ArtWeekend

Elisabeth Frink’s Human Bestiary

Few British sculptors stood at a remove from art world trends as consistently as Frink.

Elisabeth Frink photographed by Edward Pool (c.1964–65) (© Frink Estate and Archive; Dorset History Centre)

NORWICH, England — Ravens at night, a vacant city center, and silence broken only by ruffling feathers, talons scratching the pavement and those bone-chilling screeches.

Running on three video monitors, this street-level footage is a fitting multimedia midpoint for the overpowering retrospective Elisabeth Frink: Humans and Other Animals at the Sainsbury Center for the Visual Arts. The meaning is subliminal yet clear: we human animals, akin to these ravens, are marooned in this universe, wandering to and fro, displaced, crying out, getting no reply.

Elisabeth Frink (1930–1993) worked in sculpture, an art form that, prior to World War II, had little visibility in Britain. That changed overnight. Diverse sculptors dominated this country’s postwar scene, as they have ever since, with pioneers like Henry Moore (1898–1986) and Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975); Frink’s older peers Lynn Chadwick (1914–2003) and Eduardo Paolozzi (1924–2005); and contemporary figures like Andy Goldsworthy, Rachel Whitehead and Anthony Gromley, to name only a few.

But few British sculptors stood at a remove from art world trends as consistently as did Frink. She played a long game in the field where figurative realism opens itself up to 20th-century abstraction, as seen in the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, Louise Bourgeoise, and Pablo Picasso — whose works are included here to hammer home the case that Frink is squarely in their league.

Frink brings her sculptures — frequently of men, horses, birds, and metamorphic human-animal hybrids — to carnal, messy life. Their wounded, fractured and contorted bodies communicate dark truths about what it means to be alive.

Elisabeth Frink, “Bird” (1952), bronze (photo by Ken Adlard, © Frink Estate and Archive)

Her vision demonstrates the extent to which we bipeds, when stripped of cultural projections and psychological armor, become existentially nomadic. Her sculpture is the visual equivalent of a Franz Kafka parable or a Samuel Beckett play. There are no glib asides, no social ironies, no otherworldly respites. Her figures’ angst comes through unadulterated, as conspicuous as her horses’ formidable musculature, her warriors’ barrel chests, and her corvids’ menacing beaks.

Born a few years before the outbreak of World War II and raised Catholic in Thurlow, Suffolk, Frink grew up in a military family near an airbase. Her father fought in the Battle of Dunkirk. At movie houses, she saw newsreels from the hellish European front.

In a 1960 BBC documentary, Elisabeth Frink in Chelsea, included in this exhibition, Frink explains how animals were the childhood inspiration for her art. She was never sentimental about them. Facing wartime food rations, she hunted small animals on the family’s property to fill the dinner table. Animals in anguish or in death throes correlate in her imagination with the war’s unmitigated physical toll on human bodies.

Elisabeth Frink, “Birdman” (1960), bronze, 1890 x 420 x 790 mm (photo by Ken Alard, © Frink Estate and Archive; Dorset History Centre)

In the exhibition’s catalog essay, curator Calvin Winner locates other biographical sources. Living near the airfield, Frink witnessed fighter planes returning from the European front, sometimes aflame, with airmen tumbling from their wrecked aircrafts. Like many in her generation, as she entered adulthood, she lived with the fear of an imminent nuclear wipeout while contemplating the unsettling vastness of the universe, made palpable by the first manned space flights.

These anxieties link her to British contemporaries and to artists working across the Atlantic. The monochromatic drawings and paintings in this exhibition, like the toothy ghoul in “Beast Head” (1958) and the stampeding “Winged Beast” (1961), parallel the tormented and tormenting figures of Brits like Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, as well as similar figurations, bristling with existential dread, by New York-based contemporaries like Robert Beauchamp, Bob Thompson, Lester Johnson, and Joan Herbst — images that cropped up repeatedly two years ago in Grey Art Gallery’s Inventing Downtown 1952-1965. No wonder Frink’s early work was associated with the cohort of sculptors dubbed “The Geometry of Fear” after their exhibition, New Aspects of British Sculpture, galvanized visitors at the 1952 Venice Biennale.

But it was not England or America that had the decisive impact on Frink. That came from France. Visiting Paris while a painting student at Guildford School of Art, she studied the work of Auguste Rodin, Alberto Giacometti, and Germaine Richier, who exhibited at London’s Hanover Gallery and whose hybrid animal-human works exerted the longest-lasting contemporaneous influence on her.

When she returned to England, she transferred to Guildford’s sculpture program. And as curator Winner notes, what Germaine Richier states about her own aesthetic applies to Frink’s scarred and desiccated figures: “What characterizes sculpture,” Richier writes, “is the way in which it renounces the full, solid form. Holes and perforations conduct like flashes of lightning in the material which becomes organic and open.”

