Thursday, 6 August 2015

Great Work: Iron Tree (2013), Ai Weiwei, 628 x 710 x 710, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, published in the Independent, London

Andrew Welford Photography

Last autumn, John Constable's small painting of the trunk of a great elm tree – so bulky and so vividly corpulent that it was almost huggable - shouldered its way into the space above such words as these. Here is another tree, this time captured on a sullen Yorkshire afternoon in springtime, on a day when the lapwings had just returned to their old nesting grounds in a nearby field. This tree is Chinese in origin, and it sits amongst English yews, in front of an eighteenth-century chapel, in a sculpture park.

Unlike Constable's, this tree is neither more nor less than a symbol. In common with so many of the works of Ai Wei-Wei, it proceeds by stealth. It does not sloganeer. It does not bang drums. His art is not so much an art of protest as an art of life-affirmation.

In part, it has the look of a tree. And in other respects it does not, not quite. It is, for example, a vivid orange tree – and by that I do not mean that it will in time be glad-handing the fortunate few with a crop of oranges. No, I mean that it is a rusting tree, in hue and actuality, and that it will continue to rust and to rust – it had the silvery sheen of new metal in 2013, when it was first put on public display inside that nearby chapel - until it becomes too dangerous for its own good. At which point it will suffer some equivalent of felling.

Yes, here we have a tree amongst old trees which is in fact a simulacrum of a tree. It consists of 97 separate parts, and each segment is cast in iron from a Chinese tree part. Its inspiration comes from street vendors of wood in Jingdhezen, Southern China. The whole is awkward, ungainly, fistily comical and wonderfully tenacious. In order to be itself at all, each limb or part-bole has had to be bolted and screwed together to every other part, as if it were a work of human manufacture. Which it is. The elements do not quite fit – one section of its massive trunk seems to be sliding sideways, drunkenly. The limbs gesture skyward, wildly, helplessly. Rivulets of rusting iron look as if they might just taste tangy. Its characterfulness also comprehends something rather nasty and even fairy-tale-cronish too.

We try to decide whether these are cast parts from one tree or many. We fail to reach a final conclusion. It is undoubtedly a tree of sorts, but this tree is also a message, we cannot but feel, about the condition of man in the world, this awkward, bolted-together creature who is forever striving to cohere as something credible and singular, forever striving to hold his own amongst more authentic versions of himself. Ai Wei Wei is by no means the first person of great imaginative reach to extrapolate from tree parts to the nature of the human condition. Read Jonathan Swift's great Meditations Upon a Broomstick, for example. At least this tree is the right way up.


Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957. In 1958, he and his family were exiled to Xinjiang, Northwest China, his poet-father having been accused of 'rightism'. He lived in New York from 1981 to 1993. On his return to China, he co-founded Beijing East Village, an experimental artists' cooperative. His passport was confiscated in 2014.

Great Work: Doge Loredan by Giovanni Bellini, National Gallery London, published in The Independent, London

He utterly dominates Room 62 of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, this steely-eyed man, just as he  would once have dominated the intricately vicious politics of Venice at the turn of the sixteenth century. I am speaking of Doge Leonardo Loredan, as depicted by Giovanni Bellini, in a painting said to have been executed in about 1501, the year that the Doge took office – an office he was to hold, unbroken, for the next twenty years of almost ceaseless warfare between the Republic and her many enemies. To call this portrait arrestingly magnificent is to sell it short. It is one of the greatest and most startling portraits of the Western canon, painted by a man, the greatest painter of an entire family of remarkable painters, who was at the heart of the political and cultural life of Venice for the duration of his long life – Giovanni Bellini finally died in 1616, aged 86.

