Bryan Kneale: Points of Contact
by Andrew Lambirth
‘It is difficult to describe in words the meaning of forms because it is precisely this emotion which is conveyed by sculpture alone.’ Barbara Hepworth
Bryan Kneale is one of our finest living sculptors and yet his work remains comparatively little known to the gallery-going public – although many will have seen his magnificent large-scale sculpture Triton III in the courtyard of the Royal Academy during the 2009 Summer Exhibition. Kneale’s innate modesty helps to account for his low profile, but it is more to do with far-reaching decisions about how he wanted to live his life. Making sculpture and teaching art have been his twin preoccupations, and he has never really come to grips with what has been the overriding obsession of contemporary artists: how best to present your work to the public gaze. Kneale is not a natural self-promoter, and his reputation has languished as a result. As he says, sculpture occupies a completely different self-contained world, and he has been fully occupied by that world, paying scant attention to the everyday business of exhibiting, selling and publicity.
Throughout his career, Kneale has gone his own way, irrespective of fashions and received opinion. He joined the Royal Academy when it was still a bastion of academic intolerance and backward-looking conservatism, because he recognized the potential of its magnificent galleries as an exhibiting space in the centre of London. No sooner had he joined the RA than he set about revolutionizing it, mounting there one of the most radical surveys ever of modern British sculpture in 1972. If that wasn’t enough, he also curated a Jubilee Exhibition of British Sculpture in Battersea Park in 1977. His career in (unofficial) public service has additionally involved long spells of teaching, concurrently in the 1980s at the RA and the Royal College, where he ran the sculpture departments. Finally in the 1990s he was appointed Professor of Drawing at the Royal College.
This distinguished career in art education inevitably took up a lot of his time and energy, but it fulfilled an important function in his life, enabling him to give something back to society as well as keeping him in contact with emerging generations of artists. His teaching also enabled him to stress those things he considered important: learning how to draw and how to make, and most importantly, how to think through the materials you are using. Drawing has always been important to him, though Kneale rarely makes drawings as preparatory works for sculpture. He sees the activity of drawing as a parallel one to making in three-dimensions, and will often explore the same themes. But the drawings are made for themselves, for the joy of exploring form in a purely linear way. He is perhaps best known as a draughtsman for lucid and extremely beautiful studies of skeletons.
Kneale has been dismissed as a traditionalist because he employs the traditional materials of sculpture and doesn’t work primarily in junk or resin or plastics. Actually, he has always been rather influenced by what might be called junk – the litter of a mechanized and industrial culture to be found in scrap yards – but he has always transformed this raw material in the process of making it into art, rather than presenting it unchanged. His sculptures often make reference to things in the everyday world without confining their meaning to this level of signification. Thus the notion of the traffic cone or the exploded sea mine has been of crucial importance to some of his sculptures, but this is never as glaringly obvious as the wholesale borrowings of other artists.
There is, for instance, the story of the sculptor and the tank. Kneale’s forge and workshop were for many years situated just off the Fulham Road where his favourite drinking place was Finch’s pub, the haunt of a nicely-mixed group which included Admiral Sir Caspar John, First Sea Lord and son of Augustus John, the painter Sandra Blow, and the sculptors Lynn Chadwick and Liz Frink. One evening Kneale found himself discussing his work with Caspar John and mentioned the fact that he really wanted to try out explosives and their effect on metal. No sooner said than done: within days, Kneale received an invitation to join a group of Portuguese matelots on an explosives training course at the Bomb Disposal Area at Lydd in Kent.
As Kneale recalls, ‘there was all sorts of stuff lying around’, and he was soon deep in experiments to blow up old mine cases, placing explosives inside or outside them for different results. Growing perhaps a trifle over-ambitious, Kneale determined to have a go at a First World War tank that just happened to be there. The first charge he placed inside the vehicle had absolutely no effect, so Kneale increased the amount of explosive and retired to a safe bunker. The detonation was enormous, and it succeeded in blowing off an entire side of the tank, which landed on the Navy’s internal railway and caused a great furore. Kneale received a severe reprimand from Admiral John and was not invited back to Lydd. He was, however, allowed to remove a whole van full of fragments from the explosions, which he took back to London, and which proved to be a highly fruitful source of inspiration.
Typically, Kneale did not simply incorporate these fragments, but exploited their effects – in the use of double or treble curves, for instance, or in the pitted and perforated surfaces he has favoured from time to time. When I was young and English seaside holidays were de rigeur, you could occasionally still find half-destroyed mine cases on the beaches of the south coast, rusted and corroded by sea water, holed and offering a refuge for crabs or eels. It was to these distinctive structures that my mind turned when first I saw certain of Kneale’s sculptures (the mysterious Crucible, for example), and it’s encouraging to be proved right in these comparisons. Kneale himself draws attention to another source – the old Manx cooking pot.
