Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: sculpture

A Vorticist frog

I’m charmed by a little item that’s popped up in Raquel Gilboa’s 2009 study of Jacob Epstein that I don’t remember seeing before – a wonderful carving in red sandstone of an abstracted frog, about 20 by 29 cm, credited only to a “private collection”, and speculatively dated to 1913-14. Gilboa attributes this more probably to Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, on the grounds that both subject and material fit Gaudier better, and that none of the Epstein family recalled seeing it lying around. I suppose it’s not entirely incompatible with Epstein’s mating doves of that era, but that’s the only possible point of connection, and his work of the period is more concerned with weighty symbolisms of procreation than with pure reconfigurations of form such as this.

frog
On the other hand, the “Chenil Blue Book” sketchbook of Gaudier’s at the Tate, dated to 1913-14, does contain a little sketch of a frog seen from above. Not that this clinches it, but the Chenil (a great online browse, by the way) has other drawings linked to a number of small sculptures by Gaudier, including two of fish, though his little animal pieces are in bronze, not stone like the frog. Quite a few doodles in the sketchbook seem, to my uneducated eye, to be drawn from Aztec or Mayan motifs, and the little frog maybe has something of this look. So, on balance, Gaudier it is – perhaps …

conway
When did this little frog surface to hop into the Epstein oeuvre? Both Gilboa and the Courtauld site reference it to the 1987 Epstein show at Leeds and Whitechapel, so I’m guessing that that was its emergence in modern times. Where was it before then?

Anyway, it’s a beautiful thing. Vehicular, almost presciently tank-like in fact, eyelids closed, fingertips touching, mouth an impassive straight line, it sits as if in deep meditation of its own frogliness. Extraordinary how Gaudier (if it was he) could stare at the block and see this form trapped within it, reducible. There are some striated chisel marks behind the eyes, while the hump at the rear seems to have been left a bit roughly shaped, so one wonders if it’s actually finished, not that it matters. If this is Gaudier’s, it is a clear point on the trajectory of his project to synthesise the natural and the mechanical, the project truncated by his early death in war. (But before the appearance of tanks.)

(Incidentally, I can’t see any photo credit in Gilboa’s book for the image used there; a colour version of the same photo turns up in flickriver, credited to a Ras Marley of Philadelphia, but it’s clear that not all photos in his name are originals, so I’m assuming that’s lifted from elsewhere. I show it here, up above. If anyone objects, by all means shout.)

Aphrodites among the roses

A bit haltingly, I’m working through Raquel Gilboa’s ... And there was Sculpture, the first volume of her 2009 Jacob Epstein study, covering his career up to 1930. It’s good. Her revealing emphasis on Epstein’s Jewishness, largely ignored by others, provides valuable new understandings. But I was perplexed for a while by the strange familiarity of the great cover photo of Epstein bashing away at the beginnings of Maternity, finished in 1912. Of course! Its echo is in Tony Hancock’s magnum (very magnum) opus Aphrodite at the Waterhole, from his justly celebrated 1961 film The Rebel, about which there is much online, though no excerpts on YouTube, sadly, thanks to copyright issues. Yes, the primal memory of direct carving runs deep.


At a bit of a tangent to this, but still in the realm of chunky stone Epsteinian Aphrodites, a visit to David Austin Roses at Albrighton near Wolverhampton has provided a fresh acquaintance with the sculptures of the late Pat Austin, a talented carver, whose stone pieces nicely punctuate the super-abundant floriferousness of the rose gardens. I’m never quite sure about garden statuary, most of which seems to have a contextual bias towards naffness, but Pat Austin’s carved sculptures are really rather fine, in a retro-symbolist, late British neo-romantic sort of way, and it’s quite a surprise to come across them in a garden centre, albeit a very fabulous garden centre.

pat austin

Pat Austin

Her chunky lion is predictably popular with visitors, but I far prefer the stately stone maidens and the vaguely Palmerish panels. These garden pieces are catalogued on the PMSA site, but apart from a carved frieze outside Albrighton Health Centre, I’m not aware of any more of her work on public view.  Anyway, here’s a few snaps of the sculptures, by way of a nod to a remarkable but little known woman with chisel. (Click on thumbnails for slideshow / enlargements.)

