For any information on Elisabeth Frink or the availability of the works please do email us at the gallery: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone us: 0207 493 1155 / 07917 405 747
1930 Born November 14 in Thurlow, Suffolk
1941-47 Attends Convent of the Holy Family, Exmouth Studies at Guildford School of Art
1949-53 Studies at Chelsea School of Art under Bernard Meadows and Willi Soukop
First major exhibition at Beaux Arts Gallery
Exhibits with London Group Tate Gallery purchases Bird
1953-61 Teaches at Chelsea School of Art
1953 Wins prize in competition for Monument to the unknown political prisoner Arts Council purchases Bird
1954-62 Teaches at St Martin’s School of Art, London
1955 First solo exhibition at St George’s Gallery, London Marries Michel Jammet
1957 First major public commission from Harlow New town (Boar)
Commission for Bethnal Green housing scheme, Blind beggar and dog
Contemporary Arts Society purchases Wild Boar Joins Waddington Galleries
Commission for London County Council (Birdman) Birth of her son Lin Jammet
1960 Commission for façade of Carlton Tower, London Felton Bequest purchases Birdman (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)
Commission for Coventry Cathedral (Eagle lectern)
Commission for Manchester Airport (Alcock and Brown memorial)
Commission for Ulster Bank, Belfast, Flying figures Divorces Michel Jammet Eagle installed as J F Kennedy memorial, Dallas, Texas
Commission for Our Lady of the Wayside, Solihull (Risen Christ) Marries Edward Pool
1965-67 Visiting Instructor, Royal College of Art, London
1966 Commission for Liverpool Cathedral (Alter cross)
Moves to France Illustrates Aesop’s Fables, published by Alistair McAlpine and Leslie Waddington Awarded CBE
1971 Elected Associate of the Royal Academy of Arts First shows in Royal Academy Summer Exhibition Illustrats Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, published by Leslie Waddington Separates from Edward Pool and returns to England Illustrates Homer’s Odyssey, published by The Folio Society
Commission for de Beers, trophy for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes Com mission for Dover Street, London (Horse and Rider)
Marries Alexander Csáky
1975 Commission for Paternoster Square, London (Paternoster)
Illustrates Homer’s Illiad, published by The Folio Society Elected to board of trustees, British Museum
1976 Appointment to the Royal Fine Art commission
Moves to Dorset Elected Royal Academician Awarded Honorary Doctorate by University of Surrey
Commission for Milton Keynes (Horse)
1980 Commission for Goodwood Racecourse (Horse) Appointed Trustee, Welsh Sculpture Trust
Awarded DBE Com mission for Brixton Estates, Dunstables (Flying Men)
Awarded Doctorate by Royal College of Art
Commission for All Saints Church, Basingstoke (Christ)
Illustrates Kenneth McLeish’s Children of the Gods, published by Longman
Awarded Honorary Doctorate by Open University
Awarded Doctorate of Literature by University of Warwick
1984 Solo Exhibitions: St Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn, Norfolk; University of Surrey, Guildford Group Exhibitions: British Artists’ Books 1970-1983, Atlantis Gallery, London; Drawings, School of Art, Guildford, Surrey; Man and Horse, Metropolitan Museum, New York
1985 Solo Exhibitions: Royal Academy of Arts, London; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Waddington Graphics, London
1986 Solo Exhibitions: Beaux Arts, Bath; Poole Arts Centre, Poole, Dorset; David Jones Art Gallery, Sydney; Read Stremmel, San Antonio, Texas Group Exhibitions: Menagerie, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Bretton Hall, Wakefield; Barbican Centre, London; Chicago Art Fair
1987 Solo Exhibitions: Beaux Arts, Bath; Coventry Cathedral, Warwickshire; Chesil Gallery, Portland, Dorset (graphics); Arun Art Centre, Arundel, Sussex; Bohun Gallery, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire Group Exhibitions: Abbot Hall, Cumbria; Royal College of Art, London; Albemarle Gallery, London; Kingfisher Gallery, Edinburgh; Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London; Salisbury Ecclesiastical Festival, Wiltshire; Thomas Agnew, London; Self Portrait, Art Site, Bath, Avon (touring)
1988 Awards: Honorary Doctorate, University of Cambridge; Honorary Doctorate, University of Exeter Solo Exhibitions: Keele University, Staffordshire; Ayling Porteous Gallery, Chester, Cheshire (graphics)
Group Exhibitions: Expo ’88, Brisbane; Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, Lancashire; Angela Flowers Gallery, London
1989 Awards: Honorary Doctorate, University of Oxford; Honorary Doctorate, University of Keele; Retires from the board of Trustees of the British Museum Solo Exhibitions; Hong Kong Festival; Fischer Fine Art, London; Lumley Cazalet, London (prints); New Grafton Gallery, London (drawings) Group Exhibitions: President’s Choice, Royal Academy and the Arts Club, London; Sacred in Art, Long and Ryle, London; The National Rose Society, Lincolnshire; Grape Lane Gallery, York; Tribute to Turner, Thomas Agnew, London
1990 Award: Honorary Doctorate, University of Manchester Solo Exhibitions: The National Museum for Woman in the Arts, Washington D.C.; Compass Gallery, Glasgow
1991 Award: Honorary Doctorate, University of Bristol Solo Exhibitions; Galerie Simonne Stern, New Orleans; Terry Dintenfass Gallery, New York; Chesil Gallery, Portland, Dorset; Bohun Gallery, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire Group Exhibition: Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London
1992 Award: Companion of Honour
1993 Dies 18 April
Exhibitions since 1993
Memorial Exhibition, Beaux Arts, London
Beaux Arts London, solo exhibitions: 1995, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2002
Elisabeth Frink, Memorial Exhibition, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Goodwood Sculpture Park, Chichester
1997 Salisbury Festival Exhibition (with the Edwin Young Trust, Salisbury and Dorset County Museum, Dorchester)
1997 Elisabeth Frink 1930-1993, Beaux Arts, London
1998 Kilkenny Festival Exhibition, Ireland
1998 Lumley Cazalet, London
Fifty Years of British Sculpture, Den Haag, Netherlands
Witley Court Sculpture Park Exhibition, Worcester
2000 Beaux Arts, London
2001 Elisabeth Frink, Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham University
2002 Beaux Arts, London Head On(Art with the brain in mind),
The Science Museum, London (Wellcome Trust)
Elisabeth Frink, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Beaux Arts, London
2006 Beaux Arts, London
2009 Beaux Arts, London 2011 Elisabeth Frink, Beaux Arts London
2013 “Elisabeth Frink Catalogue Raisonné of Sculpture 1947-93”, published by Lund Humphries, to commemorate 20 years since her death Elisabeth Frink (catalogue), essay by Annette Ratuszniak, Beaux Arts, London 2015 Elisabeth Frink, Beaux Arts London
