The Thornflower by Charlotte Mayer FRBS  (Photo: Steve Russell courtesy Gallery Pangolin)

The Power of Art

Recently, I visited Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The galleries were full, with visitors of all ages and many nationalities engaging with the profound and thought-provoking displays. It was heartening to find the RA confronting the issues raised by Ai Weiwei through his work in a measured, sensitive and deeply thoughtful way. Visitors are encouraged to take photographs and share them through social media.  Ai Weiwei’s work speaks for itself and testifies to the power of art to make us think about other people’s lives, the problems they face when they do not live in a democratic society where freedom of expression is taken for granted, and what we can do to help bring about change for the better. 

Blown Away, a sculpture by Sioban Coppinger FRBS made from bronze leaves for The Garden Gallery’s 2014 exhibition, Echoes in the Memory, had a profound effect on many people. The exhibition was inspired by T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and thoughts of remembrance and commemoration in the centenary year of the outbreak of WW1. How do we remember a beloved person and keep the flame alive? Sioban Coppinger responded to Eliot’s poignant lines, “… Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future …”.  The image of the young man she created, “his life fleeting as a gust of leaves”, resonated with the many people who saw the sculpture, bearing witness to the power of art to stir our feelings and our thoughts. 

The Thornflower, a bronze and steel sculpture by Charlotte Mayer FRBS is a quiet call for peace and reconciliation. It was made as an expression of the pain felt and carried by Charlotte for decades following the death of her beloved grandmother in Treblinka. The sculpture commands attention and contemplation and must not be rushed. It speaks of the horrors of the Holocaust, and of the cruelty and atrocities perpetrated since, and which will be committed in the future. Its still compelling presence, the juxtaposition of vicious thorns dominated by gentle petals, is unsettling, yet also reassuring. As the season for Remembrance approaches, The Thornflower offers a focus for our thoughts about those who have died horribly, and calls us to consider how we can help to save others from similar fates. 

In The Financial Times recently, Antony Gormley wrote an absorbing article about “the stillness of sculpture”.  Gormley said, “I believe in the ability of sculpture as a first-hand experience to move us and to shift our goal-orientated consciousness somewhere deeper and wider … The making of it is an act of hope.”  Ai Weiwei’s exhibition, Sioban Coppinger’s Blown Away and Charlotte Mayer’s The Thornflower are just three examples of how the minds and hands of creative people can guide us towards thinking about time past, time present, time future, and man’s inhumanity to man. 
Like landscape, sculpture can ground us. In The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy wrote of Egdon Heath in Dorset giving “ballast to the mind adrift on change, and harassed by the irrepressible New”.  Amidst the daily blitz of emails, images, tweets, and social media banalities, the presence in our lives of sculpture can help to focus our attention on what really matters.  As Antony Gormley says, sculpture,  by “ … being a rock in the stream of our lives, invites us to stop, reconsider, to reassess …”.

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