Mercurial optimism in Wolverhampton

Wolverhampton, excuse me for saying so, seems like a city of lost souls these days, and to mark this, much of Wolverhampton Gallery is under builders’ sheets at the moment. Of what was on show today, I couldn’t manage long in David Ward’s desperately quietist (yawn) exhibition “In a Landscape”, but I did enjoy the room of Big Ceramics, though it served to remind me that the Wolverhampton school where I worked till a couple of years ago celebrated my departure by ripping out our ceramics kilns and the whole clay area in order to create a reception desk. Ceramics being too low a material, too grubby on the fingers, to be “innovative” enough for the Design Technology suits anxious to keep Art within limits they could handle.

mercury
Wolverhampton has a lost history of voluminous sculpting, as exemplified by Robert J Emerson’s Mercury frieze on the Express & Star building, which hailed me in passing, camera in hand, on my way back to the bus station. This cracking piece of Blakean muscular deco was done in 1934 for the opening of the newspaper’s new premises. Emerson was close to the editor, and had even had a studio on the site. According to one source, a local doctor’s son was the model (blimey, steady on ladies), and the piece is not carved but actually cast in reconstituted “Vinculum” stone. Now there’s an innovative technology for you.

The beckoning forefinger risks misinterpretation these days, and I feel that Emerson might have compensated for the foreshortened view from street level by stretching the legs, but otherwise it all works pretty well. He managed to avoid Epstein-type controversy by inserting a teeny fig leaf, and as far as I know, no fundamentalist Christians have yet objected to his inclusion of a pentagram.

Though the Express & Star, I have to say, is now well beyond its years of greatness and a poor excuse for a newspaper.

While sat in the Gallery café I spent a while making notes towards a review of Mary and Bryan Talbot’s new graphic novel on Louise Michel, The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia. The problem terms here, of course, are “vision” and “utopia”. If we wished to disable radicalism one sure means would be to invest it in a utopian vision, and to confine that vision in the cultural game reserve of comic books. Is Emerson’s god of communications a utopian image? For sure, it’s brazenly optimistic, and as historical utopias of both left and right are reduced to a residue of steampunk gameplay, such public optimism looks rather out of kilter in today’s Wolverhampton.

The unmaking of ‘Rock Drill’: unmaking the myth

Image259An excellent little exhibition I should have posted about earlier has just finished – ‘Epstein’s Rock Drill Transformed by War’ at the New Art Gallery, Walsall. A century on from the first display of Epstein’s mechanical monster, this juxtaposed the 1974 reconstruction of the full original with the surviving ‘Torso’ from the Tate, alongside related items and a bunch of context.

The show promoted a strong narrative, according to which Epstein unmade and reduced the original full figure sculpture, and chucked out the drill on which it had sat, in revulsion at the horrors of mechanised warfare. The truncated torso, mutilated and abject, then became an image of suffering, of wounded soldiery. Epstein’s own later comment about Rock Drill as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ is pulled in, as usual, to back this interpretation.

But hang on. What Epstein actually said with hindsight in 1940 in his Let There be Sculpture was this:

‘… a machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced. Here is the armed, sinister figure of today and tomorrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein’s monster we have made ourselves into …’

Here Epstein says that the sculpture is of a Frankenstein’s monster, not that it is that monster. It’s an important distinction, for in saying this he in no way disavows the work. Far from it: Rock Drill, in all its mechanical inhumanity, is presented as a valid work of prophetic protest. As for the demounted version of 1916, Epstein simply adds:

‘I lost my interest in machinery and discarded the drill.’