I have a crude rule for testing the worth of any work of art. It is called the Ten-Second Test. If any work of art is worth staring at for as long as ten seconds, it stands a chance. That’s it. Most works of art – and especially those which are being made today under the name of ‘art’ – fail that test miserably. Three seconds, perhaps four, are quite enough. To apply such a test to this portrait of the Doge would be laughable in the extreme. The more you stare at it, the more you become absorbed into the marvellously unsettling richness of its ambiguities. There is the test, you see: this work is inexhaustible. The more you look at it, the more it seems to say to you. In this respect, it resembles a great poem.
Surprisingly for a secular portrait, the Doge is not in profile, but face-on (well, in fact, just slightly askance) to the painter and the onlooker – this face-on mode of depiction, for most of the Middle Ages, was generally reserved for sacred portraiture. Now a Doge, a mere mortal man, has been given the treatment once reserved for sacred subjects. And yet this man was not a king, and even less an absolute monarch - and we sense and feel this from the way in which Bellini has painted him. Monarchs more often than not look like over-stuffed balloons. They have little characterful reality, little genuine solidity. They are little more than the majestic way in which they are being represented. Think of Van Dyke’s ridiculous portrait of Charles I on horseback, for example, recently on display at Tate Britain, galloping towards us like a bewigged crazy on a pantomime horse, or of Goya’s glittering dismissals of the Spanish Royal Family whose court painter he was paid to be. More fools them! These paintings, for all their visual splendour, are often nothing but gloriously laughable pieces of puffery. They are lies.
The Doge, on the other hand, is at least two things at once. He is a human being spectacularly adorned in the vestments of his office – gorgeously brocaded mantle worked over, in gold thread, with pineapple motifs which we can see upside down; a ducal cap – known as a ‘corno’ (an allusion to its single horn) - worn over a linen skull cap - but he is also the brutally focussed man that he needed to be in order to negotiate his way through the diplomatic challenges of being Doge of the Republic of Venice. This face is lean, wary, ascetic - almost to the point of revealing a slight tendency towards emaciation. A spiritual man then – but a spiritual man with an iron fist. It is the face of a master tactician, a diplomat. This is not a fat-faced Henry.
We are also a little surprised by the fact that the portrait is relatively modest in size – portraits of men of importance are usually as large as possible. This reminds us of the fact that the Doge was a man amongst men, elected by a committee of 41 aristocrats, perpetually subject to checks and balances; and a man, moreover, who earned relatively little from his official duties; who was not allowed to show favours to members of his own family; and whose rights to own properties outside the Republic was severely restricted. And yet his ceremonial functions were extraordinary – and this is why he is tricked out in such splendour, in robes of such brilliance.
But he ends mid-chest, and he stands behind a marble balustrade, looking out towards the Grand Canal or the Piazza San Marco (or, since the middle of the nineteenth century, towards rivals for his attention at London’s National Gallery), coolly appraising, almost rigid. Why is he cut off like this? Why is he not full-length? (By all accounts, he was not a short man so, unlike, say, Alan Ladd, he did not need to pretend.) Again, it is all to do with politics. The head-and-torso format of this portrait reminds us – and, I am sure, quite deliberately so - of Roman portrait busts. One great empire leads naturally on to another. It is also an attested fact that the Doge’s family believed itself to be the direct descendants of a Roman hero called Caius Mucius Scaevola.
I too am an hero, he is telling us, a servant of god, a master amongst men, within strictly defined limits, of course, which I not-so-humbly acknowledge.
 Giovanni Bellini (1530-1616) was one of the greatest of the Venetian painters of the Renaissance, whose subject matter encompassed sacred themes, secular portraiture and historical narrative. He pioneered the use of oil painting, and became celebrated for his tonal range and the richness of his colour. 