2015 – 2016 Elisabeth Frink: The Prescence of Sculpture, Djanogly Gallery Lakeside Arts, Nottingham
2017 Elisabeth Frink: Transformation, Hauser and Wirth, Bruton 2018 Elisabeth Frink, Beaux Arts London Elisabeth Frink: Humans and Other Animals, Sainsbury Centre, Norwich Publications 1968 Gray, R., Frink, Bratby, Barnes, Jackson, East Kent and Folkestone Arts Centre 1972 Mullins, E., The Art of Elisabeth Frink, Lund Humphries, London 1984 Elisabeth Frink, Sculpture, Catalogue Raisone é , Harpvale Press, Wiltshire
1985 Elisabeth Frink: Sculpture and Drawings 1952-1984 (catalogue), curated by Sarah Kent, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1989 Cameron, N., and Frink, E., Elisabeth Frink: Recent Sculptures and Drawings (catalogue), Fischer Fine Art, London
1990 Elisabeth Frink: Sculpture and Drawings 1950-1990 (catalogue), The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C. 1994 Elisabeth Frink (catalogue), introduction by Peter Murray; Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield
1994 Lucie-Smith, E., and Frink, E., Frink, a Portrait, Bloomsbury
1994 Sculpture and Drawings 1965-1993 (catalogue), preface by Edward Lucie-Smith, Lumley Cazalet, London 1994 Lucie-Smith, E., Elisabeth Frink: Sculpture since 1984 and Drawings, Art Books International
1997 Elisabeth Frink 1930-1993 (catalogue), foreword by Edward Lucie-Smith, Beaux Arts, London
1997 Elisabeth Frink: Sculpture and Drawings 1966-1993 (catalogue), Lumley Cazalet, London
1997 Elisabeth Frink – A certain unexpectedness – Sculpture, Graphics and Textiles (catalogue), foreword by Canon Jeremy Davies; ‘Elisabeth Frink’ by Edward Lucie-Smith, ‘A certain unexpectedness’ by Annette Downing; ‘Man and the Animal World’ by John Hubbard, Salisbury Festival with the Edwin Young Trust, Wiltshire County Council and Dorset County Museum Gardiner, S., Frink, The official biography of Elisabeth Frink, Harper Collins Wiseman, C., Original Prints, Catalogue Raisonné, Art Books International 2002 Elisabeth Frink, Sculptures and Drawings (catalogue), foreword by Edward Lucie-Smith, Beaux Arts, London
2004 Elisabeth Frink (catalogue), foreword by Elspeth Moncrieff, Beaux Arts, London
2006 Elisabeth Frink (catalogue), foreword by Brian Phelan, Beaux Arts, London
2009 Elisabeth Frink (catalogue), essay by Germaine Greer, Beaux Arts, London
2011 Elisabeth Frink (catalogue) essay by Julian Spalding, Beaux Arts London
2013 “Elisabeth Frink Catalogue Raisonné of Sculpture 1947-93”, published by Lund Humphries, to commemorate 20 years since her death Elisabeth Frink (catalogue), essay by Annette Ratuszniak, Beaux Arts, London
2015 Elisabeth Frink (catalogue), essay by Andrew Lambirth, Beaux Arts, London
2015 – 2016 Elisabeth Frink: The Prescence of Sculpture, Djanogly Gallery Lakeside Arts, Nottingham – Illustrated catalogue to to accompany by Annette Ratuszniak (Curator, Frink Estate) with Neil Walker (Head of Visual Arts Programming). Public purchases since 1993 1997 Dying King 1963 Torso 1958 Goggle Head 1968 Riace I (Walking Man) 1987 Tate Collection Public Collections
Great Britain Arts Council, London Atkinson Art Gallery, Southport Birmingham City Museums and Art Gallery Bolton Museum and Art Gallery British Museum, London Dorset County Museum, Dorchester East Haydock Branch Library, St. Helens Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge Ipswich Museums and Galleries Leicestershire Museums Middlesbrough Art Gallery Oldham Art Gallery Portsmouth City Museum and Art Gallery Royal Academy of Arts, London Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, London Salford Art Gallery Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, Salisbury Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh Sheffield City Art Galleries Sutton Manor Arts Centre, Winchester Tate Gallery, London Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool Whitworth Gallery, University of Manchester
United States of America Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art, Pittsburgh Chrysler Museum, Provincetown Joseph Hirshhorn Collection, Washington Museum of Modern Art, New York
Australia Brisbane Art Gallery National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
South Africa South African National Gallery, Cape Town
Public Places Yorkshire Sculpture Park Royal Opera House, London Warwick University Grosvenor Square , London Outside WHSmith headquarters, Swindon, Wiltshire K & B Plaza, New Orleans, USA Dorchester Hospital, Dorset King’s College, Cambridge Exchange Square , Hong Kong Bristol Museum The Montague Shopping Centre, Worthing Royal College of Physicians, London Chatsworth House, Derbyshire Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge West façade, Anglican Cathedral, Liverpool
A beautiful countryside story for Michael Morpurgo fans, illustrated by Olivia Lomenech Gill. Bonny has always wanted to be a top cyclist, maybe even a future Olympic champion. But her world changes after meeting a sculptor named Lizzie (Elisabeth Frink), who gives her a job on her farm. Bonny is introduced to a life-sized sculpture of Lizzie’s horse and is allowed to pose as its rider, a completely magical experience. She learns from Lizzie that a true gift is never to be wasted, and that if you “breathe the world in deep”, you can do anything.
Looking again at Elisabeth Frink
Many accounts of Modern British sculpture make no mention of the work of Elisabeth Frink (1930-93). In the fashion-ridden cliques of art history, Frink is seen as working in too realistic an idiom to be considered in any way avant-garde, and her work is typically excluded from survey exhibitions and written histories. For the arbiters of taste her sin of figuration is compounded by widespread popularity. This is what I call the Lowry Syndrome, which states that if too many people like the art, it can’t be really important. This is a terrible kind of snobbery, and by distorting the values of creativity and originality, it does the art world much harm. Frink was a true original, as anyone looking with an unbiased eye at her work can quickly see.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of her death. As time passes, the originality of her achievement becomes more and more pronounced, and her status as the most consistently inventive and visionary figurative sculptor of post-war Britain becomes increasingly assured. As she herself said: ‘Much of my work is based on the combination of something past, the Celtic element, something now, and something which might possibly be in the future.’ As we move into Frink’s future, her work makes sense in ways not previously evident, and becomes authoritative as never before.