His Manx heritage is obviously of considerable importance, and he traces the darker side of his work to it. His sculptures can be spikily armoured and defensive, if not downright aggressive. Even the flower forms could double as weapons. As he said (only slightly ironically) in 1966: ‘The way I approach sculpture is conditioned by the fact that I am basically some kind of Manx peasant.’ Kneale is very much alive to the Norse and Celtic traditions associated with the Isle of Man, to its mythology and cultural inheritance. One of his sculptures, for instance, refers to a bottomless pool called Nikessen (a Norwegian name) on the family farm: an entrance to the underworld right on the doorstep. As he has said: ‘Even in my most abstract work I’ve always searched for a persona in order to feel the work has a life of its own.’ He talks about wandering around the Isle of Man in his youth and seeing a piece of metal sticking up out of the ground. It was the physical presence that struck him: ‘perhaps the remains of a turnip cutter, and though you couldn’t actually identify it, it had a strong personality.’ On these walks he also picked up the remnants of traditional cast-iron Manx cooking pots on three legs, usually broken and abandoned. He loved them, recognizing the evocative power of the fragment.
So it was that the van of fragments from the controlled explosions at Lydd generated a whole group of sculptures, and still inspire his sculptural thinking today. For instance, one of Kneale’s most celebrated early sculptures, Bible Box from 1964 (Arts Council Collection), contains a box-like passage of pitted steel between its perch-and-wall-bar hanging device, and its cored and nearly-severed apple (from the Tree of Knowledge?) depending from an elbow-jointed link. To extend the analogy of the Crucifixion, which Bible Box certainly calls to mind, the apple is also a skull at the base of the Cross. Yet above and beyond these references, it is primarily a descending thread of forms moving out through space in a serpentine motion. In the end, this sculpture is about line, mass and gravity: it is the abstract narrative of these conjoined forms that ultimately works or not; in fact, that succeeds compellingly.
Kneale’s work is not literary, it does not tell stories. Ideas come from discovering an inexplicable shape – and the artist’s attempts to endow it with a life of its own. Found metal can be inspiring but he really prefers to make the shapes himself. That emerged early in his career. Kneale began as a painter and became celebrated for his uncompromisingly facetted portraits. These were painted using palette knives, constructed rather than fluidly brushed, and some were so spiky they looked as if cut out of sheet-metal. Kneale painted the likes of Herbert Read and Charles Laughton, Michael Redgrave and Richard Attenborough, Norman Parkinson and Bryan Forbes. All too soon, he began to feel he was repeating himself in his painting. He asked Herbert Read in 1958 during the sittings if he thought he could make a new start as a sculptor. Read (whose portrait is now in York City Art Gallery) counselled waiting for a year or two, which Kneale duly did.
In 1959 Kneale learnt how to forge and weld from his engineer brother-in-law, and from that moment sculpture became his principal language. As he says: ‘I can think in metal much more easily than I can in any other material. I can’t use wood.’ This was not the sculpture of carving or modelling and casting, but the sculpture of constructing in metal, and he has remained true to that initial calling, working directly with his chosen material, whether brass, steel, copper or aluminium, ever since. In 1962, FL Kenett wrote: ‘Bryan Kneale is an intuitive sculptor. He works by touch and the impulse of the moment, and he has found in the forging and welding of steel a new freedom which his former use of paint could not give him.’ Paint for Kneale was too malleable, too lacking in resistance. He enjoys the battle with metal, and the range of physical expression it can take.
Two years later, Bryan Robertson wrote: ‘In general, the work combines soft organic and hard inorganic shapes in a series of awkward, unsuave and always rather startling relationships.’ Typically, Robertson put his finger on the nub of the matter: Kneale’s forms are locked together in unusual meetings and movements; he seems to have adopted with a vengeance EM Forster’s famous injunction ‘only connect’. Kneale’s work is distinguished by the couplings everywhere apparent, in the sculptor’s ingenious joining of formerly discrete forms. Early on, this was done with weights and pendulums, later with more integrated jointing systems. The connections he now makes resemble nothing so much as the linkages of muscle, tissue and tendon in the great architectural bone house which is a body.
