The Shape of Things Daniel Katz Gallery

When adopting new artistic ideas, the British are often slow starters. During the last century, as it was with painting, music and ballet, so with sculpture. Yet once a handful of sculptors here had become aware of what was going on abroad they, too, would make an impact internationally, if rather more slowly at home.

What a difference a few years can make. In 1939 Country Life published R.B.S. Modern British Sculpture, an elegant, weighty volume. This illustrated work by almost all living members of The Royal Society of British Sculptors plus a few pieces by leading members who had recently died. Among the plates are some impressive items, such as Charles Sargeant Jagger’s figures for his Hyde Park Corner Royal Artillery War Memorial; a selection by Sir William Reid Dick, including Controlled Energy, on Unilever House, Blackfriars; and figures by Kathleen Kennet, including her Christchurch, New Zealand, memorial to her late husband, the Polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott.

Altogether, 65 sculptors are represented. But whereas the now-little-known F Brook Hitch, Allan Howes, L S Merrifield, Alfred J Oakley and Harold Youngman muster between them 10 examples, there is nothing by Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill, Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, all non-members. Yet by this time Epstein was famous – to many, infamous – as the sculptor of the figures on the British Medical Association building in the Strand, 1908; Rima, the W H Hudson Memorial in Hyde Park, 1925; and the colossal Leicester Galleries exhibited Behold the Man, 1935. Gill was near the end of a distinguished career, with his Stations of the Cross, 1913-18, and carvings for Broadcasting House, 1929-31, behind him. Moore had had his first solo show, in 1928; was commissioned for the Underground Building, St James’s, 1928-29; and had shown widely in Britain and abroad. Hepworth, her abstract sculptures influenced by visits to Brancusi and Arp in 1932, had shown widely in Modernist shows, including Abstraction-Création, Paris, 1933-5.

Clearly, Modern at the end of the 1930s meant different things to different people in British sculpture circles, effectively two parallel worlds. Where by then sculptors such as Epstein and Moore had found their inspiration is well illustrated in a scholarly and perceptive essay by James Rawlin in the catalogue of The Shape of Things: Three Decades of British Modernist Sculpture now at the Daniel Katz Gallery. Much of the sculpture illustrated in R.B.S. Modern British Sculpture was essentially Greek in inspiration. Rawlin notes how Moore in 1930 had written that for him and others ‘removal of the Greek spectacles from the eyes of the modern sculptor’ had ‘helped him to realize again the intrinsic emotional significance of shapes’. Moore’s own sources, says Rawlin, were ‘as diverse as the materials in which he carved, with the apparently otherwise unconnected cultures of Ancient Egypt informing many of his best carvings’. Hepworth, too, ‘was looking beyond classical precedents’.

With that background, this exhibition aims ‘to raise questions about the way in which British sculptors reacted to international modernist trends, the dislocation caused by the war and its aftermath, and the regeneration of international awareness that would lead to the point where the very basic tenets of sculpture would be questioned.’ Sculptures in the show are concentrated on the decades either side of World War II, including works by Moore, Hepworth, Lynn Chadwick and Eduardo Paolozzi. Rawlin points out how by 1956, not so long after the R.B.S. volume’s appearance, Chadwick, aged only 41, won the main sculpture prize at the Venice Biennale, in competition with such major figures as Giacometti and César. ‘His victory catapulted Chadwick into the international top league, but it was also in keeping with the successes of a generation of British artists, and particularly sculptors, who were making a huge impact on the world art scene.’

After the war, ‘Moore’s position as the elder statesman of British sculpture, and a genuinely world-class artist, was almost unassailable.’ He had a successful retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1946 and two years later represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. A huge boost for native painting and sculpture morale was the 1951 Festival of Britain. In addition to the Sixty Paintings for ’51 show at the RBA Galleries, the Arts Council put up £2,500 to commission a dozen new sculptures for the South Bank, where Moore’s large bronze Reclining Figure had a prominent location, as well as Battersea Park. In addition to the already-mentioned Chadwick, Epstein, Hepworth and Moore, the others were Robert Adams, Reg Butler, Frank Dobson, Karin Jonzen, F E McWilliam, Bernard Meadows, Uli Nimptsch and Eduardo Paolozzi.

Clearly, a surge of novel talent, with very different aesthetic preoccupations and approaches to materials from those of the pre-World War II practitioners, was emerging, emphasized by the work of eight in the British Pavilion at the 1952 Venice Biennale. As well as Adams, Butler, Chadwick, Meadows and Paolozzi, they included Kenneth Armitage, Geoffrey Clarke and William Turnbull. This was, Rawlin notes, ‘the first grouping of many of those who would define the new British sculpture of the decade. It was also notable for coining the oft-quoted phrase, “the geometry of fear”.’

This was not comforting sculpture to a public that had recently endured the horrors of World War II, desiring a return to normality. Whereas the legendary ‘Man on the Clapham Omnibus’ – common man so defined by Lord Justice Greer in a 1932 court case — if taken in a tour of most sculptures in the earlier-referred-to 1939 selection of work by R.B.S. members would not have found much to disturb him, this radically new sculpture was not so easily acceptable in the 1950s. Even Studio International’s reviewer was sceptical about Moore’s Reclining Figure when sited on the South Bank; and when it was loaned in 1953 to Leeds City it was vandalised with blue paint. Butler’s early-1950s winning entry for the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner was mocked by the press and smashed by another vandal when shown at the Tate Gallery. When in 1954 Moore’s Draped Torso was offered at a special price to Manchester, the city council vetoed its purchase, one councilor commenting that it, ‘appeared to be abnormal and could only appeal to abnormal people.’

Sixty years later, we view the work of these sculptors with, it is to be hoped, more enlightened and informed eyes. The select images in the Daniel Katz Gallery, spanning the three decades 1930 to 1960, offer constant delights.

Main Image: Installation view, The Shape of Things: Three Decades of British Modernist Sculpture, Daniel Katz Gallery

The Shape of Things: Three Decades of British Modernist Sculpture The Daniel Katz Gallery, 6 Hill Street, Mayfair, London (just off Berkeley Square)  5th November – 12th December 2014.

Aurora Corio