Last week the art world mourned the news that sculptor Sir Anthony Caro had died aged 89. As the tributes rolled in, those inside and outside the art community seemed to agree that Caro was perhaps the last of the truly great living sculptors from the mid-to-late-20th century. Comparisons were made to the great Henry Moore, a fellow Briton, whom Caro had assisted early on in the latter’s career.
Caro was prolific but unfortunately was never commissioned to sculpt a major public work in the UK. Elsewhere though, he was being commissioned for large works right up until only a few years ago. The striking Chapel of Light in the Church of St Jean Baptiste in Bourbourg, northern France, is one such achievement. Here, Caro’s work can be seen in its full mastery – enhancing the building. The sculptor’s use of architectural techniques and original materials synchronise to create a space of extraordinary calm. The client of this ultimately interactive piece of public art? The French state, whose Ministry of Culture footed the bill.
Why is this important? And what does it say apart from the French might perhaps be happier to see taxes spent on grand artistic gestures? It says that the British have never got over their fear of modernity. Despite investment, public art in the UK remains the domain of figurative and pastiche renditions. This is in stark contrast to a rich (if much-demolished) modernist history and a positively booming contemporary art scene. The UK has never had a shortage of daring artists who are happy to provoke and please the public in equal measure. Caro’s seemingly rough, brutal adventures may have been too much for his compatriots’ palates.
Today, visitors to the UK arriving at London’s St Pancras International station are greeted by an almost vulgar pair of overly defined buttocks clearly visible beneath a rather tacky pencil skirt – with frills. This is one side of Paul Day’s “The Meeting Place”, a vast, detailed bronze sculpture depicting a couple that are not only locked in an embrace, but seem ready to – as the British say – have a snog.
If only an Anthony Caro piece could welcome weary passengers – his severe and stark beauty leaving so much more to the imagination.
David Plaisant is a researcher for Monocle 24