Y Cerflun Newydd: Icarws | The New Sculpture: Icarus


Today I want to talk to you about this work,
and this is a sculpture called Icarus, and it’s by a British sculptor with a Welsh
mother called Alfred Gilbert. So, this sculpture tells the tragic story
of Icarus from Greek mythology. King Minos had imprisoned Icarus and his father on a
Greek island to keep the secret of the labyrinth. His father built wings from feathers and wax
for them both so that they could escape. Yet, despite warnings, the over enthusiastic Icarus
flew too close to the sun – his wings melted, and he plunged to his death. This bronze figure of Icarus stands before
us just as he’s about to take off on his journey. He is nude, and this practice stems
from ancient greeks and represented the ideal person both literally and morally. But this
statue is different because it represents fallibility – that errors can be made. When we look at this work it’s actually
about half-life size, and it’s a detailed and graceful rendering of youthfulness. The
distinctive feature of the sculpture are the two wings that are attached to his arms. They
are almost as tall as he is, reaching from his shoulder almost down to his feet. They’re
tied to his upper arms with leather straps and laces. His clenched fists hold loops that
are attached to the wings for control. He wears a delicately folded cloth cap on this
head, and his head bows forwards. His muscles are clearly defined, and this shows the artists
skill. The stance is confident and resolute, his
arms are by his side and his shoulders are back. Yet the legs are positioned in such
a way to create what is called contrapposto, and this is a technique that gives the body
a gentle twist and stops the statue appearing too blocky or stationary. This creates rhythm
and a sense of movement. Although his stance seems confident, his face
has an anxious and foreboding expression as he looks downwards towards the ground, at
the base – because the base also continues the story. Compared to Icarus’s size, it’s
very large, and this reminds us of his fate. As if that was not enough, a snake strangles
a bird by Icarus’s feet, and this is a symbol of the earth overpowering the air. This work is important. It’s important to
British sculptural history, and it’s also important to the museum. It was acclaimed
when it was exhibited at the royal academy for its sensitive emotional quality and its
realistic appearance. This work was given to the museum by the Welsh
sculpture and friend of Gilbert, William Goscombe John. He claimed that Gilbert was one of our
greatest artists, and that this work was the most noble and beautiful ever done by a British
sculptor.

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