David Cohen writes:
Head of an Angel
I have known about Emily Young since the early
'90s, but only finally got to see her work "in the flesh"
the other day. Announcement cards over the years would survive
on the mantlepiece beyond the closing date of the unseen show
(which would sometimes be at the Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh).
Her work is, to use a uselessly loaded and complex phrase, "traditional",
that's to say classical, serene, unflashy, and shamelessly old-fashioned
in a way that has nothing to do with being retro or ironic.
Yet a quality came through, from the reproductions I so warmed
to, that amounts to more than a tasteful torso or poised bust
would ordinarily deserve, that belies anachronism. There was
just sufficient a twist of individuality to make them hers and
therefore new and therefore, miraculously, of our time, not
mere refugees from the Age of Winckelman. If they did evoke
a particular historic moment, it was the early Twentieth-Century
classicism of Despiau, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Arturo Martini, and
the first efforts of Brancusi: a dignified restraint, a clean,
calm straightforwardness, a certain streamlining that is much
about modernity as classicism. This, at least, was my high expectation.
Her current exhibit consists of twodozen pieces
set in the gardens of Leighton House Museum in Holland Park,
London (the exotic home and studio created by that eminent Victorian
Alfred Lord Leighton at the height of his fame as painter and
sculptor of pearl-skinned nymphs in classical and oriental settings.
En masse, some serious disappointment with Emily Young set in,
but there was enough evidence to suggest that the positive feelings
elicited by her invitation cards were not mere flukes. Her carvings,
in a variety of marbles and other stones, are of archaic torsos
and angels, both very Rilkean subjects. There's that classic
line in Rilke, inspired by a fragmentary torso, "You must
change your life". I can almost hear these torsos saying
to their author, however, "You must change your technique"!
For so many of these carvings have been spoilt by theatrically
achieved fragmentation: hunks hacked out of the stone by vandalism
not decay, heavy-handed shortcuts to Sphinx-like erosion. Where
I had liked to think of Young as a sculptor in the mould of
the worthies mentioned above, not to mention Eli Nadelman, Carel
Vogel, et al., I'm afraid this arty distress was putting me
much more in mind of Ivan Mestrovic or Igor Mitoraj. Mannerism,
but of the unfortunate rather than the invogorating kind. For
let's face it: she is not a postmodernist. Her lapses of taste
are only that.
But as I say, the curate's egg principle gives
grounds for hope. "Sleeping Warrior" viewed from eighty
feet is a work of powerful simplicity. It has a Buddha-like
quality to its calm, sardonic smile. The classicism is perennial,
a restrained striving for the good, the true, the beautiful.
On closer inspection the after-thought hack (literally) work
imposes a phony archaeologism on the piece, which, let's face
it, is simply not good, not true, not beautiful. One can't help
feeling that the setting - the grounds of Leighton House - contains
some symbolic warning for this artist, for Leighton himself
was a talent poised between genuine classicism and questionable
do you think?
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