Alfred Gilbert was the leading exponent of the New Sculpture movement in British art, which was coined by critic Edmund Gosse in an 1876 article in Art Journal. Gilbert looked to the idealism and athletic beauty of ancient Greek and Roman figurative sculpture and infused it with a physical and psychological expression. He was responsible for creating one of London’s grandest public sculptures, Eros Fountain in Piccadilly Circus (designed as a memorial to Lord Shaftsbury).
Comedy & Tragedy: Sic Vita belongs to a group of sculptures referred to as the Great Bronzes within Gilbert’s oeuvre. Within these iconic works, Gilbert achieved monumentality without sacrificing intimacy.
The Schaeffer bronze is a reduced version of the original (a plaster of which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1892), produced by Gilbert for his expanding collectors’ market.
The complexity of form and symbolism distinguishes Comedy & Tragedy: Sic Vita. Gilbert’s technical virtuosity is apparent in the contrapposto arrangement of the figure pivoting on one foot. Movements oppose, as the naked boy thrusts a comic mask in one direction while twisting his upper body the other to observe a bee stinging his left calf.
Gilbert guides the viewer’s eye around the sculpture to reveal a complex narrative contained within. The spectator appreciates the work from multiple viewpoints. The young boy is shown from one angle holding a comic mask and from another, grimacing in pain a bee sting. The symbolism informing the contrasting emotions and tension within the sculpture was explained by Gilbert:
“…represents a boy carrying a comic mask. He is stung by a bee – the symbol of love. He turns, and his face becomes tragic. The symbol is in reality fact. I was strung […] by my love for my art, a consciousness of its incompleteness. […] I was living a kind of double life at that time, enjoying the society of Irving and Toole and other famous and pleasant members of the Garrick Club going to the theatre at night, and with Tragedy in my private life, living my Comedy publicly, if not enjoying it.”
While outwardly successful (the smiling comic mask), Gilbert was trapped in a spiral of debt, disputes over uncompleted commissions and anxiety about his sick wife (the tormented face of the boy). The Latin subtitle to the work means ‘Thus is life’. Gilbert’s ability to combine contrasting expressions within the one figure was testament to his brilliance.
JANE MESSENGER / Independent Writer