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Picasso: the Mediterranean Years Gagosian Gallery, London - The Independent

It is always quite difficult to know what to do with Picasso. We have seen too much of him already, almost everywhere. Our shelves are already groaning with brick-heavy catalogues. We think we know him already, top-to-toe, every period, thematically, stylistically. Our children paint like him every day. Can there be room for yet another major show of his work? Well yes, perhaps, because there is so always much of him. According to his biographer John Richardson, he made about three objects a day almost every day of his life. He worked all day almost every day, and often for most of the night. His advice to a young painter was: if you want to do something, do it. He was the exemplar of his own approach: he never stopped doing. Only death slowed him down, and the work he has created for his successors – critics, taxonomists, dealers, sexologists, bankers, criminals and forgers on every continent – has been enormous. Even when he was not at his best, he was interesting, turning over one idea after another, trying to quicken materials into life. The wonder is that he should have triumphed so often. The sadness is that he made so much, and tried so hard, that we are often obliged to stare at much that is only fairly good. That is the case with this show. It’s a Picasso taxonomist’s delight, and it deals with the relatively neglected decade and a half which culminated in his eightieth birthday. Yet another Picasso emerged after that, which has already been the subject of a major show at Gagosian.

This is a portrait of Picasso in the post-war years. Post Paris. Post austerity. Re-entering his own birthright beside the Mediterranean Sea (he was born in Malaga) in the south of France. Basking in the sunny warmth of his acclaim and success. And, of course, quite befittingly, the mood has changed dramatically. Much of the greyness has drained away from his palette; a new playfulness has entered into the making. He is creating different kinds of things too, including huge quantities of ceramics and sculptures, large and small. These ceramic objects and these sculptures are the best things in the show. Many of the paintings – the portraits of women, for example – are dull ‘revisitings’ (ie often rather poor near-copies) of his stylistic mannerisms of the past. But these sculptures! They have a reckless derring do about them – look at the gorgeous girl skipping, torso fashioned from an old basket, which faces you as you enter the main gallery, or the wooden sculpture, fashioned from sticks and blocks, so delightfully crude, of a mother winging her child up into the air. These are sculptures which seem to say: what have I to lose by making this at breakneck speed from the unpromising stuff that surrounds me in the studio or just outside? Or examine the wonderful baboon whose face has been made from a toy car. Who but Picasso would have pressed that car into service in this way? There is an intense preoccupation with children, for themselves, and at play. He paints children enjoying themselves with a reckless childishness, as they might have painted themselves had they been him. You spot it the moment you enter into the central gallery, children everywhere, represented in painting and sculpture. His own children – sleepy-eyed Paloma, for example. There were always so many to choose from. One or two were even legitimate. Always so much to do, always so many jismic marvels.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), The Independent, London

She was the first artist to be invited to make something of the Tate Modern’s near impossibly unwelcoming Turbine Hall in the year 2000, and what she created was entirely characteristic of her art from first to last – a nasty, long-legged spider on a giant scale to keep watch over us from the overhead bridge, and three horribly impersonal steel watchtowers to keep us under surveillance at ground level. South Armagh meets a hair-raising denizen of the dense jungle, you might say.

Surveillance is a word which resonates when it comes to appraising the art of the extraordinarily long-lived and ceaselessly productive Louise Bourgeois. Usually it is the onlooker who appraises the work of art. After all, is it not the onlooker’s privilege, having paid the price, to do so? It was the opposite with Bourgeois. When you entered a room of work by her, you felt stripped bare all of a sudden, as if voices were shouting questions into your ears, demanding some explanation of why you had lived as you had lived. It seems almost surprising that death should have caught up with her at last, that she is no longer alive to jab the bony finger.

Another entirely fitting word would be a coining of Albert Camus’: dis-ease. Not unease. That would be too easy. Camus’s word means that we are somehow complicit in our own undermining, that we may have brought on our sufferings by being precisely what we are. No, you never felt comfortable in the presence of a work by Bourgeois.

