At the Sainsbury Centre

Anne Wagner

The sculptor Elisabeth Frink had her first London show in 1955. She was 24 and already teaching at St Martin’s College and the Chelsea School of Art. She dated her formation, however, not to these precocious achievements but to her earlier discovery of Rodin: it was on encountering his work in Paris in 1951, she insisted, that her life as an artist began. Rodin made it possible for Frink to fathom the gulf between English sculptors and their Continental counterparts. Among the latter she counted not only elder statesmen such as Aristide Maillol, but also a younger generation in which Alberto Giacometti, Jean Fautrier and Germaine Richier (who had trained under Antoine Bourdelle, Rodin’s student) stood out. As for the British, it was Henry Moore who mattered most to her.

When Richier exhibited at the Hanover Gallery in 1955, the final London show before her death four years later, Frink met her at the opening. I like to think it was the formidable Erica Brausen, the gallery’s founder and director, who made the introduction, not least because Brausen was also Giacometti’s main London dealer and worked with both Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst. Brausen asked the young David Sylvester to write something for the catalogue. His response remains acute: Richier, he declared, asks ‘not only how much damage the human body can endure and still remain human, but also how far the human body can be twisted into the shape of sub-human entities and still remain human’.

Among the insights of Elisabeth Frink: Humans and Other Animals, at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia (until 24 February), is the recognition that, like Richier, Frink was engaged in testing the limits and margins of the human. Unlike Richier, however, Frink tried to use the materiality of sculpture to conjure what can only be described as the metaphysical implications of physical form. The challenge she set herself was to create objects whose form brings the bleakest of abstractions into view: inertia, illness, deformity, lifelessness, decay. Nothing new here exactly – a lot of sculpture in the 1950s shared in the postwar mood – except Frink’s insistence that both animation and lifelessness would only truly register as such (as the properties of an actual body) if they were made artificial enough, brittle enough, to stand out. In retrospect one sees that driving Frink’s experimentalism was an effort to engage again with what might be called the Rodin trinity: sculpture’s search for aliveness, its fascination with mere materiality, and the constant proximity of death.

Death is everywhere in Frink’s sculpture, consuming animals and men. Consider three of the many striking pieces in the show. From Dead Hen (1956) to Fish Head (1961) to Horse Head (1963), her bronzes incarnate once animate beings, only to represent them in extremis and beyond. Lifelessness deforms its victims, often to the point of incoherence. Beaks gape, eyes pop, mouths slacken and sag. Limbs that would once have added up to a dynamic body lie lumpen, inert. An organism becomes matter, nothing more.

‘Dying King’ (1963)
‘Dying King’ (1963)

In Dying King (1963), by contrast, the doomed ruler falls to the ground while still vainly warding off the coup de grâce. It’s a gesture, Frink said, that she owed to the final moments of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, where Richard is viciously stabbed by a swarm of Lancastrian soldiers. He falls, then writhes and jerks in painful spasms, each marked in William Walton’s score by a dissonant chord. Then he collapses, his sword arm slack. All this – first blow to final breath – takes fifty seconds, no more. Frink was transfixed.

Without Olivier and Walton, I don’t think I would have seen the full implications of Dying King’s tense yet yielding gesture; the arc of his horizontal body, legs and torso raised and one arm lifted in a last protest. Days after visiting the exhibition, even after seeking out the beautiful cast of Dying King currently on view at Tate Britain, I found myself watching the footage that inspired it over and over again. Yet Frink seems to have needed only a single screening to take in what is most poignant in Olivier’s depiction – not his violent movements, but rather his ability to capture the moment when a man, having fought desperately to ward off death, finally succumbs. It is even more remarkable that Frink found a way to condense Richard’s struggle and surrender in a single static work.

The body she devised as the basis for Dying King was made of plaster, a shape-shifting medium that mostly does what is asked of it. Usually, it serves as the basis of the mould from which a bronze is made. When wet, it will passively record any texture or contour it comes up against. When dry, by contrast, a plaster can only be modified by working subtractively, though not by using a knife or chisel in the usual way. Subject to breakage and flaking, plaster responds better to slow and incremental modification than to a rapid rain of blows. When Frink struck too hard and a plaster shattered, she had a habit of reusing the wreckage. And to judge from the photographs of her at work in her white-spattered studio, debris was more than a by-product of her process. A sculpture’s leavings are not nothing, but they are not sculpture – not yet. What Frink seems to have been searching for was the moment when the two states met each other, when something became nothing much, and vice versa.