Image267So where lie the origins of this tragic myth of transformation? As so often where the Vorticist complex is concerned, with Richard Cork. Back in 1974, in the Vorticism and its Allies exhibition catalogue, in the light of Epstein’s own comments Cork was wisely circumspect:

‘Perhaps he was unhappy with the status of a ready-made drill in a work of art … and perhaps, too, with the destructive overtones of a mechanistic sculpture now that everyone was growing aware of what machines meant in terms of real war.’

Perhaps, indeed. Fair enough. But 25 years on, by the time of his 1999 Jacob Epstein paperback for the Tate, Cork’s ‘perhaps’ had become inflated to ‘inevitable’:

‘The industrialised armaments unleashed during the First World War slaughtered soldiers and civilians in their millions, forcing innovative young artists to reconsider their attitudes. It was inevitable, then, that the war’s apocalyptic course would prompt Epstein to make radical changes to Rock Drill.’

Image264The following year, in the compilation Blast, Vorticism 1914-1918, edited by Paul Edwards, Cork expanded:

‘The Great War … claimed an obscene number of victims with the help of inventions like the rapid-fire machine gun. Once the devastating power of such weapons became widely understood, it was no longer possible to regard an object like the rock drill in a straightforwardly positive light … Epstein came to the conclusion that it should be excluded from his sculpture.’

And from this last source the myth passes directly into Walsall Gallery’s own leaflets on the subject. Not just directly, but actually word for word:

Epstein’s Rock Drill, 2003: ‘By 1915 the First World War was claiming an obscene number of victims with the help of inventions such as the rapid-fire machine gun … He was no longer able to regard the “Rock Drill” and the power of machinery in such a positive light.’

Elin Morgan, Epstein’s Rock Drill Transformed by War, 2015: ‘… as soon as the devastating power of such weapons was realised, it was no longer possible to see Rock Drill in a positive light. Epstein came to the conclusion that it should be excluded from his oeuvre.’

IMGSo if Rock Drill was not deconstructed in a fit of pacifist shame, why did Epstein pull it to bits?

Well, he badly needed to make a living (a factor often overlooked by academics). And in this case the living was coming largely from American art collector John Quinn. In May 1914 Epstein described the sculpture in a letter to Quinn, admitting that he had ‘small chance of ever selling it,’ given that a nine foot stack of industrial machinery was hardly a living room piece. ‘My Rock Drill,’ he later admitted, ‘was my great adventure and I did not expect to sell it.’

So in 1915, Epstein dismounted the plaster robot, discarded the drill, and reduced the figure to a torso small enough to be cast in metal. Why? Simply because it made it saleable. In 1916 Quinn was still keen to buy, and Epstein sent him photos of the reduced and cast Rock Drill, which he priced at £200. In the end, it was not among the pieces acquired by Quinn, who was also budgeting to buy works by Gaudier-Brzeska, but it came close.

IMG_0002The prosaic is always disappointing, and the urge to discover Big Meanings is a very human and forgivable urge. But in this case tragic myth making has coloured our understanding rather too readily. As for Epstein’s alleged decision that Rock Drill ‘should be excluded’ from his oeuvre, I can find no basis for it.

It’s a pity, by the way, that Epstein’s original intention to plug in a generator to the drill, to keep it running while on display, proved impracticable. That would really have brassed off the critics.

In the Temple of Lost Marbles

Nothing recent here, I know. Apologies. (Energy has been spent elsewhere, on my other blog, which readers of this one are unlikely to find of interest.) Image222But a recent shopping trip Up North brought an opportunity to gawp at the Trafford Centre, Greater Manchester’s jaw-dropping acid-classical Xanadu of kitsch. Mancunians perhaps have grown blasé about their local outbreak of Delirium Tremendous, but for the rest of us the obvious question is: was there ever a moment in the late ‘nineties, when this shopping centre was built, when an opium reverie blended from bits of De Chirico, Dali, Alma-Tadema, Piranesi and Robin Ironside was actually the expected flavour of the weekend retail experience? Because if there was, I must have missed it. So the next question has to be: what on earth were the Trafford’s architects and designers on?