You felt, somehow, that you were not only under scrutiny, but even that you were being played with, even terrorized, as Hitchcock so often played with you. Things could only get worse. The staging always helped – and the props of her installations, which often consisted of old doors, bits of shabby furniture, creaky beds, bleak, prison-perimeter meshing, often organised in strange, seemingly ever shrinking circles. Shabby old doors enclosed tiny moments of oppressive, shabby domesticity, dreams of a nightmarishly unhappy childhood perhaps. So little looked pristine. Almost everything seemed gimcrack, just off the skip, pressed into service against its will, unhappily re-livingg its own wailingly posthumous life. The whole effect was always so unsettlingly dramatic, almost ghoulishly filmic. There was always so much darkness, so many pockets of eeriness in which dread could be left to propagate. There would be deep thrusting shadows to witness, or strange corners to turn before you entered, in the case of her many ‘Cells’, the desolate, three-dimensional structures with which much of the exhibition space was filled at her last major retrospective at Tate Modern, which happened just three years ago, when she was already climbing the long hill, undaunted, towards her hundredth birthday.

She was female all right, but she never fell victim to that old cliché of the essential softness of the feminine. She was soft only in the way that well worn leather boots are soft. She wrenched the feminine about in her work; she made us feel on our pulses what it was to be a woman who suffers the excruciating physical tumult of childbirth. There was eroticism a-plenty, but it was an eroticism stepping out in conjunction with pain. Many of the objects she made looked like anthropological specimens, artefacts which threw back at us our own peculiar cultural habits. One entire gallery in that Tate show was organised to look like such a museum display. She picked us apart, bit by bit, and then sewed us back together again, with an ungainly lumpishness. She never held up the idea of the human for glorification or celebration. She was no female Michelangelo. Nor was she a surrealist, though she knew many of them, and she moved in their circles. For all that, her kind of psychological disclosure was theirs too: to expose the often repulsive underside of things, those secretly oozy that we can barely acknowledge about ourselves, the grossness of the human, the worm that ceaselessly turns in all our buds. Some of her most celebrated works were her soft sculptures – she inherited from her parents a love of sewing – made from fabrics and stuffing. She helped to dignify the idea of softness, to give it gravity and feeling.

She never ceased to change and change again. Her sculptures were such weird things, as much animistic as modernist. Her whole spirit seems to be summed up in this tiny extract from her diary, written when she was a mere 70 years of age, and with much of her long, wayward creative road still to travel: ‘The only access we have to our volcanic unconscious and to the profound motives for our actions and reactions is through the shocks of our encounters with specific people’. Such telling words. Those shocks she felt are the same shocks that we experience, time and again, when we come up against her bruising work.

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Saturday, 10 April 2010

De Chirico, Max Ernst, Magritte, Balthus - Palazzo Strozzi, Venice - The Independent, London

Giorgio de Chirico is one of those painters we know so well from all the reproductions we used to display on our walls when we were breathless students: those lonely, wind-swept piazzas, headless statues and tiny humanoids with their weirdly over-stretched shadows... In fact, as with so many other painters, his work often looks better in reproduction. The crudity of application is smoothed away. All we are left with is the strangely disturbing idea of the work itself, and – in the very best of his art - the bald, bold use of contrasting primary colours. Look at the poster created for this exhibition for example, or the laminated cover of the press pack. They are more arresting than the painting called ‘The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon’ that they use as their starting point.

This exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence is an attempt to create a lineage of influence, to say that first there was De Chirico, and then along came others in his wake – Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, Balthus, Morandi and others. All these spirits were influenced by De Chirico to a greater or lesser degree, we are told. Is this true?

The answer is: well yes, in part, but… De Chirico’s most memorable works were created during the second decade of the twentieth century, the decade, it could be argued, when the world of the West changed irrevocably. The terrible blight of world war saw to that. Now De Chirico never painted war – but he undoubtedly painted the atmosphere of anxiety and incertitude provoked by war, the pervasive feeling that a mighty gulf had opened up, and that it would be the task of writers and artists to stare into that beckoning gulf, and to report on what they saw down there. They just couldn’t help it. Things were falling apart for everyone – and that included W.B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Georg Trakl, to name not artists at all but three poets, all kindred spirits of artists like De Chirico.