Since her death, her Estate has been largely kept together and resourcefully overseen by the son from her first marriage, Lin Jammet, himself an artist. Last summer, Jammet died unexpectedly, but not before he had put his affairs in order, settling the bulk of the Frink Estate on museums and public galleries. For the art market, this move has had serious repercussions: no more work will be released by the Estate for sale. With so much Frink safely in public collections, the sculptures, paintings and drawings remaining in the private sector will inevitably attain a new scarcity value. In the future, there won’t be many commercial exhibitions of Frink’s work like the present one.
Her main subject was the human figure, sometimes focusing on just the head, but she was also adept at evoking animals and birds, as can be seen here in the very early Cat from 1953. This is not a happy domestic pet, it’s an animal in an extreme situation, facing danger, its spine arched, the body tensed on stiff legs for fight or flight. It is back in the wild, in a primeval confrontation, baring its teeth and yowling at its enemies. This was what interested Frink, not a curled up ball of fur purring by the fire. Her early head sculptures also address the condition of being in extremis. Features are pared back to the bone. These are some of her most abstract representations, such as the minatory and rock-like Head of 1959, reminiscent of some ancient serpent, or Carapace II of 1963, with its scarred and flayed surface, jaw clamped shut in final desperation.
The parallel interests in birds and humans led to a development of a hybrid Birdman, around 1960, represented in the standing armless figure here, with its references to the French aviator Leo Valentin who plunged to his death when he damaged one of his wooden wings. Horizontal Birdman continues to explore this theme, which was further investigated in the Alcock and Brown Memorial, both 1962. Alcock and Brown were of course the first airmen to make a non-stop transatlantic flight in 1919. Frink’s sculpture depicts the protagonists as a single figure, classically unclothed, which managed to upset some of the crowd at its unveiling in Manchester airport. The Daily Mirror relished the fact that Alcock’s sister thought the ‘statue’ obscene, quoting her as saying: ‘At least my brother had his trousers on when he landed.’ Any kind of original interpretation was bound to court controversy, and Frink’s work, for all its popularity now, was not always instantly loved. ‘I think my sculptures are about what a human being or an animal feels like, not what they necessarily look like,’ she asserted. ‘I use anatomy to create the essence of human and animal forms and their freedom of spirit.’
Frink clearly had a keen appreciation of the dangers of the air. Much of her work was an expression of anxiety, whether private and personal, or apparent in a wider application to the post-war human condition. The flying figure was no mere convenient symbol: she suffered from nightmares of beating black wings all her life, and of wartime bombers, so damaged they might fall out of the sky. Falling through space was a constant fear. She was haunted by conscious and unconscious associations, memories and dreams which locked together to form a vision of a flying man. As she said: ‘An image becomes a place to put an idea or feeling.’
Pursuing the bird theme in a different direction resulted in Mirage II (1967), one of a group of works inspired by visits to the Camargue. These sculptures derive from the long-legged forms of flamingoes seen in the distance, juxtaposed with something less bird-like and more menacing – people on horseback, or perhaps an umbrella pine distorted by the heat haze. These hybrid figures, part bird part animal or vegetable, have the indisputable presence of a dinosaur but the modernity of a present-day thug. Here is a being like a pair of animated bolt-cutters, grimly but elegantly dangerous, stalking concentratedly across a horizon; but turn it sideways and its flat shape will virtually disappear, as if nothing more than a cut-out cardboard toy, not a real creature at all. The title Mirage gives the clue: these grotesque hybrids are illusory, a trick of the light, figments of the imagination – like much of the best art.
Central to Frink’s bestiary is the dominant human male, whether embodied in the white-masked Riace figure, or disembodied in the delicately-coloured medieval-looking Easter Head II, with its associated notions of renewal and resurrection, or in the Desert Quartet Head, with its alarming eyes and white patination inspired by the Tunisian desert. The distillation of form and idea into one unified expression is also an emblematic interpretation: a searching out of archetypes rather than portraying individuals. The broken surface textures enhance the manifest tactility of the work and add to its direct emotional charge. At the same time a formal harmony reigns, what Edwin Mullins has called ‘a quality of awkward serenity’. Drama is held in check by repose, peace in turn is balanced by threat.
Elisabeth Frink made sculpture in the grand tradition of Western European figuration, with the human body at the very centre of her art. She was inspired by a respect for life, made all the more precious by her piercing awareness of death. Tragically, she died aged only 62, but we have the legacy of her sculpture, paintings, drawings and prints. This will live on and continue to inspire and intrigue us.
In The Grand Tradition
The sculpture of Elisabeth Frink (1930-93) has achieved a posthumous stature that is entirely deserved, and her popularity today stands at a new peak. This is not just because her work offers a reinterpretation of naturalism that is entirely sui generis and original, but because its character – for all the passionate engagement and emotional complexity of its consummation – is essentially tragic. She spoke of her sculptures as ‘inspired by a respect for life which seems to be always threatened by death’. Frink investigated this polarity by celebrating the male form in scarred broken textures and smooth tactile surfaces. ‘My sculptures of the male figure are both man and mankind. In these two categories are all the sources of all my ideas for the human figure’, she said. Frink was neither idealistic not expressly realistic in her approach, preferring an emblematic interpretation of figures and animals which sprang from a search for archetypes rather than a description of individuals.
A closer examination of key works might be revealing here. The genesis of some of her early figures, such as Birdman (c1960), Horizontal Birdman (1962) or Warrior (1963), may be traced with some confidence. Frink had photos from Paris Match stuck up in her studio of the ill-fated 1956 attempt of Frenchman Leo Valentin to fly like a bird. His wooden wings proved as treacherous as the wax that melted from Icarus’s, and he lost his life in the endeavour. Frink’s own fear of heights added to the potency of these images which started her imagination racing. As her biographer Stephen Gardiner writes: ‘She had nightmares of great black wings beating past her until the end of her life, as if she were at the epicentre of a tornado; of bombers, limping back after raids, which might suddenly fall from the sky; even about falling through space herself, and tried to expel them in her sculpture.’ Although we should be wary of making too close an identification between them, the photos of Valentin’s helmet do resemble Frink’s Warrior, and her own ‘helmet’ hair style of the time. The image of a flying man was certainly a poignant one. Interestingly, two French sculptors, Germaine Richier and César, were investigating similar themes at much the same time, as if it were part of some post-war mindset or zeitgeist.