Maybe this has something to say about our troubled perceptions of The Past in the run up to the Year 2000 – the Trafford as fin-de-millénaire panic gone large. It certainly involves a late, disturbingly decadent, and Image243hallucinatory version of neo-classicism, drawn less from Praxiteles than from Canova. Unaccountably meaningless and garbled murals jostle with palm trees, real marble Caesars, golden fountains, distant obelisks and massy Egyptian colonnades – more post-ancient than post-modern, in fact. Then, for good measure, just when you think you may be coming down, streets out of Old Beijing and New Orleans lure you into a vast, starlit, subterranean eatery done out like an ocean liner complete with swimming pool. Only the iceberg is absent.

Despite the unrelenting and unsettling oddness of it all, it seems unknowing, as if irony was not the intention and this was someone’s sincere idea of quality for the masses. The occasional statue would be unremarkable in a shopping mall, but here the sheer, overwhelming weight of pastiche and incongruity topples the whole installation off at a tangent in the direction of the astral plane. Can you tell that I’m impressed? I’m not sure that any photo can really contain the Trafford’s Full-on Bonkers Effect, but here’s a gallery of fifty snaps from my (rather pre-modern) phone. Click for the slide show and dip into the trip!

The human dimension of sculpture

Probably the last blast here for Wolverhampton’s recently controversial Barbara Hepworth bronze, Rock Form (Porthcurno) – see previous post and many others. But I can’t resist posting this great pic taken just after its unveiling by the Mayor in the Mander Centre shopping precinct in 1968, as the crowd closes in to ponder. Click for full size, and study the faces and body language! Photo courtesy of Pippa Thorneycroft, née Mander, who was present at the ceremony. Thank you, Pippa.

"I do not think sculpture can come alive in architecture at all unless it is recognized as a value in its own right. Sculpture is not primarily an embellishment. It gives the human dimension, it gives that added perception which only sculpture can give. [...] Sculpture makes people act in a certain way; they move in a certain manner. Their gestures and their reaction to a sculpture are extremely expressive and this is the point - if the architect and the sculptor know how to seize upon it - where one might achieve a vital development in the architect's as well as in the sculptor's work in relation to human needs." (Barbara Hepworth)

“I do not think sculpture can come alive in architecture at all unless it is recognized as a value in its own right. Sculpture is not primarily an embellishment. It gives the human dimension, it gives that added perception which only sculpture can give. […] Sculpture makes people act in a certain way; they move in a certain manner. Their gestures and their reaction to a sculpture are extremely expressive and this is the point – if the architect and the sculptor know how to seize upon it – where one might achieve a vital development in the architect’s as well as in the sculptor’s work in relation to human needs.” (Barbara Hepworth) Copyright P Thorneycroft.

Articulating impermanence: the Wolverhampton Hepworth row of 1968

Now that the return to the Mander Centre of Wolverhampton’s cast of Barbara Hepworth’s Rock Form (Porthcurno) has been secured (see posts passim and Facebook here), time for a quick look at the earlier controversy about it – whether it should have been there in the first place – following its unveiling in March 1968, and some of the later echoes. Refreshingly, the terms of argument were not bankers and speculation, but the nature of sculpture and its relation to architecture. And very little of it came from the usual “five year old child” brigade, either.

E&S gossip
On 3 April 1968 the regular Express & Star “Gossip” column, headed “Knocking Holes in Hepworth Sculpture,” declared Rock Form officially controversial: “’Old fashioned’, ‘a throwback to the thirties’, ‘mass produced art’ and ‘ludicrous’ are some of the denunciations,” announced columnist “Vigilant”.

The attack was two pronged, if polarities can be prongs. Wolverhampton Civic Society objected that “a figurative work would have been more appropriate,” and that a local open sculpture competition should have been held. One dreads to think what that might have produced.

Mike Travers, bricoleur, in later life

Mike Travers, bricoleur, in later life

Sweeping in from the opposite extreme was spokesman for the avant garde Mike Travers, sculpture lecturer at the Art College, and anxious to position himself at the cutting edge, or even in front of it. He denounced the sculpture as “an object of contemplative reverence … with its artificially induced green patina, a ready-made antiquity, its self-conscious attention to surface texture as an end in itself … rhetorical and crude.”