The fact is that everyone was influencing everyone else.

Of course there were De Chirico’s particular props – his mannequins, his towers, etc. Those props undoubtedly had an influence, and in fact the best part of this show is when you stop looking at De Chirico and turn your attention to two artists whose names are barely known at all, but certainly deserve to be. Those names are Pierre Roy (b.1880), who was a nephew of Jules Verne, and a Swiss German called Niklaus Stoecklin (b.1896). Stoecklin and Roy are the stars of this show, and the message they sing out is this: that around this time the way objects were painted seemed to suggest they had taken on a strange life of their own. Although they may have been painted side by side, objects look set apart from each other as if they are intent on dreaming their own dreams. Is this Surrealism? Is this ‘magic realism’ (a term coined by a German critic in 1925), or is this a result of being influenced by the ‘metaphysical’ style of De Chirico? We don’t care what it’s called. All we can see is that it is happening.

So in a wonderful, formally rigorous – almost academically rigorous - painting by Niklaus Stoecklin called ‘Games of Dominoes’ (1928), we see a game in progress. The pieces are set upright, facing each other. The empty wooden box from which the pieces were extracted yawns open like a catafalque. There are no players. Stoecklin was in the habit of making his own frames, and this one is particularly disturbing: the inner frame is gilded, cheerfully glistering; and the outer is black, funereal in mood. There are no players. But the game must go on. De Chirico, Max Ernst, Magritte, Balthus - A Look into the Invisible Palazzo Strozzi, Florence until 18 July

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Lucian Freud at the Centre Pompidou, Paris

Yes, it cannot be denied. There has been something problematical about Lucian Freud and the French public, Cécile Debray, the Pompidou’s curator of the first major survey of Freud’s work in Paris for almost a quarter of a century, tells me over Steack a la Sauce Bearnaise in the Pompidou’s sixth-floor Restaurant Georges, giving me her most winning smile. Freud was last exhibited here at the Pompidou in 1987, during the dog days of summer. The show wasn’t well attended. Such attention as it received was quite dismissive: one critic called it a species of kitsch.

Cécile finds it quite difficult to describe what the problem was - perhaps she is already tired of talking to mere journalists – but it has something to do with the fact that, for a long time, the French thought that he was practising an art whose time had come and gone: he was a figurative painter, practising the ancient art of portraiture. Why wasn’t this man into abstraction and conceptualism like almost all the rest? Why did he choose not to benefit by the lessons of Abstract Expressionism? Why did he have to persist in being a cussed, independent-minded individualist? Why had he chosen to leave modernity behind?

And so, unfortunately for the French, by that moment in 2008 when Freud became the world’s most expensive and collectible living painter, they seemed profoundly out of step with the rest of the world. French collectors had shown practically no interest in his work, and the Pompidou itself owned just one small painting, dating from the 1940s. And now, even if they wanted to buy them, they couldn’t possibly afford to…

Now, of course, he cannot afford not to be accommodated. And yet, and yet… even today, I feel, as I walk around this themed show of Freud’s work situated elsewhere on the 6th floor of the Pompidou Centre, there is still something about the way it is presented which is seeking to intellectualise him in order to make the French public understand quite why they should be taking him so seriously. To intellectualise is to give status, credibility. That is the Pompidou’s gift to Freud. Yes, the French must have him on their own terms – and these are not quite the terms of the painter himself.

The exhibition consists of 55 works, spread across four galleries, which means that it is about one third of the size of the great Tate retrospective of 2003, and it has a theme: Freud and the Studio. The walls are two shades of grey, as is the floor. Visual austerity is the key to seriousness. As in the Giacometti retrospective of 2004, Freud is critically appraised in relation to his various studios, the crucible of his creations. The studio is a limiting, a framing space, behind closed doors, in which performances take place involving painter and that with which he chooses to surround himself – objects, plants, human flesh. The studio is a ‘metaphor’ for painting, not a real place with paint-smeared walls, heaps of old rags, a half-bust divan bed, and a tap drip-dripping into an old butler’s sink.

