Jean Baptiste Carpeaux, Bust of Jean Léon Gérôme, ca.  1871. | Credit: Courtesy

Many art exhibitions are crafted around an artist or a particular historical period, but this summer, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art chose instead to showcase its extensive collection of bronze pieces from the entire geographical and chronological expanse of human history.

The result is Fire, Metal, Monument: Bronze, an array of objects that shows how different artists and cultures have utilized a material that can take form in multiple alloys, yielding bronzes that in their finished states range from the imposing monolithic grayness of a Roman table leg carved with the likeness of Bacchus to lustrous green-strained sacrificial vessels dating from the pre-imperial Shang Dynasty.

Curator James Glisson said that the variety of alloys, molding methods, and finalized shapes reflect meticulous and diligent work, both by individual artisans and by collective humanity over centuries in search for the most durable and effective possible variants. 

There are many ways to analytically slice the items in this exhibition; Glisson pointed out, for example, the functional universality of bronze, which can be crafted for everyday use (as in the case of an Etruscan mirror carved with a depiction of gendered domestic violence) or for sacred applications.

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Jue Ritual Wine Vessel China, Shang dynasty, 12th-11th  c. BCE Bronze. | Credit: Courtesy

One such piece is an intricately detailed, gilded bronze representation of the Vajrayana deity Vajrabhairava (“unbridled wrath”) embracing a consort, instructing the faithful to harness sensuality, violence, lust, and other internal evils as an alternative path to awakening; the entwined couple further served as a metaphor for enlightenment, achievable only through the union of female wisdom and male method. 

The centerpiece in the main room is “C.O.Y:O.T.E.” by Louise Bourgeois, a cast bronze sculpture resembling a kind of framework, painted all over in pink. Glisson retold how one visitor could not quite believe that it was actually bronze, as Bourgeois had crafted it in such a way that it looked almost like wood. 

In conceiving Fire, Metal, Monument: Bronze, Glisson affirmed that the purpose of this exhibition and others like it is different from an academic essay; rather than explicating on a subject, the exhibition is meant to point out select objects for visitors to appreciate and think about.

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