Questioningly rhetorical himself, Travers asked: “Should the sculpture articulate the space and relate to the architecture?” Well yes, of course it should. But by “relate” he seems mainly to have meant “imitate”; the Hepworth looked “uncomfortable … in contrast with its surroundings of plate glass, steel, concrete and marble.” One wonders what alternative he had in mind, but, this being the ‘sixties, Anthony Caro can’t have been too far away; some plinth-less conglomeration of brightly painted girders might have avoided the “humanisation” that Travers detested. (Did Caro use Manders paints, one wonders?)

But even this would have been too little, too late. The very “absurdity” of the Mander Centre itself made the whole project redundant, according to Travers: “As a piece of architecture it is already dated!”

Next day the argument spilled over onto BBC TV’s “Midlands Today”, where tempers, according to “Vigilant” the evening after, were “running high”. Defending his choice of the Hepworth was architect Stanley Sellers. Backing his man Travers was Ron Dutton, then head of the college’s sculpture department. Dutton declared the Hepworth “out of date, a monument on a plinth” that “did not activate the space around it.”

Depends what you mean by “activate”. Sellers insisted that “people [would] glance at it each time they walked past”. Earlier, he had written: “Look at the colours, textures and shapes, see how these change as you walk round it. See the effects of changing light and shade.” If “Vigilant” is to be believed, the result was a stalemate: “Both were so anxious to justify their pleas, for or against, that they interrupted each other in a way that could only exasperate viewers.”

Robin Plummer in 1980, by Kenny McKendry

Robin Plummer in 1980, by Kenny McKendry

Three days later, principal Robin Plummer rode half-heartedly to the rescue in the Express & Star’s letters page, attempting to limit damage by judiciously but nervously dissociating his College of Art from Travers and Dutton’s Hepworth-bashing. After saluting Dame Barbara as “eminent” and so forth, he damned the choice with faint praise: “Whether it is fully appropriate to that site is, I think, arguable, but nevertheless it is the right sort of gesture to have made.” All very “sort of”.

On April 19th another of Plummer’s lecturers, printmaker Michael North, chipped in briefly to back Travers. After that, it all went quiet. Following a random letter on May 1st declaring the Hepworth “ugly”, the Express & Star seems to have considered the subject closed.

Where are they all now? In the intervening years head of sculpture Ron Dutton moved on to become a renowned medallist. His designs are neatly done, but in the main conservatively figurative. As miniature, self-contained reliefs, they do not need to articulate any surrounding space at all. His website is here.

College principal Robin Plummer went on to head up the Faculty of Art and Design at Coventry in 1971, where he promptly took on the conceptualists by insisting that only “tangible, visual art objects” (as opposed to texts) could be entered for assessment. First casualty was Coventry’s art theory course, followed by its lecturers, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin and Terry Atkinson, all of Art & Language fame. (Their student followers also went on to contribute to Art & Language. I remember running into some at a NUS art education conference a couple of years later, where they were amusingly disruptive.)

In 1975 Plummer moved on to Brighton, where he taught till 1989. His paintings of the late ‘sixties rely on a simplistic, pop-ish, hard edged abstraction – vaguely jolly but bland, and now interesting mainly as period pieces. Appropriately non-committal, in fact.

The Wolverhampton Civic (now Civic and Historical) Society has thankfully progressed from its reactionary stance of 46 years ago, and under the chairmanship of Suhail Rana has given firm support to the recent campaign to save the Mander Hepworth from vanishing.

Angry young lecturer Mike Travers became assistant professor at the University of Alberta later in 1968. In 2005 with wife Maureen he was featured in this regional arts magazine – scroll to page 25. I believe he has recently died, but on a surviving web page here, Michael Travers describes himself as “a visual poet-philosopher with an environmental approach to art and design that incorporates being a bricoleur combined with the philosophy of Wabi-sabi – the Japanese Art of Impermanence.” Evidently, he stuck to his guns right to the end. Permanently, in fact. Good for him. I think Barbara Hepworth would have liked that.

