Hip to be square

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 30

Hip to be square

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 30

Hip to be square

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 30

Hip to be square

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 30

Lynn Chadwick's figure groups interact with each other, and with you, says Michael Bird. Pose, posture and proximity tell their stories

Two Reclining Figures, which Lynn Chadwick completed in 1972, was his first life-size sculpture in three years. He was in the middle of a long hiatus between London exhibitions. There had been one at Marlborough Fine Art in October 1966; the next did not happen until January 1974. In the intervening period, Chadwick's work passed through several phases. There were the minimalist, brightly-coloured Formica pyramids, out of which he constructed his installation at the 1968 Milan Triennale. Then a return to full-scale figures in his 1969 Elektras, the 'shining ones', with their visor-like faces and naturalistic breasts burnished to mirror-gold. The Elektras were followed by a heterogeneous series of small figures, standing, sitting or reclining, single, paired or in groups of three. Some were geometric in spirit, others were more naturalistic. What now seemed most obvious in Chadwick's thoughts was the way that posture speaks – the angle of a head, the precise gap between two figures, their points of contact.

Chadwick wasn't a directly observational draftsman or sculptor, but he did watch people closely: how they stood, moved and interacted. His figures, especially his two-figure groups, often exist in an imaginary scenario, invisible but as palpable as the social atmosphere in a room the moment you step into it. With Two Reclining Figures you can take your choice of narratives: sunbathing on a beach or waking up in bed, pre- or post-coital. In the work of Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, the sculptural forms themselves suggest a living entity, while the relations between them feel abstract, arranged.

With Chadwick, it is the other way round. Rectangular or pyramidal heads, strut legs, exoskeletal torsos – his figures, with some important exceptions, clearly express the geometries of their welded armatures, the result of a unique personal method he described as "drawing in steel rods". You look for the human story in the angles at which they lean towards or away from each other or the viewer, or at which a head or torso tilts. Try extending the straight lines in Couple on Seat (1984) – the triangle formed by the woman's 'face', the fissure between the male and female figures – and you end up with quite a tight definition of the personal space particular to these figures. When foundry technicians assembled piece-moulded parts incorrectly, as regularly happened, so that the angle of a body or the space between figures was fractionally out, Chadwick felt that a sculpture's whole meaning had been denatured. Lines and angles were Chadwick's lexicon, from his first standing sculptures, with their space-frame armatures, to the faceted stainless-steel Beasts of the 1980s and 1990s.

He originally trained as an architectural draftsman, and did not attend art school; not until 1949, when he was 34, did he make his art-world début with a small mobile in the window of the Gimpel Fils gallery in South Molton Street. Critics and collectors welcomed Chadwick as a home-grown Alexander Calder, a comparison that helped his career but never ceased to infuriate him. He had hardly heard of Calder at the time and, more importantly, he thought of mobiles as being more about balance than movement. From the perspective of 1972, when Chadwick had been making sculpture for a quarter of a century, it is evident that a concern with dynamic balance is the theme that connects those early mobiles with the very different-looking, fixed, solid, and sometimes monumental, works that he had produced since the mid-1950s.

But by 1972, not many people in Britain were interested in what Chadwick was creating. His high years of fame were not so far behind him, yet it already felt as though they belonged to a different world. At the 1956 Venice Biennale, Chadwick had taken the International Prize for Sculpture, for which Giacometti had been considered the frontrunner. This astonishing and, as Chadwick confessed, unexpected, personal triumph was widely reported as irrefutable evidence of the flourishing state of contemporary British sculpture. (Moore had won the prize eight years earlier.) After the Biennale closed, Chadwick's exhibition toured six European cities and was followed by solo shows in New York, Montreal, Paris, Frankfurt and Zurich. At a time when the post-war internationalization of the art world had barely begun, this level of exposure was exceptional. For a while, Chadwick was Britain's most high-profile artistic export after Moore.

Chadwick's international reputation had started to take off at the 1952 Biennale, where he was one of eight youngish sculptors shown in the British Pavilion. Though few could have named all the participants (sharing the room with him were Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Geoffrey Clarke, Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull), Herbert Read's description characterizing their work as "the geometry of fear" gained popular currency. This was the Cold War era, the time of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, the partition of Germany and the Korean War. Chadwick's four small welded pieces may have given Read his cue: the capacity of these, and Chadwick's large, early sculptures, such as The Inner Eye and Cypress, to evoke both shield and weapon chimed with the paranoia of the time. However, Read later acknowledged that his notion of fear had been so vague as to be almost meaningless in relation to Chadwick's work. No matter. Chadwick rose to fame as a sculptor of the geometry of fear generation, and the label has stuck ever since. While I was working on my book, it was by a wide margin the phrase I most often heard used to categorize Chadwick.

In a way, the phrase has served him badly: it denied the humor in his art, that playful quality even the earnest Read had noted. Chadwick usually looks so grumpy in photographs that it is easy to imagine him weighed down by Cold War angst. It is easy to forget, too, that he was the first modern British sculptor to create a life-size dancing couple (the British Council refused to take Two Dancing Figures to Venice, on the grounds that the grinding hips of the jiving figures might provoke "unsuitable comment"). He was also the first to celebrate contemporary youth culture in a full-scale figure sculpture, in his 1956 Teddy Boy and Girl. In spirit, if not in form, these works look forward to the loosening-up of attitudes to modern art that took hold in the 1960s and that, ironically, led to the eclipse of Chadwick's fame, because he was felt to belong to a generation of European sculptors tediously preoccupied by anxiety and neurosis.

Fame for Henry Moore meant a steady stream of big public commissions. In civic centers and housing estates, his work became the human face of modern British art. Chadwick, in contrast, felt that his sculpture was essentially private; and observed that it "often feels a bit self-conscious outside public places. People should be peaceful and quiet while they're looking at it." The sculptural qualities that Chadwick took the most pains to achieve – balance and what he termed 'attitude' – need time and familiarity to reveal the fine-tuned poise within the massive presence. There is a powerful reticence about even a monumental piece, such as Conjunction IX (1960), a reticence recalling the Easter Island moai, with which Chadwick always acknowledged a profound, almost mystical sense of kinship. He said that he wanted to achieve something equivalent to their "great intensity of message". Privacy, humor, attitude – it's all there in Two Reclining Figures. So too is the Easter Islandish intensity and calm.

The modeled breasts and the geometric faces make a strange conjunction, but that is the note that Chadwick wants; and it is hard to think of another modern sculptor whose figures stake their claim so firmly and so physically on the space they occupy, while seeming at the same time to inhabit an elsewhere all their own.

Michael Bird is author of Lynn Chadwick, the definitive, illustrated monograph on the artist published by Lund Humphries, £45.

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