When you look at any of Elisabeth Frink’s sculptures, what you see is what she made herself. You see her own touch, from start to finish. Frink’s oeuvre is vast, and includes many large-scale pieces, but she never employed assistants. Only at the very end of her life, when she was weakened by cancer, did she enlist help with her colossal Risen Christ for Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, and then she used a young architect, not a sculptor.
Personal expression used to be the sine qua non of artists, from Rembrandt to Picasso. Everything depended on the stroke of genius, the individual gesture that revealed the inner truth. This isn’t true of much art today, where the creator often hides behind someone else’s manufacture. The personal touch in art has become so unusual now that it is perhaps helpful to explain what one is actually looking at when faced with a sculpture by Frink.
Surfaces are essential to her work. A word of warning here: her sculptures are difficult to photograph. They depend for their meaning on their tactile quality. If they can’t actually be felt – though they should be – they need to be explored with the eyes, in three dimensions, not as a flat image.
You have to see Frink’s work in reality to appreciate fully the nature of the life within it. This depends on the work’s scale – always precisely judged by her – and on its presence in space, how it relates physically to you. Seeing real Frinks gives you dimensions of experience you can’t get from photographs. In this short essay, I’d like to explore just one of these – her finishes – knowing that the reader has the chance to see the sculptures which I mention in this exhibition.
Frink was a perfectionist; she knew exactly how she wanted her work to look. You might think this is too obvious to state. Art, after all, is a form of visual communication and all artists, surely, need to be fully in control of the visual messages they send. But looking at art has been so devalued of late, being supposedly secondary to thinking about art, that Frink’s obsession with finish might appear to some to be out of date and irrelevant – superficial in every sense. The exact reverse is in fact the case.
It’s not the idea behind a work of art, but its specific realisation that makes it meaningful and lasting. There’s a world of difference between a Madonna and Child by Michelangelo and a plastic figurine in a church souvenir shop. Everyone can have thoughts about the nature of life and death, and everyone does from time to time, but very few people are able to make these thoughts, and the complex feelings that accompany them, resonate in your mind in deeply meaningful, unforgettable ways, merely by manipulating what you can see. Great artists do this, unforgettably.
The wonderful thing about art is that the meaning is discovered in the making. And the making takes on momentum as the artist becomes more and more inspired, gaining energy from the excitement of seeing the meaning he or she is after become more and more apparent. This is the imaginative flight that took off, again and again, in Frink’s studio. It’s manifest in every aspect of the making and can be seen, in part, in her touch.
Frink’s handling changed throughout her career, all the way from rough and rugged to smooth and highly polished, finally becoming gently dappled at the time of her sadly premature death. This wasn’t a conscious, calculated development, still less a response to trend or fashion, but an entirely natural and spontaneous reaction to her changing feelings. These shifts were organic and gradual and happened almost imperceptibly over the years. They only become visible when one looks back on her work as a whole.
The changes in her surface textures chart above all her changing attitude towards the Second World War, which cast such a long shadow over her life. They are also informed by her feelings about her father, who was a professional soldier, about other men in her life, and males in general. Men and male bodies were always important to her. Her rendering of their skin alters as her perception of their nature changes. Her work tracks a slow journey from flesh raddled with suffering, through shining armour-plating to a warm body at rest, gently breathing. The surfaces of her art manifest the maturation of a life.
She honed in on her favoured language of expression at the very outset of her career, working in wet plaster of Paris which she flung on to an armature and then modelled by hand and with spatulas. She had to work fast, as the plaster set quickly. This suited her, because when she first tackled a new subject she was always excited by what she had in mind. Then, when the plaster was dry, she chiselled into its crisp surface and shaped its white mass, adding more plaster if necessary and chipping more away until the sculpture as a whole was ready to be cast in bronze.
This was a very direct, tactile method of work, which allowed for improvisation, rapid corrections and the development of ideas. She could model and carve, build up and cut away – the whole scope of sculpture was at her command. And she explored the vast potential of the medium, developing its language as she found new things to say. She was not content with a single signature style. You cannot recognise a Frink by the handling as you can, say, a Giacometti or a Bacon.
This is not to say that surface textures weren’t very important to her. They were essential to her meaning, but they changed as her meaning changed. You recognise a Frink by its content, by what it has to say. I will write at greater length about the changing content of Frink’s art in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné. But here I want to look closely at her surfaces, and show how they throw light on the meaning of her work as a whole.
Frink was fully in control of her visual language from the very start. You feel every inch of the Birdman. Looking at it closely you can watch her hand at work, smoothing the surface to suggest tense skin, then tearing into it to leave raw wounds. But she always made sure the plaster remained plaster, because that is the medium through which the transformation occurs. Without plaster, the man couldn’t turn into the bird.
In Frink’s inspired hands, the plaster becomes her volatile imagination, in which she shrivels the arms to helpless stumps, and strengthens and extends the shoulder blades so that it looks as though they’re about to sprout wings. His foot appears transformed out of the material of the base – her bases are almost always magical beginnings – creating the sensation that the man-bird is about to take off.
The Birdman puts on a brave front, but his back is eroded away. There Frink has dug a cavity down to the armature which represents his spine. This aspirant dreamer is a damaged creature, a victim, built up and cut back in space, his vulnerable, haunted face protected by his helmet-like skull. The pose, or more accurately the poise, of the sculpture is created by the inner structure of the armature, but its complex, multi-layered meaning is embedded in Frink’s handling of the surface plaster.