The best way of working hard-set plaster is to use a tool called a surform, an industrial-grade plane that has a razor-sharp perforated attachment reminiscent of a kitchen microplane, if more dangerous to use. In Frink’s hands the surform throws up a range of odd geometries: distortions and disfigurements that make the surface of her work seem expressive in a whole new way. Making and unmaking are hard to tell apart. By the time Dying King was finished, the figure’s hands, arms and penis had become blunt and flattened blocks of matter, while his wrists and ankles had been shaved so thin they begged to be broken. Cast in bronze, the bowed body captures, rather than eases, the strain. The whole thing is a rictus. As for the king’s ribs and belly, their contours lift and buckle gruesomely, as if Frink is replaying Richard’s slaughter with every gouge of her tool.

If the brutal subtractions of Dying King conjure something of the tone of Frink’s mature sculpture, they are not quite enough to convey why her work seems so resonant, so unhappily relevant, today. Distinctly European, steeped in the tensions and contradictions of postwar culture, she was a no-holds-barred sort of sculptor, as well as someone whose vision was arrested by the violent energy of men. One man she seems to have admired in particular was Léo Valentin, a celebrity stuntman whose brief career as ‘Birdman’ came to a predictable end in 1956. He lives on, however, in two of Frink’s most unexpected bronzes, Spinning Man (1960) and Falling Man (1961), which show what can happen when the traditional freestanding male figure (the type the ancient Greeks called a kouros) is made to fall – or to fly. Upended, Falling Man struggles to stay vertical, while Spinning Man holds fast to an invisible guy-rope which, were he upright, would suspend him in space like a pendulum.

All this seems powerful, inescapable, yet it is hard to imagine what Frink thought viewers would make of these figures. What sort of world do they belong in? Does it exceed or escape the one she thinks we are in? Goggle Heads (1967-69), a set of monumental bronze busts, rings the changes on the threat and bluster of the fascist male. Smooth and square-jawed, with eyes obscured by bright-polished motorcycle goggles, the heads emanate an easy, complacent violence. They don’t have the worked and torturous surfaces of Frink’s other figures: here her subject is the torturers. We know the heads had their beginnings in pictures of the killer of Mehdi Ben Barka, leader of the Moroccan left, which were published in Paris Match in November 1965. In October, Barka disappeared – or ‘was disappeared’ – from a street in Saint Germain. Two French police officers were convicted for their role in the kidnapping, but the judge ruled that the principal responsibility for his death lay with Mohamed Oufkir, the Moroccan interior minister. In the wake of these events, Frink cast at least six of these grim quasi-portraits of Oufkir, along with four brutish bronze soldiers’ heads.

One of the most powerful aspects of the Sainsbury Centre exhibition is the decision to collect a range of these busts in close proximity. What results from this arrangement – and must have confronted Frink daily in her studio – is a true rogues’ gallery. It reminds us that Frink was almost exclusively interested in the male form. (To judge from one of the few exceptions, a decidedly ordinary nude female torso commissioned in 1954, she made the right choice.)

‘Riace’ (1986)
‘Riace’ (1986)

It has been a month since I saw the Frink exhibition, yet I still cannot shake the memory of another striking set of bronze figures, Riace i-iv (1986). Frink decided to revive – or resurrect – an astonishing pair of early classical bronzes which had been discovered 15 years earlier at Riace, on the Calabrian coast. Such ambition! Such hubris! The two original figures, both naked, bearded warriors, are among the few (and finest) surviving examples of full-size ancient Greek sculpture. The four figures that form Frink’s response have none of the subtlety, but all of the menace, of their strange prototypes. The threat seems to issue from several sources. Frink’s huge men are in movement, but reluctantly. They seem wary. Why are their bodies so rough, as if streaked and puddled with mud? This question opens the door onto other tales and visions: the world of the hunter, the stance of the warrior, the nature of Frink’s engagement with both. Why give them white masks? Or are these sculptures wearing whiteface? By reversing the logic of blackface, Frink draws our attention to the longstanding premise of the Western tradition: that the bronze of bodies is white. And where is one left without that illusion?