From bird-man to bird is but a short step or hop, but Frink retreated further from expressive naturalism in a series of sculptures entitled Mirages (1967). These are abstractions of things seen (flamingos amongst others) in the heat-hazy distance of the Camargue in the south of France. Frink recalled ‘you see these creatures which seem to be sort of birds, or it could be a person, or a tree. Any of those make this extraordinary stalking shape that shimmers across.’ They are like menacing clouds on legs, stalking in profile, birds incapable of flight, minatory in their groundedness, grim as wire-cutters. Her work was perhaps never as abstract again. There is a danger in sourcing art too closely in the artist’s biography, and although it is intriguing to wonder how much Warrior, for instance, is a self-portrait (the artist fighting for a cause), such speculation can be misleading. For art to achieve its full potential, it must go beyond its origins and transcend its raw material. Instead of the specific incident, Frink’s sculptures deal with larger themes such as strength and vulnerability, and survival through endurance. (This is what Germaine Greer, in a 2009 essay on Frink, has called ‘the paradox of masculinity’.) Her treatment of men at war and men in space did not allow for the more sensuous approach to sculptural form so actively present in her later work. As she said in 1984: ‘I think that my figures of men now say so much more about how a human feels than how he looks anatomically.’
One of the most striking and dramatic examples of this is The Walking Man (Riace 1), 1986, with his white mask, derived from photos of 5th century BC Greek sculptures discovered near Reggio in Italy. These big bronze warriors were extremely well-preserved, painted in rusty reds and green, with coloured eyes, shields, helmets and beards. Frink heard about the Riace men two or three years before she started making her own versions, and the idea of them had had time to percolate through her mind and find new realisation in her imagination. Close up, attention is focused on the white of the face, but from a distance the whole head is accentuated.
Desert Quartet (1989), by contrast, was inspired by the Tunisian desert, the white patination standing for the glare of the sand. The eyes are bleakly staring: the irises textured with an internal fringe, as physically present as the pocked skin surface. The mouths appear seamless, as if the lips were sewn together, and this imposed silence gives the heads an added air of menace, as well as an intensification of the need to communicate. The effect is of containment, of pent-up energy seeking release.
The mysterious Green Man was an abiding preoccupation at the end of Frink’s life, and she was much influenced by William Anderson’s book on this mythical figure, symbol of rebirth and fertility. Historically this pagan image made of leaves appears as a decorative sculpture in churches, hidden away in a ceiling corner or on a carved bench-end. There is lawlessness in the Green Man, a freedom from restraint. He is one of the old gods, always with us and beyond our control, like the wild man of the woods. Frink responded to the traditional foliate figure by making a head that wears green leaves like a laurel crown, but is also branded on the cheek with further greenery. Here is man’s deep bonding with the primal world, our traditional part in the environment nearly eclipsed today by technology. The artist seems to be reminding us of the importance of our roots in the land and the seasons. She commented: ‘I’ve always felt there’s quite a lot of Celtic feeling in my own sculptures of heads.’
As Bryan Robertson, author of the first Frink catalogue raisonné (published in 1984), wrote: ‘It is a measure of her artistic and imaginative integrity, in which an exceptional purity of spirit is the bedrock, that for all the constant accessibility of her sculptures and the ease with which all kinds of people can comprehend and enjoy them, there is never any recourse in their formal realization to academic mannerism or cliché.’ This is sculpture in the grand tradition, but of great relevance and resonance for our own time. Frink’s work endures.
Andrew Lambirth, April 2015
Elisabeth Frink 1930 -1993, Anniversary Exhibition
In April 1960 the film crew for the seminal BBC arts programme ‘Monitor’ entered the studio of a young sculptor, Elisabeth Frink. A place inhabited by unsettling apparitions of birds, men and animals, where as she stated “I thrash out my ideas into form and there is nobody else there except my ideas”1. Grey, flickering celluloid and the voice of the narrator and poet Laurie Lee take us into this “other world, the kind inside of her working mind”2. The camera shows the transformation of men into birds Birdman, c.1960 p.13; the juxtaposition of twisted limbs of dead animals next to fractured, heroic figures Warrior, 1956 p.35; it reveals glimpses of the rounded landscapes of mutilated human forms Torso, 1958 p.22. Abstract forms based on animal heads Head, 1959 p.18 rest upon the floor and windowsill, the soft London light reveals dark cavernous spaces, smooth surface depressions and scored marks. In the film, blank space becomes filled with the stabbing beaks of missile shaped birds that as Laurie Lee states, “are no springtime choristers …[for] if they sang they would spit out splinters of iron. They seem to sum up the whole menace of the air”3. Walls and windows are covered with drawings: a series of spherical voids that encase dark haunting facial features – men falling, suspended in time and space. Pasted onto one wall is a page torn from the June 1956 issue of ‘Life’ magazine with images of the ‘Birdman’, Léo Valentin, who plummeted to his death before 100,000 spectators at an air show in Liverpool when one of his wooden wings splintered against the plane he was jumping from and his parachute failed to open. Frink’s birdmen, including Horizontal Birdman I, 1962 p.30 are complex symbolic images with oblique allusions to our sense of human invulnerability. These are figures that she described as “…not at all sensuous, they were too much involved with … the debris of war and heroics”4. At just 29 she stated that the “forms I make are inspired by a respect for life which seems to be always threatened by death”5. The opening pages of the June 1956 issue of ‘Life’ also contain haunting photographs of a mushroom shaped hydrogen cloud set against the red sky of the Pacific Ocean. This aerial image, the consequence of the dropping of the first hydrogen bomb from an American plane and its explosion at 10,000 feet, forever informs our view of the fragility of human existence.
It is obvious from Frink’s student drawings, paintings and photographs of sculpture that she was never attracted by realism. Her repertoire of imaginative rather than realistic images was fully developed by her early twenties, and defined by several factors. Studies under the guidance of Trevor Tennant at Guildford School of Art and then Bernard Meadows and Willi Soukop at Chelsea, along with her formative interest in Rodin and Giacometti, shaped her approach to sculpture. Growing up during the Second World War informed her sensibilities, and in various interviews she recalls war photographs seen in ‘Life’ and ‘Picture Post’, along with harrowing drawings from Belsen. Her military and Catholic family background and her marriage in 1955 to Irish-French architect Michel Jammet, their discussions and journeys around Ireland were also influential in terms of her iconography. “Much of my work is based on the combination of something past, the Celtic element, something now, and something which might possibly be in the future. My various sources have been quite precise, but they’ve turned into something else en-route. An image becomes a place to put an idea or feeling” 6.
From the time that Frink established her first studio in Park Walk in London photographers and filmmakers were attracted to her. The photographs and film of Frink from this period are beguiling in their paradoxes. People who met her were attracted to this young woman who was working within the shadows of war, conflict and vulnerability and yet oozed femininity and charmed everyone with her warm and vibrant personality.