Rock Form (Porthcurno) in Hepworth's 1964 sculpture records, with the Mander cast listed as no. 5. [Hepworth Estate, Bowness, Tate Britain Archive, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence.]

Rock Form (Porthcurno) in Hepworth’s 1964 sculpture records, with the Mander cast listed as no. 5. [Hepworth Estate, Bowness, Tate Britain Archive, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence.]

Dylan’s cheques. Plus – Mander Scandal outcome!

Mandergate

First, for the successful (for now) outcome of the Mander Scandal, involving the asset stripping of a publicly displayed Hepworth sculpture from its Wolverhampton home and its eventual return, see the campaign page at www.facebook.com/Mandergate, especially 15 October.

Dylan’s cheques

Next, if you have maybe £800 to spare, you could with luck become the owner of two bounced cheques (“1 page each, printed with manuscript insertions, oblong 8vo”), each made out for £3, at Bonham’s books and manuscripts auction of 12 November. Why the remarkable financial inversion of these less than worthless items?

cheque

Both are signed in the surprisingly neat hand of Dylan Thomas. Dated from August of 1952 and 1953, they were palmed off by the cash strapped poet on the unfortunate landlord of his local in Laugharne, the Cross House Inn. You’d think that, the 1952 cheque having bounced, Mr Richards might have been more wary the next year, but apparently not. On the other hand, having hung onto them both, he may have had some shrewd notion of their future surge in value.

If I wanted the perfect Dylan Thomas autograph, I would choose one of these cheques. There is something beautifully fitting about them. They illustrate wonderfully how time and art can utterly transform the signification of an object. They have become, in effect, perfect little pieces of concrete poetry.

Women with chisels: (1) Sally Ryan; (2) Hepworth Mander scandal update

Sally Ryan: not a “sculptress”

Mother and Child

Mother and Child

After all the recent focus here on Barbara Hepworth (see also below), a moment to mention another woman with a chisel, the relatively unknown American sculptor Sally Ryan, more usually thought of as a collector, as a member of the Jacob Epstein circle, and as the second half of the New Art Gallery Walsall’s Garman Ryan collection. Walsall have recently re-jigged the Garman Ryan for its 40th anniversary, and have made a good job of it. (Except that the inept interventions of Patrick Brill RA, as “Bob and Roberta Smith”, still clutter the place. I guess Brill was bought in to add contemporary edge to the collection, as if it needed it; am I the only one who finds his posturing amateurism plain insulting?)

Sarah Tack Ryan, known to her American friends as Tammie, was the granddaughter of mega-millionaire Thomas Fortune Ryan, whose lawyer had been famed New York collector John Quinn. As the Milwaukee Journal put it, in a breathless write-up of August 1940:

“Sally Ryan, a resolute wisp of a girl … never cared a whoop about society but cared a great deal about sculpture. So she became a sculptor.

The word ‘sculptress’ is one of her pet hates. To her, that outdated ‘ess’ signifies a dabbler – ‘a person who does the little, twiddly sort of thing.’ ‘There are many sculptresses among the debutantes,’ she said, ‘but no sculptors.’”

Unfinished Mask

Unfinished Mask

In 1935 Ryan visited London and tracked down Epstein, who became an important influence on her work. The Garman Ryan collection includes a number of her pleasing portrait bronzes in his manner, but I much prefer her carving, represented there by two pieces: a handsome Unfinished Mask in marble, and a remarkably tender limestone Mother and Child that shows the absorbed influences of Epstein, Frank Dobson and early Hepworth. She was a prolific worker, so where’s all the rest of her carving? I’m not sure, though several photos, apparently from the mid ‘forties, show another large mother and child in progress.

