For an exhibition showcasing an artist who gained international acclaim for his work as a sculptor, the Estorick’s current show is at times disappointingly two-dimensional. Though it touches on a wide range of elements from Manzù’s oeuvre, a lack of coherence or narrative fails to do justice to his development and versatility as either a sculpture or a draughtsman. The show is split across two of the gallery’s downstairs rooms and, to the curator’s credit, is done so with sensitivity, eschewing a purely chronological approach in favour of outlining – though unfortunately no more than this – the spiritual, corporeal, serene and dynamic elements of Manzù’s work.
The first room is flanked on both sides by the well-known Cardinal sculptures, the most remarkable of which stands over six feet tall. Unlike the others of its kind, which are mainly in bronze and of various polishes and patinas, on closer inspection this piece is constructed – not carved or modelled – in gilded wood. Apprenticed to carpenters from an early age and largely self-taught as an artist, here we see something of Manzù’s exceptional craftsmanship. In all of the Cardinal sculptures, and in fact most works in this first room, more attention is paid to the texture and contours of the subjects’ clothes than to their features, which often retain the simplicity of primitive Christian art.
Exceptions to this treatment are rare but telling. In Death of Gregory VII (1960), an example of Manzù’s celebrated bas-reliefs and a study for his Door of Death commissioned for Saint Peter’s Basilica, the faces, though cast simply in bronze, have the flowing contours of fabric. In another bas-relief, Crucifixion with General and Cardinal (1951), however, the flesh of a picklehaube-wearing general next to the crucified Christ provides a sharp departure from the idealism of the surrounding pieces. Along with two Partisan sketches in ink – haunting images of men strung up and peered or wept over by women in seemingly classical robes and garlands – this bas-relief constitutes the entirety of Manzù’s political output on display here. Additionally, of the many other sketches there is little indication which, as with the partisans, were developed into sculpture.
In the second room there is an altogether different approach. Departing from intellectual, spiritual, or familial themes, here the curation turns to the dynamic, corporeal, and erotic, with sketches such as Nude from Behind (1971), where the primitivist roundedness of Manzù’s religious sculptures is translated into more earthly, callipygian forms. These works also focus more on the body in movement. Young Girl in Armchair (1984), for example, has its nude subject falling against her seat’s rounded back, the instability of the pose suggesting complex anatomical configurations reflected in the form of a scrunched cloth or piece of paper in her hand.
In perhaps the most immediately affecting pieces on show, implied movement and eroticism combine. In two bronze sculptures, both entitled Lovers (1968), Manzù creates two embracing couples. The first, a cyclonic bundle spiralling towards a compositional centre from which skirts and limbs protrude, recalls Dante’s Paolo and Francesca, the lovers of the Inferno trapped forever on a wind for their sins. However, despite religious themes elsewhere in Manzù’s work, there are no homilies here. In the second example he employs a different tack, highlighting his compositional strengths with a couple portrayed in a more linear, flowing form, centred where the woman’s thighs close voluptuously around her partner’s hand.
Powerful as these pieces are, they offer only occasional glimpses into the spiritual, erotic, formal, or dynamic properties of Manzù’s work. While the exhibition’s accompanying texts make much of the artist’s “unflinching indictments of Nazi-Fascist violence”, for example, the collection itself does not. Likewise, pieces appear in isolation and, lacking context, often seem incongruous, such as the hanging gilded bronze Olive Branch (1980). Ultimately, to include in one exhibition representative examples of Manzù’s diverse oeuvre is ambitious, and perhaps overly so for the Estorick’s pleasant though limited space. Unfortunately, unlike the artist’s masterfully composed pieces, Sculptor and Draughtsman lacks balance.
Ned Carter Miles
Giacomo Manzù: Sculptor and Draughtsman; until 3 April; Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39A Canonbury Square, London N1 2AN.
For more information, visit www.estorickcollection.com.
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1. Giacomo Manzù, Large Seated Cardinal, 1983. Courtesy of the Estorick Collection.