Her reputation in Europe and America was established during her twenties. Bird, 1952 was bought and cast into bronze for both the Tate and Arts Council collections, around the same time her Man with Bird maquette, 1952 became short listed for the ‘Unknown Political Prisoner’ competition. Seated Man, 1954 was displayed in the ‘Sculpture in the Open Air’ exhibition held at Holland Park, filmed by British Pathe News and screened in newsreels across the country. She received sculpture commissions for postwar rebuilding schemes including: Blind Beggar and Dog 1957 (Bethnal Green); Wild Boar 1957 (Harlow); Birdman 1959 (Lewisham). Her work was now regularly shown in gallery and public exhibitions.
During the sixties, working in Chelsea among a coterie of artists and writers, she was caught up in the new mood of confidence that was spreading throughout Europe and America. Increasingly this popular optimism was aligned to more abstract and graphic styles, however she remained committed to the concept of expressive figurative forms and sensitive to the tangle of modern life. She continued to work through a series of semi-abstract heads with scarred surfaces Carapace II, 1963 p.19 and her warriors evolved into damaged thugs also with their scars and blank eyes. Her bird forms were either contained and defensive Harbinger Bird III p.26, 1961; New Bird I, 1965 or perched ready for flight Study for Standard II p.34, 1965, each with their own distinctive character Kestrel drawing, 1965 p.40. In 1967 she and her new husband Edward Pool moved to ‘Le Village’ in France. The bright, searing light of the Languedoc affected her work for as she stated “I went from doing very rough, textured sculptures in London to surfaces which were rather smooth and worked over – filed”7. A series of abstract bird forms, Mirage II, 1967 p.29 were inspired by visits to the Camargue, where “people on horseback or birds – flamingos in the distance – used to assume these strange stalking shapes, floating…”8. Life in France was recorded in another BBC film, and we see her working on the enigmatic Horse and Rider 1969 and one of the Goggle Heads 1969 p.14. Through these works and Man 1970 p.17, she expressed her feelings about humankind being “just as bad as it was [but] also a place for hopefulness”9. In London these sculptures received major critical acclaim. Through working in France she gained the opportunity to reflect at close quarters upon the nature of our relationship with other members of the animal world and the horse in particular (Horse and Rider drawing, 1969 p.24) while investing a new monumental quality into her work.
Returning to England in 1973, she and her third husband Alex Csáky set up home at Woolland in Dorset. The extensive grounds provided the perfect environment for her studio and the opportunity to place her sculptures in differing arrangements. Throughout the following years recognition of her contribution to contemporary British sculpture grew, there were numerous awards, ongoing national and international commissions and exhibitions. She continued to be absorbed by human and animal shapes, as vessels for her feelings. Her running men Man Running II, 1976 p.20 were presented as fugitives, an alternative to the heroic athlete. Horse forms Chinese Horse II, rolling p.39 were continually explored because she was interested in the “idea of things with a double nature”10, our dependency upon the natural world and how we treat it.
Frink gradually became absorbed in the sculptural possibilities that were offered by the “assurance that comes from a more mature inner calm”11, her heroic figures became the prisoners of conscience. Strength became associated with survival, not just by humans but encompassing all living things Atlas maquette without Globe, 1983 p.27; Seated Nude drawing, 1982 p40. Increasingly she invested this sentient assurance within her animal forms: dogs Large Dog, 1986 p.10 horses Horse and Rider, robed, 1985 p.25 and the baboons Walking Baboon, 1989 p.37. Following a visit to Australia in the early 1980s, she began to introduce colour to her bronze surfaces. Within the Frink archive is a Fish Head, 1961 whose surface she experimentally painted with broad calligraphic marks, while photographs show Large Dog 1986 p.10; Seated Man II 1986 and Walking Man 1986 (later Riace I p.07) all painted with coloured rhythmic lines. She soon abandoned this and began to work with Ken Cook to arrive at a variety of coloured patinations that were used to emphasis emblematic qualities, “to do with our collective past, but also part of today’s world”12, Riace I 1986 p.07; Midas Head 1989 p.33). In the 1980’s Frink was diagnosed with cancer, some of her work focused on ideas of resurrection, the Easter Heads, 1989 and Green Man, 1991. By now she was balancing the contained mass of her sculptures with extensive surface carving, creating repetitive rhythmic marks that emphasise as in the Desert Quartet I-IV 1989 p.09, “the feeling that I got in the desert in Tunisia …of the collective individual”13.
Referring to some of her later work she frequently expressed her feelings that humankind had lost something important, the respect for all life. In her Man and Baboon drawing, 1990 p.41 the human animal is portrayed as seeking moral guidance from the ape. Her last sculpture commission, Risen Christ 1992, for Liverpool Cathedral was typically unconventional in its form and held a deep personal meaning that symbolised “a rebirth, a renewal of spirit and mind”14. Frink never saw the installation of Risen Christ, but the moment is captured on ‘The Southbank Show ’, a posthumous BBC film that celebrated her life and work.
After Elisabeth Frink died in 1993, her son Lin Jammet kept as an archive many of the bronzes, plasters, drawings, original prints, along with thousands of photographs and items of ephemera from her former studios and homes. This material provided the basis for the new Catalogue Raisonné published in this 20th anniversary year of her death. The sculpture of Elisabeth Frink is loved and appreciated by many people and following recent undergraduate projects there is a growing enthusiasm for her work, ideas and concerns among many young people. The relevance of her work remains as strong as ever in a world where humankind maintains a sense of its invulnerability, continues to create uncertainty and injustice while holding onto hopefulness. (Head drawing, 1983)
Annette Ratuszniak Curator, Frink Estate Editor, Elisabeth Frink Catalogue Raisonné of Sculpture 1947-93
1 Wheldon, Huw, Elisabeth Frink in Chelsea, narrator Laurie Lee, director Peter Newington, Monitor, BBC Film, April 1960
2 Wheldon, Huw, Monitor: An Anthology, Macdonald, London, 1962, p.25 3 Wheldon, 1962, p.28 4 Elisabeth Frink, Sculpture: Catalogue Raisonné, with essays by Sarah Kent and Bryan Robertson, Harpvale Press, Salisbury, Wiltshire, 1984, p.37 5 Wheldon, 1962, p.28 6 Elisabeth Frink, Sculpture: Catalogue Raisonné, 1984, p.33 7 Edward Lucie-Smith and Elisabeth Frink, Frink: A Portrait, Bloomsbury, London, 1994, p.48 8 Edwin Mullins, ‘Grown-Up Prodigies’, The Sunday Telegraph, 5 December, 1965, p.12. 9 Elisabeth Frink, Sculpture: Catalogue Raisonné, 1984, p.37 10 Lucie-Smith and Frink, 1994, p.137 11 Mullins, 1965, p.12 12 Lucie-Smith and Frink, 1994, p.126 13 Lucie-Smith and Frink, 1994, p.125 14 Lucie-Smith and Frink, 1994, p.115
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)
Frink and the paradox of masculinity by Germaine Greer
For forty years, as fashions ebbed and flowed and isms rose and fell around her, Elisabeth Frink kept her eye fixed on her great theme, the paradox of masculinity. There are some who see in her Goggle Heads (1967) and Flying Men (1982) tin-pot dictators hiding behind dark glasses, and others for whom the selfsame figures are emblems of the heroic blindness of unquestioning bravery. Blind terror is the flip-side of blind courage; masculinity is the force field that holds them forever together. Frink’s male hero and male victim are one and the same. Her Birdman (1958) strains to fly but will never leave the ground.
