzling over what art is and isn’t. As Martin Maloney wrote in the Sensation exhibition catalogue a decade earlier: “The British imagination, haunted by Carl Andre’s bricks, has continued to be puzzled by how the Duchampian ready-made and untransformed object could be art.”6 Considering the attention given to sculpture in this Summer Exhibition, and the shared sensibility between Hensel’s mortuary slab and the macabre work of Hirst and others, this misunderstanding seems to have a resonant, artistic context in relation to YBAstyle work on show that year at the Academy.

It is a fascinating tale and forms part of the infamous history of plinth/sculpture dialogue as played out at academic salons. Rodin, for example, in the Salon of 1897, disguised his sculpture’s supporting plinth, as the art historian Albert E. Elsen wrote:

Rodin exhibited a bronze version of his life-size “Eve” and literally buried its base in the dirt floor of the Salon hall. This was another step in his plan to bring sculpture to life. In hiding its bronze platform Rodin had eliminated the old device for marking of the “circle of solitude”, in Rilke’s words that isolated a public sculpture from the crowd.7

In Charles Baudelaire’s famous review of the Salon of 1846, he titled Section XVI “Why Sculpture is a Bore”, but the story of Hensel’s sculpture, in the context of the 2006 Exhibition, only reminds us that 160 years later, inside the salon, sculpture is never boring.

  1. Tom Phillips, “Introduction”, Alison Wilding (ed.), Royal Academy Illustrated 2006, A Selection from the 238th Summer Exhibition (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2006), 16.↩︎

  2. Tom Phillips, “Introduction”, Alison Wilding (ed.), Royal Academy Illustrated 2006, A Selection from the 238th Summer Exhibition (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2006), 18.↩︎

  3. Phillips, “Introduction”, Royal Academy Illustrated 2006, 19.↩︎

  4. Sam Jones, “Royal Academy’s Preference for Plinth over Sculpture Leaves Artist Baffled”, The Guardian, 15 June 2006.↩︎

  5. Sally Pook, “Artist Laughs his Head Off at the RA”, The Telegraph, 15 June 2006.↩︎

  6. Martin Maloney, “Everyone a Winner!: Selected British Art From The Saatchi Collection 1987–97”, Sensation, exhibition catalogue (London: Thames & Hudson, 1997), 27.↩︎

  7. Albert E. Elsen, “Pioneers and Premises of Modern Sculpture”, Pioneers of Modern Sculpture, exhibition catalogue (London: Arts Council, 1973), 75.↩︎

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Explore the 2006 catalogue