John Flaxman at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

Exhibition | On now – 21 April 2013

We would like to recommend a new exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham: John Flaxman, Line to Contour, curated by David Bindman, Emeritus Professor in Art History at University College London. John Flaxman (1755 – 1826) was the first British sculptor to achieve an international reputation. He was also a ‘Swedenborgian’ and founder member of the Swedenborg Society. Much of his work can be seen at the library and art collections at University College London, and in 2010 UCL organized a display of Flaxman’s works at the UCL Art Museum.

Flaxman was, according to the writer Peter Ackroyd, one of the great paradoxes of cultural history. Once renowned across Europe for his line illustrations to Dante and Homer and foremost sculptor of public monuments in Britain, Flaxman is now virtually unknown. His friend and contemporary William Blake (1757 – 1827) forms the other side of this paradox; shunning the establishment he was likewise shunned by public opinion during his lifetime – however his name is now enshrined in the canon of the history of art.

deliverusaugust8Both Flaxman and Blake emerged from a craft background and venerated Gothic art against the established fashion of their time; and both were fascinated by the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg – an interest shared by many urban artisans of their generation. Flaxman’s appeal to biblical morality and to pre-Enlightenment artistic ideals distinguished his artistic style. And a specifically ‘Swedenborgian’ strain informs the sublime simplicity and exquisite stillness of his compositions. These are also unusual for their focus upon the humble subject of everyday piety; his funereal monuments often depict women in mourning, refined versions of street scenes he sketched in Rome. Flaxman’s state monuments are deemed less successful: Lord Nelson is left looking distant and cold in St Paul’s Cathedral. Known in Britain for his funereal monuments, these often showed distinctively Swedenborgian imagery: at Chichester Cathedral one can see the spirit of Agnes Cromwell being carried up to heaven by angels. Her spirit is clothed in her body and the angels look distinctly human. One is witnessing a process of metamorphoses often described by Swedenborg.

Flaxman’s simplicity of line was also influenced by ancient Greek and Roman art. He was a fundamental contributor towards the Neoclassical tradition in England. In fact he made many designs for Josiah Wedgewood in this style and spent seven years in Rome perfecting his technique. Flaxman’s simple relief sculptures bare a greater resemblance to the line drawings which made him an international artist. Most of Flaxman’s work is held at UCL and Tate Britain; and the Royal Academy – where Flaxman taught for many years – also boasts a collection of his work. We highly recommend that you take this opportunity to view this work at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham!

Picture 9The UCL Art Museum is currently hosting an exhibition entitled Plastered, focused on casting process and highlighting the sculpture models of John Flaxman. A pioneer during an age of industrialism, Flaxman was the first British sculptor to use the technique as a consistent part of his working practice, revealing early on the material’s extraordinary versatility. Shown alongside Flaxman’s art will be more unusual applications of plaster, including Victorian death masks used for the early study of eugenics and casts of human pathological specimens from the Great Ormond Street Hospital Collection. Click here for further information.


Picture 8UCL is also organizing an ongoing intervention project in the Flaxman Gallery of the library. Marcia Farquhar’s Flaxman Exchange is UCL Art Museum’s inaugural Flaxman Gallery artist commission. Throughout the month of March, Artist Marcia Farquhar will lead, or mislead, a tour of the newly refurbished Flaxman Gallery and other significant spaces of UCL. Each performance tour will be unique. Click here for further information and dates.


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