Frink’s career was launched by the mid-1950s on the strength of a small-scale man-bird series, cast in bronze, which are represented here by nearly a dozen works, such as “Warrior Bird” (1953) and “Harbinger Bird IV” (1961). As these humanoid avians bend upward from tapered limbs rooted to the muddy ground, their wingless, partly fragmented bodies locate them somewhere between fossilized victims and embryonic predators.

Humans and Other Animals captures a subtle transition as Frink, working against critical opinion that made abstract sculpture de rigueur in the 1960s, settles into a confident naturalism, simultaneously expressionistic and poetic, that would guide the rest of her career.

Her “Falling Man” (1961), an upside-down figure whose torso and neck have been squashed into a gelatinous whole, derives its pathos from how the figure’s upper body, though compressed and ruined, retains recognizably human proportions, making the catastrophe horribly real.

Elisabeth Frink, “Mirage I” (1967) and “Mirage II” (1969), bronze (photo by William Herbert, image courtesy Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, © Frink Estate and Archive)

“Assassins II” (1963) seems too abstract to pack the emotive force of “Falling Man.” But, once again, Frink’s disciplined, heavy working of the human form renders its abnormalities real. The sculpture features two pairs of human legs rising into a shared torso that, depending on how you approach it, resembles a miniaturized rock-face or small, compacted chunks of chopped lumber. Here and elsewhere her genius resides in how she infuses humans and animals with the physiological structures of the natural environment. The same holds true for “Mirage I & II,” 1969, a pair of headless and wingless herons or egrets, whose avian abdomens also register as slates or fieldstone.

Frink considered “Judas” (1963) her turning point, one that could be interpreted as marking her decision to devote her future art to sculpting mythical, masculine anti-heroes. Her interpretation of Judas, with its smoothly worked silhouette and come-hither gesture, nails the character’s suave betrayal with an unexpected magnetism that distinguishes much of the artist’s later work.

Elisabeth Frink, “Goggle Head” (1969), bronze, 632 x 470 x 444 mm (photo by Pete Huggins, © Frink Estate and Archive)

Perhaps sensing that she would be working against the tide, in the mid-1960s she moved to France, where she remained for a decade. It was there she created her Goggle Head series — larger than life busts and full bodies of square-jawed, bald, or helmeted men wearing goggles — works that solidified her reputation.

In these works, she co-opts the totemic or atavistic appeal made by proto-fascist art — think of Arno Breker’s glorified statues of Hitler’s thugs — and she humanizes that menace through expressive beauty and a tapered elegance. She infuses her paradoxical strongmen with individuality and vulnerability. Their wound-like indentations and charming facial features, such as thin or parted lips, register compassion and awe, even as they embody the immanent threat of brutal state violence.

These Goggle Heads gave rise to late-period sculptures in which masculinity is less sinister, but no less forbidding. The tall, lithe, and nimble-footed nudes of her Running Man series transform their goggled, stationary counterparts into fleshed-out figures resembling both Greek satyrs and Roman athletes.

It was the discovery of two ancient Greek statues in the waters off the coast of Riace that inspired her series in the late 1980s, the most life-like sculptures of her career. Though their scarred surfaces and painted faces make them look like imaginary, colonized natives from a bygone film, their physiologies are rendered in such detail that they seem alive, open, engaging with the present.

Elisabeth Frink, “Riace Warriors” (1986-89, detail), bronze (© Frink Estate and Archive)

The coexistence of empathy and dread in Frink’s moral imagination might explain her long commitment to Amnesty International. Many final works are overtly religious or mythological — the Walking Madonna of 1981 or her pagan, garlanded Green Men series, which she began after her cancer diagnosis in the early 1990s.

Her final work was a public commission — The Welcoming Christ (1993) — a figure unveiled a week before her death and which now sits above the west doors of Liverpool Cathedral. Her squat, rugged, bald-headed Christ, developed from her Green Man aesthetic, is so plainly humanized in its scarred and pocked skin, and so classically symmetrical in its composition, that his open arms, like a bird’s lowered wings, seems to be asking the question posed by the sculptor’s favorite poet, Rainer Marie Rilke, in his Duino Elegies: “But tell me, / who are they / these vagabonds / even more transient than we? / urged on from childhood / twisted (for whose sake?) / by some will / that is never content? / Instead it keeps / twisting them / bending them / slings them / and swings them / tosses them up.”

Elisabeth Frink: Humans and Other Animals continues at the Sainsbury Center for the Visual Arts (University of East Anglia, Norwich, Norfolk, England) through February 24.

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