As a bit of a rich kid, Ryan didn’t want for publicity shots. I particularly like the first Alfredo Valente photo below where, hammer in hand, she leans meditatively on a large carving, looking boho-preppy in shorts and pumps. Accounts always mention “mannish clothes” – blue or grey flannel slacks and a boy’s shirt, old sweaters and battered oxford brogues – which were taken as a token of her sexuality. A later image shows her as remarkably elegant.

It’s not clear to me for how long she continued to sculpt. Less frequently, perhaps, as the throat cancer that killed her closed in. In later years she devoted herself to buying artworks in company with Kathleen Garman, Epstein’s widow. She died in her early fifties in 1968. [For enlargements and slide shows, click below.]


A write-up in a June 1940 issue of Life suggested that “being the granddaughter of … an American multimillionaire has given Sally Ryan as much incentive to succeed as if she had been born poor and obscure.” No doubt, but one also wonders if it gave her public less incentive to take her seriously and an excuse to dismiss her as a dilettante, rather than the fine sculptor she actually proved herself to be.

Wolverhampton’s Barbara Hepworth: Mander scandal update

For anything new on the campaign to rescue Wolverhampton’s Hepworth bronze Rock Form (Porthcurno) from the evil clutches of Royal Bank of Scotland, please continue to check our Facebook page.

gormley storySince the last round-up here nine days ago, the cause has attracted the firm backing of Antony Gormley, the petition has passed 1,100 signatures, and the story has reached –

Midlands Today BBC regional news (August 19)

BBC News Online

Artlyst – also here

Artnet

The Herald Scotland

Delancey and RBS have responded with evasive and non-committal assurances that they are “looking at” ways to keep the sculpture “available” to the people of Wolverhampton. Not good enough! Perhaps the imminent sale of the Mander Centre to a private equity investment outfit will help to sharpen their focus …

The collective life and privatised death of public sculpture

The online focus of the growing campaign to save Wolverhampton’s endangered Hepworth sculpture (see previous posts) is now more at our Facebook page and the linked petition – please sign and pass on the word! A quick round-up of the latest news on the Mander scandal appears below in this post. But first, this thing has tentacles, and some of the implications are worth thinking through.

Public sculpture: its collective life …

A major snag with the Mander Hepworth is that the “public” space is which it has stood for half a century is not legally public. Thousands of shoppers may pass through the Mander precinct each week, but that doesn’t make it a public thoroughfare. In planning terms, believe it or not, the whole Mander Centre counts as an “interior”, and there are no more restrictions on what happens inside it than there are for your or my living room. If the shopping centre were a listed building or in a conservation area it would be different, but it’s not. Now there’s an anomaly that may well pose a threat to other pieces of “public” art …

So for the first half century, the remarkable permanence of Wolverhampton’s Rock Form (Porthcurno) depended on trust. A paternalistic virtue maybe, but it worked. In the era of RBS, trust is found unprofitable and has been binned.

Embracing the plaza: Moore's 'Reclining Figure' at the Festival in 1951

Embracing the plaza: Moore’s ‘Reclining Figure’ at the Festival in 1951

The Mander Centre was built towards the close of a post-war era of social optimism in which British sculptors, notably Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, embraced the plaza, beginning with Moore’s Reclining Figure on the South Bank at the 1951 Festival of Britain, and culminating in the installation of Hepworth’s monumental Single Form in front of New York’s UN Headquarters in 1964, the year in which she sculpted Rock Form. In Hepworth there is none of the spiny angst that came to characterise the work of younger sculptors of the period; the organic curves of Rock Form complemented perfectly the harsher geometries of the Mander Centre while softening and naturalising them – also attempted by the planting of trees and shrubs and later by the slightly less successful fountains. (There will be no such arty nonsense in tomorrow’s redeveloped Centre where, in a desperate attempt to maximise footfall, nothing in the bleached perspectives will interrupt the dominance of the window displays.)