So this approach is both stimulating and limiting. It means that there are paintings here which are not first-rate. They’re here to illustrate a theme - or a sub-theme within that overarching theme of the studio. And there are others which fit oddly with that theme. Here is the argument of the exhibition. Freud is not first and foremost a figurative painter, feeling his way forward, doing what he feels compelled to do, by his gifts and his temperament. He is, above all things else, a painter who is reflecting upon the nature of figurative painting by painting figuratively. That is the great distinction here: he is reflexive. He is, in short, intellectualising as he works. If he were not, the charge of being an old-fashioned portrait painter could be levelled at him. And that charge needs to be avoided at all costs. If that happened, the French public would continue to disdain him, and the show would bomb. So it is simply not true that he merely belongs in a certain tradition. He is interrogating that tradition, testing the limits of is validity.

Now anyone who has read the few searching interviews that Freud has ever given knows that this doesn’t not quite square with the character or his working methods. This is not to say that Freud is not immensely thoughtful or that he has not spent much of his life looking long and hard at paintings – his own and other people’s. It is to say that he is not a conceptualist. He does not deal in ideas which then transform themselves, as if by some miracle, into paintings. At his best, he deals in the stink, the feel, the sheer immediacy of human flesh, the nowness of our brutish presences on earth. The Pompidou slightly begs to differ.

But the problem is a little more general than that. The trouble with Freud is that his spirit does not like to be pinioned. He is the arch-individualist. He is not easily compartmentalised. In fact, he is almost legendary for daring to be himself, quite uncompromisingly. In the past this has included fist fights, and roaring through the night with Francis and Muriel at the Colony. So when we read in one of the gallery’s extended wall texts that so and so forms part of what has become part of the evolution of an entire oeuvre, that word so beloved of the French, it strikes the wrong note altogether. Freud has never thought in those terms. His work may have evolved, but he would be the first to admit that there have been many significant failures, paintings that deserve to be forgotten. An oeuvre doesn’t make space for failure. It believes in a monumental totality. By conceptualising in this way, the account slightly falsifies. It also falsely aggrandises.

In the third of the galleries, Freud revisits the classics – which means Freud’s re-workings of paintings or motifs by Chardin, Cézanne and Constable. The Chardins are wonderful, the large reprise of the Cézanne is not. It is awkward and unresolved. The greatest of Freud’s re-imaginings of the classics, a large figure group after Watteau called ‘Large Interior W11’ (1981-1983), is not present at all – in spite of the fact that it should have been here because it figures prominently in the catalogue. We feel, once again, that the sub-theme is here to prove that Freud does not work intuitively, day by day, investing every precious moment. He is forever standing back and positioning himself, not only in relation to other painters, but in relation to other ideas about painting. This was never really true of Freud – and it is still not quite true of this man of 88, who continues to paint, when he can, with a kind of manic urgency. The fact is that he doesn’t like his own past, not all that much. As with any true maker, writer or artist, he lives and breathes for the unfolding riches of the present moment, for what he will achieve, not for what he has achieved.

Just one of the four galleries is an unqualified success, and that is the fourth gallery, which gives itself over to large-scale paintings of the most abundantly fleshy of Freud’s sitters. Here are figures in poses of total abandonment, Leigh Bowery from the front and from behind, or that gloriously fleshily abundant portrait of Sue Tilley, ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ (1995), cheek squashed up against the end of the sofa, breasts like great donging bells, which sold for $33 million in 2008. They sprawl, they wallow, about the picture space in states of extreme lassitude. No bed, no sofa is big enough to contain these bodies. The flesh looks so dense, so animal. Nothing seems to be in movement; time stands still. Flesh is nothing but dead weight. There is no refinement of any kind and no posing here. This looks like flesh felled in the way that a great tree is felled. These are not pre-arranged compositions. They are paintings which have emerged into being over time – sometimes the making process can be quite considerable - without any preparatory drawing whatsoever. Freud begins at the centre and works his way out towards the periphery. If it so happens that the composition is moving in the direction of an awkward shape, an extra bits gets added on. Paintings will prove to be what they prove to be. Freud’s job is to keep at it. As he said quite recently, ‘I want to go on until there’s nothing more to see.’ Atta boy.

