Terry Grimley reviews an exhibition devoted to a powerful moment in British sculpture.
The 50s in Britain was a paradoxical decade, part post-war optimism, part post-war exhaustion, in which growing affluence overlay a sense of tension and unease.
As austerity turned into never having it so good, an undercurrent of anxiety reflected the legacy of war – the philosophical meaning of death camps, the political realignment of the cold war and reality of the atom bomb. On newly-acquired televisions the mushroom cloud rubbed shoulders with innocuous interludes like The Potter’s Wheel.
This was the context in which a new generation of sculptors set out its wares in the British Pavilion at the 1952 Venice Biennale. Leading critic Herbert Read came up with the phrase “Geometry of Fear” to define the edgy, uncomfortable atmosphere of their work. More than half a century on, Read’s phrase is the title of a touring exhibition from the Arts Council’s collection which has opened at Leamington Art Gallery & Museum.
It’s a small exhibition but a remarkably powerful one. The shared sensibility connecting the 15 artists is striking, and an era is effectively evoked.
But I should register a reservation. The best-known sculptor here, Henry Moore, is represented by a model for his screen on the Time-Life building, arguably the one exhibit that does not fit with the Geometry of Fear formula. His Fallen Warrior from 1953 (there is a version in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery) might have been more like it, but this is a later generation of artists 20 or 30 years younger than Moore.
The then-emerging group included Reg Butler, Kenneth Armitage, Lynn Chadwick, Eduardo Paolozzi and Elisabeth Frink. In 1953 Butler was winner of a famous international competition to design a Memorial to the Unknown Political Prisoner – a definitive Geometry of Fear project.
Their work is typically black, metallic (Robert Adams’ Apocalyptic Figure, from 1951, is unique in being made of wood), spiky or crudely modelled, courting ugliness. The short-lived Peter King’s Hound (1956) is like an animated pair of pliers with a vicious grip, while Butler’s fragmentary female torso, recalling the creepy work of French sculptor Germaine Richier, could be a victim of war.
One of the most familiar works is Armitage’s Figure Lying on its Side (No 5) from 1957. Armitage served in the Royal Artillery and in this piece, which suggests comparison with Moore’s Fallen Warrior (a subject treated here by Leslie Thornton), it has been suggested the body may be related to a tank and the limbs to guns.
But it also struck me with its large body and pathetically small limbs the figure is a close match for Gregor Samsor, the hero surreally transformed into a giant insect in Kafka’s Metamophosis.
Reg Bulter, a conscientious objector, spent the war as a blacksmith. His Girl and Boy (1951) which owes an obvious debt to Picasso and perhaps the Spanish sculptor Julio Gonzales, reflects the interest in open, welded structures at this time, as does Paolozzi’s The Cage (1951).
Paolozzi is a fascinating figure. Starting in the Geometry of Fear orbit, his fascination with then-exotic American consumerism would turn him into a pioneer of Pop Art. By the mid-to-late 60s he would be painting his geometrically precise, machine-inspired sculptures bright colours and pioneering the use of industrial silkscreen techniques in fine art printmaking.
Paolozzi’s early monochrome collage Insects’ Wings was acquired by the Arts Council five years ago, making it an exception to a rule which itself adds to the cohesiveness of the exhibition. Almost every other work was bought for the fledgling collection (in 1948) within a few years of creation, very often in the same year.
* The Geometry of Fear is at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, Royal Pump Rooms, The Parade, until March 15 (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sat 10.30am-5pm, Thur 1.30pm-8pm, Sun 11am-4pm; admission free).