Post-war social optimism: the unveiling of Hepworth's 'Single Form' at the UN, 1964

Post-war social optimism: the unveiling of Hepworth’s ‘Single Form’ at the UN, 1964

In this public situation the sculpture ceased to be a single image, but became a collection of overlapping impressions produced by the movement around it of multiple viewers. (“Look at the colours, textures and shapes,” wrote the Mander Centre’s architect Stanley Sellers in the Express & Star in 1968. “See how these change as you walk around it. See the effects of changing light and shade.”) Hepworth was so positive about this collective, interactive setting for her work that she provided the Wolverhampton cast of Rock Form at cost price, just one third of what it would have fetched at the time if sold through the gallery system to a private collector. Herbert Read wrote much about Hepworth’s “vitalist form”; what we haven’t always appreciated is that in her public sculpture this vitalism was collectively generated.

Once this context is understood, it becomes literally unthinkable that Rock Form should be ripped out and condemned to private ownership. Isolated within the private contemplation of a single privileged spectator, the work will no longer make sense. It will be dead.

… and its privatised death

Mandergate is, sadly, far from the only instance of the “de-accessioning” of public access to public sculpture. A previous post has already mentioned the Hepworth, narrowly rescued from Bonham’s auctions, that Royal Mail graciously replaced in front of the Chesterfield post office where it had always been at a cost of half a million to the community and the Art Fund.

Flogged off: the High Holborn Paolozzi

Flogged off: the High Holborn Paolozzi

In late 2012 Bonham’s flogged off Eduardo Paolozzi’s The Artist as Hephaestus, which its owners had plucked from its niche on an office block in High Holborn, in the face of protests by the council, the 20th Century Society and others, and in spite of the inconvenient circumstance that it had stood in a conservation area.

Still unresolved is the heated barney over Henry Moore’s Draped Seated Woman (fondly known as “Old Flo”), put up for grabs by cash-strapped Tower Hamlets Council despite a fierce argument over her actual ownership. (As with Hepworth’s Rock Form, Moore provided this for its original public setting at a reduced price.)

Public museums are as vulnerable as public spaces. Northampton Museum and Art Gallery has just been stripped of its official accreditation after its prize Egyptian statue went to a private buyer last month at Christie’s. This makes the museum ineligible for grant funding, but they’re don’t care; they’re still quids in, given that the statue fetched an eye watering £15.8 million.

Disputed ownership: Moore's 'Old Flo' in 1963

Disputed ownership: Moore’s ‘Old Flo’ in 1963

There are other cases. As all the dosh drains upwards to the tip of the pyramid in our “recovering” economy, the art goes with it. This plundering is reminiscent of the wholesale looting of artefacts from subject cultures in the colonial era. Just as aboriginal peoples have demanded from Western museums the return of their significant treasures, so it will be necessary for future generations to retrieve and repatriate the artworks taken by big money from our shared spaces.

Mandergate latest: a round-up

The campaign has recently gained important support from the Royal British Society of Sculptors, Wolverhampton Partners in Progress and the Black Country Urban Industrial Mission.

Anne Rawcliffe-King, Director of the Society, has stated: “I am deeply saddened that yet another public artwork may be lost for the nation.” The Society has written a number of letters to parties concerned.

Locally, Graham Evans of Partners in Progress, previously the director and manager of the Mander Centre responsible for the 2003 refurb and unveiling, has declared that “it is essential that the sculpture is retained for both the Centre and the citizens of Wolverhampton.”

Rev Bill Mash of BCUIM observes: “People need objects to focus on, especially at times of change.  Wolverhampton folk had taken this sculpture to their hearts, and it must be returned after the refurbishment.”

Meanwhile City Council Leader Roger Lawrence has put out a press release calling on George Osborne, as the person to whom RBS is ultimately 80% accountable, to intervene.

August 8’s Private Eye carried an excellent write up of the Mander affair, the first report in a national title, but hopefully not the last – read their article on our Facebook page.

A petition to Delancey and RBS to put back the Hepworth has just been set up using the 38 Degrees campaigns page (purely for its convenience and not for any political reason), and has attracted a steady run of signatures.