You can see the marks of her tools, smoothing facets around the Birdman’s helmet. This is an early instance of what was later to become a near obsession with sheen. As her immediate anguish about the war receded, her sculptures of men filled out and became less torn and tense, more rounded and human. Nonetheless she had the sense, the total lack of sentimentality, to see that men’s inner natures hadn’t changed. Though they might be calm on the surface, they still have the potential for insensate brutality. The reality of this threat haunted her, and she needed to get to grips with it sculpturally.
The virtually featureless, cudgel lump of Head (1969) conveys in its solid, heavy mass the sculpture’s meaning, but its oppressive presence would not be nearly so ominously powerful without the polished surface. Frink has exploited the potential of plaster to look rough at one extreme and metallic at the other. This brute has taken a few knocks – scars blister his skin, one serves for an approximate eye – but most blows have just glanced off. Nothing can really penetrate this shining, obdurate skull.
Head is closely related to a series of Goggle Heads Frink produced in the same year. These males all wear shades or goggles over their eyes, evoking, among others, a young army officer she loved in her youth, who was killed on his motorbike. She smoothed the plaster lenses until they were like glass, and when the sculpture came back from the foundry, she polished the bronze surface till it shone – shining eyes that do not see. This became her serial image of the cruellest form of brutality. In Prisoner’s Head (1982), Frink has modulated rough and smooth in almost equal measure. The mood she creates is an extraordinary one of a life in a suspended state, neither despairing nor hopeful, nor even resigned, just a being trapped in tension. The tension is created by the play between rough and smooth and by the engraved lines that circumscribe the features of the head.
Frink had drawn on sculptures before – the earliest example in this exhibition is Birdman. These scratched lines are often like contours, indicating interior forms. She was fascinated by the spaces within the volumes of her sculptures, and used lines on the surface to indicate these. These are particularly appropriate for her Prisoner, who is trapped, as everyone is – caged within the confines of his inner life.
Around this time, Frink produced a series of drawings of heads using arcs of lines to indicate the swell of interior forms, some of them Christ-like. She was fascinated, for example, by the fact that the orb of the eyeball is visible beneath the closed lid, a seeing but unseeing eye. The effect of this drawing is almost hallucinatory, as if a light is radiating from within it and yet at the same time being reflected back upon itself – a depiction, if such a thing were possible, of the inner glow of contemplation.
The huge Desert Quartet heads (1989) are dependent for their effect on lines. These lines are not free-flowing, inscribed arcs, as they are in her study of the Prisoner, but a means of defining eyebrows, eyes, nostrils, ears and lips. Without their sharp outlines, the features would merge into the surrounding sea of flesh. The puckered surface of these heads was new in Frink’s art. It was made by chiselling small, regular notches which fragment the light that falls on them, making the heads, despite their size and weight, appear light and insubstantial, almost shimmering. These delicate, precise repeated marks are a development from Frink’s drawings. Her drawings – which should more properly be called paintings – were not notes for sculptures made in private sketchbooks, but public statements, as ample and outgoing as her sculptures. They were not a secondary, but a parallel creative activity, and they were made in a similarly vigorous, bold and assertive way.
Frink used the watercolour medium like she used plaster. She poured brown washes across the paper, giving shape to a horse, a bird or a man. Then while the wash was still wet, she strengthened and clarified its form, often using her fingers to suggest details like patterns of feathers. After the wash had dried, she attacked it with her pencil, chiselling around edges that interested her – the open beak of an eagle, a man’s thigh pressed against a horse’s flank, genitals hanging from a crotch. It is this incisive but tender hatching that enshrouds the sculptures in the round made towards the end of her life.
The Desert Quartet series was inspired by a visit Frink made to the Tunisian desert. They resonate with sand-dune crispness, softness and vastness. Though totally lacking in pomp, their scale gives them a monumental agelessness that makes one think of the vast marble heads of the late Roman emperors. A closer comparison would be to the great rock-cut Buddhas of China, though Frink’s heads are not serene, smiling down from an elevated state, but troubled with an awareness of their own transience.
These are peculiarly unidealised creations, all alike but every one different. Their eyes radiate, like suns, but what they see is human fate. Their light-filled quality has much to do with their surface texture, but its source is their content, the strange sensation we all have, as we look out at the world from our faces, that our heads are somehow transparent.
Frink controlled everything she made. In one of the last interviews she gave, she explained why she applied patina to the bronzes herself when they came back from the foundry: ‘This enabled me to have the last word, which was very important for me.’ This last word wasn’t, however, a final statement, nor was it ever a dead end. Near the very end of her life, she told the critic Edward Lucie-Smith: ‘I don’t think I ever want anything to be totally complete… I don’t want the viewer to feel that that is everything there is to see. I always want to suggest a further state of mind or a further state of physicality. So the image is on the move, not completely static. I find this quite difficult to do, but it’s my main aim, the one thing I desperately want. That’s how one thing grows from another.’
Surfaces, Frink’s ‘last word’, were always another beginning. They were the means by which she expressed her slow and painful recovery in the shadow of war, from anguished suffering through armour-plated deception to the gentle rippling of a lake at peace. Her last word was always hope, the opening up of a future possibility.
Julian Spalding (writer, former Director of the Glasgow Museums)