All Frink’s images of male creatures, from Male Torso (1958) to her last great work, the Risen Christ in Liverpool Anglican Cathedral (1992) embody both heroic striving and inevitable defeat. Whether, with two or three strokes of a loaded brush, she is conveying the weight and heft of an old horse lying down, or piling plaster onto an armature to build up the massive form of a horseman, Frink achieves a kind of expressivity that goes beyond representation. This is not a matter of stylisation, as it is for some of her male contemporaries. Frink had no formula to protect her from the shock of realising that all the creatures she was looking at and thinking about were both doomed and irreplaceable. She might work the same vein again and again, making torso after torso or head after head or horse after horse, but she was not saying the same thing over and over again. She was looking for a way of expressing the inexpressible quiddity of her subject, why it was itself and nothing else.
Each of Frink’s creatures had to have its own centre of gravity, its own push and pull, its own orchestration of smooth and rough. All her life she was under the spell of Rodin, but in her work his sculptural rhetoric became something less booming, more compassionate. She rejected Rodin’s strenuous handling of clay and developed her own way of modelling the work in plaster and then abrading and cutting into it. She didn’t seek to tame her subjects by imposing her own ego on them; she wanted to keep them wild. No one has ever drawn animals with more respect for their otherness. ‘My horses are lifelike’, she said, ‘but they are not social horses – horses for jumping, horses for racing, for eventing’. Frink’s animals and birds live on their own terms in their own world.
Her human figures are equally untamed, deeply and disturbingly other. Eyes are often hidden or so deeply set that their look is as unfathomable as any wild creature’s. The eyes of Head (1969) are almost obliterated, the great mass and strength of the skull and jaw on its columnar neck are undirected, the parted lips bespeaking helplessness. The heaviest of Frink’s massive male heads contains its own contradiction, its own untold story of the boy’s separation from his mother and the lonely struggle towards manhood. When her large hands chipped and hammered and scratched the plaster into shape, they were leaving the marks of her creature’s suffering and endurance. Even when her subject is called RisenChrist, it is in reality an Ecce Homo. As she was wont to say, ‘My running men are not athletes: they are vulnerable, they are running away from something, or towards it’.
Frink’s way of seeing could be described as typically female, maternal even, if to do so would not be to imply that she belongs in some kind of sub-group of lesser, not entirely serious artists, easily seduced into sentimentality when her work is entirely free of any taint of sentimentality. Female sculptors are a select group; so few women have dared to work on a monumental scale that Frink’s oeuvre adds up to more than all their work put together. She worked as steadily and single-mindedly all her life as any man; her great theme held her enthralled for an entire lifetime. Such steadiness in concentration is not simply a product of self-discipline. Frink’s search for the perfect correlative for her tragic vision was never-ending; each day brought a new raid on the inexpressible.
Very few women artists have ever found a way of portraying men, let alone masculinity. Because most of them were responding to art rather than reality they remained fixed on the female figures they had seen in art, mixing the roles of maker and model. Even today a woman artist’s subject is far more likely to be femaleness than maleness. Frink believed that ‘Women artists who explore their femaleness through their art are being very introverted’. Impressed as she was by Rodin, she remained unimpressed by Rodin’s student, model and lover, Camille Claudel. Claudel did her best to work seriously, sculpting large-scale figures, both male and female, often nude and entwined. The theme of her best work is the vulnerability and suffering of women at the hands of men. As in the work of her master Rodin, her nude females are usually to be found in abject postures of supplication and submission. There is one small piece of evidence that she might have broken out of this destructive cycle. She left a small maquette of a walking man (called EtudeduJaponais) that looks forward to Frink’s larger than lifesize treatments of similar subjects. The figurative sculptures of Germaine Richier too could be thought to look forward to Frink, as they do to Louise Bourgeois.
We can only wonder what Claudel (who spent the last thirty years of her life in a madhouse) might have been capable of if she had been able to escape from her obsession with Rodin. Frink greatly admired Giacometti, but though she used to haunt a cafe where he often went for coffee, she didn’t make the mistake of falling in love with him, or imitating him, though she felt that their work, superficially very different, had much in common. Her subject was not a man, or her own relations with a man, but manhood itself. She was married three times, and each time she sensibly chose a man who was not himself an artist and did not seek to invade the zone of her creativity. Her first marriage lasted eight years, her second was dissolved after ten years and her third, with the businessman Alexander Csáky , lasted until her husband’s death a few weeks before her own.
It is sometimes said, usually by people concerned to refute the charge that Frink was a feminist and saw men as dangerous and threatening, that her subject is neither one sex nor another but humanity. This can only be true if we think of humanity as man-kind. Frink was as uninterested in the female form as both Richier and Bourgeois are interested in it. She said that she found men’s bodies more beautiful. She was after all motivated by the same feeling that drove men to paint women, by sublimated desire. That desire was directed not towards ladies’ men but towards the aloof men who live in a man’s world, soldiers, tyrants, huntsmen, fliers, and – that most secret of all female love objects – her father. Like Bourgeois Frink was fascinated and delighted by male genitals with their contradictory message of power and vulnerability; no artist male or female has ever given a better account of them. Even in an early and understated sculpture like Torso the fulcrum of the figure is the sea anemone-shape nestled between the thighs. If men choose to sculpt female figures because they are the desirable other, women may do the same, but so far only Frink has managed it.
I recently chaired a seminar entitled “Dame Elisabeth Frink Remembered through Film and Friends” at Bonhams Lecture Theatre in Bond Street and before that in Sherborne, Dorset. Both events were in aid of Sherborne House where the Frink Archive will eventually be lodged. There will also be a specially designed garden for a permanent display of her larger works and inside the house a space for a selection of her smaller pieces. The exhibitions will be open to the general public and the archive will be available for study by students and scholars. Sherborne House is a fine Palladian structure built by Henry Seymour Portman in 1720 and is Grade 1 listed in part because it has one of the few remaining painted staircases by the Dorset Artist Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734) whose works include the Dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Painted Hall at Greenwich. Given Frink’s love of Dorset it is entirely fitting that her archive should find a home in Sherborne House.
