This thought occurred as Father’s Day looms in the UK: what a perfect present a medal would make. Thinking beyond dearest and praiseworthy Dads though, we all deserve a medal. I know I want one! Especially after visiting Jean-Luc Baroni’s perfectly presented exhibition in collaboration with The British Art Medal Society. If you’re in London, you have just 2 days to catch this gem of a show. If not, all is not lost because the BAMS has every contact you might need, whether to buy a limited edition design or commission your very own piece of medal history.
Titled Works in Bronze and Other Media by Contemporary Medallists the show is noteworthy for its approachability and diverse display, not to mention the wealth of talent. Most graciously Jean-Luc Baroni, whose illustrious business usually deals in master paintings (mainly 15th to 19th Century), is waiving the usual gallery fee in favour of the artists: “I have been delighted to be introduced to the fascinating world of medals and at the same time take pleasure, with this special exhibition, in sharing with the artists some of what life has given me through my work.”
All of the medals on display were either created or selected specifically for the show. It also adds interest that the exhibition includes drawings and other artwork relating to the pieces – an additional insight into the design process and inspirations into which different artists have tapped.
There are many beautiful and intriguing things about medals – for a start they offer 2 faces and usually have an edge – an opportunity for a 3D narrative across varying surfaces. They are also immensely tactile without necessarily being fragile, something to hold in one’s hand, a veritable little treasure. Medals are so much more than military or commemorative, although both these aspects have tremendous value – they are an ideal entrée into the art world and collecting, a chance to buy a perfectly formed and often affordable miniature sculpture, in much the same way as prints allow us to dip into the world of original art without the often prohibitive expense involved in buying large works or those by famous artists.
I was attracted and fascinated by a number of the medals, notably pieces by Natasha Ratcliffe, Kyosun Jung, Jo Nadem, Kate Harrison, Robert Elderton, Marian Fountain and Philip Booth. For the purpose of this review though, I have chosen to focus on 3 artists, all prize winners selected by Baroni with the help of Sir Mark Jones, currently Master of St Cross College at Oxford (previously Director of the National Museums of Scotland and the Victoria and Albert Museum, prior to that Curator of Medals at The British Museum) and art historian and Renaissance scholar Rick Scorza, whose interest and enthusiasm was instrumental in instigating the show.
The criteria for selection centred around invention, execution, design, the relationship between the 2 key faces of the medals (obverse and reverse) and the difficulty in bringing each creation to life. The first prize went to Linda Crook for Ariadne, 2015, a 5 x 10.5 cm medal in bronze (edition of 25); second to Abigail Burt for Walking the Tightrope of Life, 2013, a 4.4 x 12 cm, depth 0.5 cm medal in bronze (edition of 25); and the third to Danuta Solowiej, for Once Upon a Time I, II, III, IV, 2014, diameter 7.5 cm to 9 cm (all unique pieces) whose 4 pieces in stoneware, oxide and string were described by Baroni as “provocative and interesting”.
Solowiej, whose work is often imbued with a deep sense of mystery, likes to stretch the boundaries with materials and form, drawing ideas from a tremendous variety of sources. She describes Once Upon A Time as “a series of medals inspired by seals, early bookbinding, old folios, the rustling of pages, faded pigments, amulets, talismans, astrolabes, horizontal clocks… The medals are neither abstract nor figurative, the story is yet untold but there is a promise, traces of information and clues of what is contained between the obverse and the reverse.”
Burt, who values the limitations of medallic art, which she sees as stimulating and enhancing in terms of creativity, also loves the potential for symbolism, like a versatile visual memoir, on Walking the Tightrope of Life: “A sole figure walks along the thread, trying her best to keep her balance on the ‘Tightrope of Life’.”
Crook relishes the English language, its meaning and expression and particularly enjoys the opportunity for storytelling in her work. Speaking of Ariadne: “Ariadne has the string to lead Theseus out of the labyrinth. There is a mystery: a labyrinth is not a maze – there is only one way in and out. Why the string? I asked a friend, who said, ‘a connection with the world:
I am lost
But I can return, I know the way back if I draw the cord.’
Ariadne’s story shows the fragile connection between life and death.”
Philip Attwood, President of BAMS and current Keeper of Coins and Medals at the British Museum gave one of the inspiring opening speeches to a packed gallery, testament in itself to the immense popularity of these small and in no way obscure objects of desire and beauty.
Find out more via the British Art Medal Society‘s website.
Text © Emma Boden
Photos © see captions: Linda Crook, Abigail Burt, Danuta Solowiej