One of Kneale’s greatest inspirations has always been the Arts and Crafts designer Archibald Knox (1864-1933), a fellow Manxman, whose brilliance at making shapes he admiringly salutes. Knox, who worked primarily in silver and pewter, was the most prolific and innovative designer for Liberty’s, and became the principal inspiration behind the company’s ‘Celtic Revival’. He had studied Celtic ornament and folklore, and drew his inspiration from Manx and Cornish crosses and illuminated manuscripts. A master of Celtic interlaced ornament, Knox is not widely known despite his substantial achievement, principally because of Liberty’s policy of anonymity for their designers. The parallel with Kneale is plain: both artists were more interested in making the work than in promoting themselves.
If Kneale’s paintings were often spiky with the frustrated need to move into three dimensions, his recent sculptures evince a fluidity in their curves and supporting shapes which demonstrates the artist’s assurance at moving mass through space. Kneale is a consummate craftsman, a precision engineer, even on occasion a jeweller in his fineness of touch. He aims for clarity, simplicity and lightness, but never adulterates the shape-magic that lies at the heart of his invention. Art is about editing, but it is also an experience of continuous revelation. Kneale and metal are in a constant dialogue of discovery. ‘I like the sensuality of aluminium’, he said to me in 2005. Aluminium, which is tricky to weld, is cut out on a band saw, Kneale drawing his shapes freehand first in marker pen on the metal. Zeus, Samurai and Picador are all intensely formal works which explore the potential meander of linearity in metal. They are supremely elegant but potentially deadly. Here are Kneale’s watchwords in action – strength and grace.
The newest work is in stainless steel: leaning, angled, enquiring. Two beautiful ground-hugging pieces made this year, Lapwing and Plover, follow on from Gemini of 2009, utilizing highly-polished ‘shields’ of stainless steel in balance to suggest flight, openness, survival – the lifting of the heart with happiness, as a sail lifts in the wind.
Astra is a tall vertical sculpture aspiring to the stars that is all about balance. Kneale is constantly making improbable shapes that defy the laws of gravity. (The sound of metal clattering to the floor is a regular occurrence in his studio. He claims to be able to make anything balance – if only for a moment. The problems arise in making the balancing act permanent.) The discs which form Astra’s base touch curves at certain points and are delicately balanced, but are also firmly wedged together to support the tower. Kneale has enjoyed himself cutting into the surface of this base with a plasma cutter, piercing it to prevent the forms from becoming too solid. He wanted to break up the shapes like cloud, and give them an informal, accident-like quality.
Astra’s crown appropriately looks like a bird’s skull in section. The follow-up sculpture, called Sky, was made in response to Astra’s complexity and is an alternative and much simpler way of looking at the same thing. In form it is more geometric, and oddly more dramatic in its pared-down articulation. Both these elegant columnar sculptures have a precedent in Crocus of 1975, a flower head on a long stalk, typically jointed. When Kneale made his celebrated skeleton drawings at the Natural History Museum in the 1980s, it was always the intricacy and subtlety of the joints that most interested him. Indeed, the underlying theme of nearly all his sculpture may be encapsulated in the phrase: points of contact.
The theme of the vertical sculptures has been further explored in styrene models – a line of twiggy uprights in the studio which look like white plastic stick insects, intent as a praying mantis – and in drawings. Kneale is a remarkable draughtsman, capable of the utmost precision (the conté skeleton drawings can’t be rubbed out so permit no mistakes), and yet also of the kind of inspired and inventive doodling which can turn what at first looks like a game of spillikins into a profound linear investigation of sculptural form.
Colour has always been an interest, and recent experiments in patination have resulted in some compelling surface variations. Look, for instance, at the golden brown of Scylla and Charybdis. This was created by taking a strip of brass and turning it into a spiral, which was then sawn across at different angles to make a number of smaller pieces – what Kneale calls ‘a whole family of shapes’ – and finally reassembled. As he says: ‘I spend endless hours taking things apart and then putting them together until it makes sense.’ He carves brass into a shape resembling an armoured artichoke. Another piece cut and reassembled from brass tube evokes the articulation of a lobster’s tail. Kneale takes a seemingly intractable material and gleefully ties it in knots.
As Kneale famously said in 1966: ‘I think all my work is about the problem of what one sees and what one knows and the attempt to fuse the two and in a special sense disrupt them.’ In his eighties, Kneale remains an agent of disruption, an anarchist in Academician’s guise, the wayward experimenter who continues to question assumptions. He still aims to surprise himself: to discover hidden and unexpected connections, and to subvert his existing knowledge by new visual perceptions. The incomparably fresh impact of his latest work bears out his continuing ability to disconcert.