In preparing and researching for the event I looked at every piece of film made of Lis and her work from the earliest Monitor programme fronted by Laurie Lee to the last made by Mick Csaky for Melvyn Bragg and the South Bank Show. To spend hour after hour watching Lis progress from a vibrant young woman to the last days of her life when she was ill and dying of cancer was a profoundly moving experience. It was equally so for the other friends who spoke on the day, The painter John Hubbard, the sculptor Ann Christopher and Lis’s founder and left-hand man Ken Cook, and Jeremy Barker of Sherborne House.
What would it be like to have film of Rodin, who so influenced Frink, at work in his studio and talking about that work? It is an extraordinary privilege, we now have, to be able to see, hear and study a now dead artist at work over their lifetime. To witness themes and ideas being explored and developed, ending in a piece of work which looks finished and beautiful to us and is then rejected and destroyed by the hand that made it because it was not good enough. This was certainly very often so in the case of Frink.
One summer staying with her and her husband Ted Poole in France I went in to her studio to share a glass of wine with her just after she had finished work for the morning and on the turn-table was a piece of work that I thought she seemed satisfied with, but I was wrong. As we sipped our wine she started to ignore me staring at the piece with total concentration and then she muttered, “Its not right”. She picked up a two pound lump hammer and went at it like a Mayo navvy on piece work. Plaster flew all over the studio and the wine was forgotten. It was the most unnerving and exhilarating thing to witness. I said, “I hope you know what you’re doing” but of course she did. She mixed up some fresh plaster and I sat there watching her create a more perfect work of art. I consider it one of the most privileged mornings of my life.
To witness this was to catch a glimpse of how and why she worked.. She did not work from sketches or drawings but from ideas in her own head, long thought about and gestated. The piece in front of her was something to be worked on, changed, re-done, re-cut, re-shaped and never to be really satisfied with because satisfaction is death for an artist and for Frink a “finished” work was just a jumping off point for the next piece, the next exploration. Her early Bird series full of menace and power of which Laurie Lee memorably said “If they sang they would spit out splinters of iron” ended some years later with the Mirage series, examples of which you can see here. They were inspired by her visits to the Camargue which she loved. She said to Edward Lucie-Smith “In the very hot weather people on horseback, or birds – flamingos in the distance – used to assume these strange, stalking shapes, floating, broken up by the distance”. She looked at everything and everything she saw was stored in that incredible memory to be called up when needed.
She had the gift to make every occasion special. Shopping in Anduze with a cafe stop after was as memorable as the days of the grape harvest on her farm in the late summer.
Whatever you shared with her became a heightened experience, to be savoured because she was at the centre of it. She made you look and be aware, not by pointing things out but by the act of living it herself.
To see her on film over the years starting each working day by plunging her ungloved hands into a sack of plaster and mixing the powder in a bowl of water, and with the same hands slap the mixture on to an armature and begin to make a shape that only existed in her head is to understand why she was drawn to sculpture and not painting. To witness her pure tactile satisfaction in working the plaster with her bare hands before it set; and then with rasps, scrapers and finally with chisels and a mallet creating the textures and details to be reproduced in hard edged bronze and then those hands going over every detail of the bronze and finessing; it was to watch a consummate artist at work. Her work was her life. Her turning down the historic offer to become the first woman President of The Royal Academy was because it would take time from her work. I can think of few people so centred.
Her feelings for the downtrodden, the tortured, the cruelly treated, powerless people of our world was acute, deeply felt and totally unromantic. She was outraged by injustice. It is all there in the work, alarmingly, in the Goggle Heads and sadly, bravely and hopefully in the Tribute Heads done for Amnesty.
On the metal plate in front of her Dorset Martyrs standing at the cross-roads in Dorchester where many of them were hanged, drawn and quartered is the list of names of those killed and a poem by Robert Southwell, priest. “Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live; Not where I love, but where I am, I die; The life I wish, must future glory give, The deaths I feele in present daungers lye.”
Robert Southwell was put to the torture thirteen times and executed at Tyburn 21st February 1595.
Lis had a deep, lifelong commitment to Amnesty International so it was no surprise that she jumped at the chance to commemorate these men who, unflinchingly, face their brutal deaths. Also, while she was not “religious” she was brought up a Catholic, and the Dorset Martyrs died because they would not give up their Catholic faith.
Watching the film shot during the last months of her life reminded me again of the incredible fortitude, grace and bravery she showed throughout her illness. She was determined to finish the huge figure of the Risen Christ for the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool before she died. To be with her while she worked on it and discussed it was to be with a person who was only interested in life. To me, in that period, she resembled her Madonna striding across the grass in front of Salisbury cathedral, a powerful expression of human strength and purpose.
They took the Risen Christ to the foundry but she called the plaster head back to her own studio so she could do some more fine tuning on it, and as she worked she talked about her belief that the spirit of people continued to exist somewhere in the ether and I certainly feel hers does. Then finally, happy with the work, she said in some tired satisfaction, “Now that’s it” and laid down her tool: but of course that was not “it”. She went to the foundry and pointed out details in the bronze she wanted adjusted; then shrunken cheeked, masked and turbaned she set to work herself with a whining metal grinder to put her final stamp on the piece. She stood watching as they winched the huge figure on to its feet until it towered over her and it is an amazing shot of an artist dwarfed by the work but the two are one.
She was too ill to travel to the unveiling in Liverpool on the Easter Sunday but she was there , in the work, and she will be there for centuries. She had done what she was determined to do and a little over a week later she died.
I have said above that watching the films was a profoundly moving experience but because of her life force it was not depressing or sad; it was uplifting and life-affirming. I finished the address I gave at her memorial at St James Piccadilly with the following –
“I do not understand the scientific explanation of the black hole in space but I do, now, understand the black emotional hole that has appeared in my life….. But the hole is not so black. It is filled with colours and shapes, with running men and beautiful animals and above all it echoes with that wonderful bark and hoot of laughter that engulfed you when Lis was at her best and happiest.”
I’ll stick with that.
Brian Phelan. 27/4/06
Elisabeth Frink was a highly successful establishment figure, a Dame of the British Empire, honoured with a retrospective of her work at the Royal Academy in 1985. Throughout her career major public commissions flowed in. Recent auction prices prove that a decade after her death, the best examples of her work are more in demand than ever. Her popularity with a wide audience has to some extent played against Frink’s more serious critical reputation. Her expressionistic animal figures were the most popular and commercial of her oeuvre. But there is a far deeper and darker side to her work. It is her portrayal of the male figure and her understanding of the male condition – his capacity for heroism, for corruption and brutality for suffering and redemption – that sets her apart and makes her one of the most profound sculptors of the human condition this century has produced.