Lucian Freud is at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, until 19 July

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Kingdom of Ife - Sculptures from West Africa, The Independent, London

There are so many Africas, and so many arts of Africa. Picasso and Matisse thought they had hit on the essence of Africa during the first decade of the twentieth century. The African masks and sculpture that influenced such works as Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1909) seemed to be the very embodiment of a youngish Spaniard’s priapic idea of the primitive: wonderfully, savagely stylized; bursting with a toe-curlingly alien erotic charge. How patronizing of Picasso to think that that’s what African art amounted to. Well, perhaps that’s a little unfair. The point was that Picasso, ever grasping, ever restless, was seeking out new ways of representing the female body.

Yes, anthropologists quickly began to prove that Picasso was either wrong or telling just one tiny part of an immensely complicated story. In 1910, the first major excavations took place at Ife, a site in what is now south-western Nigeria, not too far from Lagos. (The walled city-state of Ife, legendary homeland of the Yoruba, flourished for three hundred years, from about 1,100-1,400 AD). Thirty years later, in 1940, another great cull of objects from the same site hit the headlines again: ‘Worthy to rank with finest works of Greece and Italy,’ shrilled the Illustrated London News.

Many of the works that those anthropologists found are now on display in this major show of north-west African sculpture, and the works here do indeed lend credence to that headline writer’s claim. At the same historical moment that Andrea del Verrochio was doing his wonderfully painstaking, high-Renaissance drawing of a female head which can be seen elsewhere in this building, anonymous artisans in Ife were working with brass, bronze - yes, these Africans knew all about bronze casting long before the Europeans arrived to show them how - copper and terracotta to produce a series of exquisite heads that are not only the equal of Donatello in technical brilliance, but also just as naturalistic in their refinement. So much for African primitivism.

There is much more to see than heads, mere heads, in this show, of course - there is a gorgeous stone representations of a mud fish, lying so slyly low on its rather proper-looking maroon plinth (granite body; menacingly plug-like, iron eyes) and the scaly crocodile; there are intimidatingly indomitable monoliths from sacred groves; there are extraordinary terracotta sculptures of bodies disfigured by ricketts and elephantiasis (look out for the hugely swollen testicles); and there is also a wonderful top of a staff, which shows the heads of two male criminals, back to back, one young, the other old, their mouths gagged with rope to prevent them cursing their fate – but it is to the heads that we return, again and again. Such is their extraordinary visual seductiveness.

A typical Ife head is life-size. The expression is harmonious and beautifully serene, the surface extremely smooth, cheek bones often quite prominent, lips full, neck long. The face is likely to have vertical striations. The head may be adorned with a tiered head-dress or a delicate pill box hat, built up in concentric rings, simulating woven basketry. The abdomen is likely to be adorned with swags of beads. If a king is being represented, look out for rosettes, a beaded crown.

What were these heads for? we ask ourselves repeatedly. Were they memorials? Did they beautify altars? Were they made for coronation ceremonies? One of the most exquisite is described as the copper mask of Obdufon II, who was the Ife’s third king. In spite of the fact that it weighs in at five kilos, the mask was actually made to be worn by some long suffering devil – surely not the king himself. Below the eyes you can see small, crescent-shaped slits – the wearer would have been able to see through these slits. What marvels he would have seen – nothing quite so marvellous as himself though.

Kingdom of Ife – Sculptures from West Africa British Museum 4 March- 6 June