Frink’s career was launched by the time she was 22. Recently graduated from Chelsea College of Art, she held her first show at the Beaux Arts Gallery in 1952 from which the Tate purchased a bird sculpture. A year later, she won a prize for her entry for the competition “Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner” and was exhibited at the Tate. Although her menacing, spiky works of the 1950s were associated with the so called post-war ‘Geometry of Fear’ school, along with Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick and Kenneth Armitage, Frink soon proved she had her own independent path to follow. She eschewed the 1960s wave of abstraction, which swept Britain propelling Anthony Caro, Phillip King and Eduardo Paolozzi into the lime light, resolutely holding to her figurative ideals as the tide of modern art turned against them.
Frink’s obsession with the male psyche and the male figure has its roots in her childhood. A regular cavalry officer her father was away for the duration of the war and was one of the last soldiers to be picked off the beach at Dunkirk. She was brought up in the Suffolk countryside surrounded by the RAF air bases. These dashing, airmen and her absent soldier father were her male role models. Planes were frequently shot down around her home and the sight and smell of the burning wreckage and the sudden death of these heroic young men formed a lasting impression on her. At the end of the war Frink¹s father was stationed in Trieste and the young woman skipped a year of her convent education to join her parents embarking on a round of balls and operas in the company of young officers while taking in the sights of Venice.
In stark opposition to this role model of man as the dashing hero sacrificing all for his country, came gruesome images of Belson and other horrific war footage shown in the news cinemas at the end of the war. The horrors of the Nazi camps devastated the vulnerable teenager. Man was not ruled by the codes of honour that governed the officer’s mess. He was a fickle, evil character, capable of baseless acts of horror and degradation. For the rest of her life, Frink struggled to come to terms with these contradicting views. Her work went through periods of extreme pessimism where man is portrayed as a brutal assailant, to periods when he runs naked with the ease and confidence of Adam before the fall. She was more interested in the generic than the individual and disliked accepting portrait commissions. Her preoccupation is not so much with man but with mankind which explains her tendency to work in series and return to the same themes throughout her life. While her work may appear to draw inspiration from ancient myths and legends, the subjects are her own – she invented her own myths.
Her earliest large-scale head Warrior’s Head of 1954 is an image of nobility linked by its classical helmet to an ancient and honourable civilisation. A decade later in Soldiers Heads of 1965, the men have become mindless louts with vicious eyes, heavy jaws and smashed noses. They prepare us for the more sinister evil of Goggle Heads of 1967. These heads are smoothly sculpted, breaking away from the more Expressionistic earlier pieces. They are images of cunning despotism, with the protruding thug like jaws spreading nostrils and eyes obscured by sinister goggles. At the time, Frink was living in the Camargue and these heads are a direct response to the Algerian war, the goggles relate to the evil Moroccan, General Oufkir who always hid behind dark sun-glasses. Yet in her penetrating understanding of the male psyche, Frink has also captured the vulnerability of the bully, the weakness around the mouth, the goggles that hide the cowardice and self-doubt that lurks in the heart of the murderous fanatic.
Frink was a paid-up member of Amnesty International and identified strongly with human rights issues. Her Tribute Heads of 1975 are universal images of man’s suffering and vulnerability. The facial type is radically different, she turned to a more refined masculine ideal, their eyes are closed in suffering their mouths pursed in endurance, their faces revealing the scars of relentless torture. This theme is continued in the Prisoner’s Head of 1982, one of the most haunting images in this exhibition where despite the pain of relentless persecution the victim still retains his Christ like dignity in the face of overwhelming suffering With her move to Dorset in 1976 and her marriage to Alex Csáky, Frink¹s working technique gradually underwent a subtle change. Her home nestled in the ancient Blackmoor Vale, overshadowed by the looming presence of Bulbarrow Hill and shrouded in winter mists for much of the year, was a very different landscape to the harsh light and shimmering planes of the Camargue. Frink worked her next two series of heads with a far more textured surface in response to the flatter light. The plaster is modelled and sculpted and left to dry and then vigorously carved with a chisel. We see this in the Easter Head of 1981 and the Desert Quartets of the same year.
The Easter Heads are a reference not to Easter Island but to the Resurrection, while the Desert Heads were inspired by a trip to Tunisia. Both these series reflect a quieter more contemplative mood where Frink is trying to create an ideal type. Their deep set, staring eyes and monumental presence refer back to Byzantine art. One edition of the Desert Heads painted white, remain in situ at Frink¹s Dorset House, incongruous enigmatic guardians of the landscape. They stand beside the Riace Figures who appear to be emerging like primeval spirits from the woods. In her later work, Frink, influenced by aboriginal art, experiments with colour. The heads of the Riace Figures are painted white which gives them a sinister masked appearance referring back to the earlier Goggle Heads.
Frink also produced images of great optimism where man exists in perfect harmony with his surroundings. Running man of 1980 in the exhibition, is an image of supreme self-confidence. This is not a man running from danger but running for the supreme pleasure of pitting himself against his own strength and endurance. Running and Standing men were themes she returned to throughout her life. Frink relishes the male figure for its virility and potency. Her Flying Men of 1982 included in this exhibition wear the flying goggles of World War II pilots. This time we are dealing with a race of gods that stand posed for flight about to transcend their mortal properties and soar into the skies.
The relationship between man and animals is a recurrent theme in Frink’s work. In her male nudes she celebrates the maleness or physical and animal attributes of the race . Towards the end of her life Frink was working on the depiction of baboons. She completed dozens of drawings of baboons and was planning a life size group of a man confronted by a baboon exploring the relationship between them. Frink is celebrated for her horse and rider series where man appears at one with the animal. Her riders are not individuals, these works are a seamless fusion of man and beast descended from more ancient times. One exception to her customary naked rider is the robed horse and rider in the exhibition. This was inspired by figures of Arabs on horse back which she saw in Tunisia. The figure is more individualised than her other riders and gazes at the viewer with an alert expression.
Frink never used models and in her maturity preferred to work in relative isolation, even turning down an offer to become President of the Royal Academy. She drew inspiration from those closest to her. Her figures take on the facial characteristics of those she knew best, many bear a striking resemblance to herself. Frink acknowledges her debt to Rodin and to Giacometti and critics have ascribed the skinny legs and ill proportioned muscular torsos of her work in the mid to late 1950s to the latter¹s influence. However, according to her son, Lin Jammet, works of this period such as First Man of 1964 exactly represent the physiognomy of her second husband, Edward Pool. While the large heads of the 1980s, resemble the features of her third husband Alex Csárky.
Such was her preoccupation with the male there is only one female image in Frink’s entire oeuvre, the compelling Walking Madonna in the Cathedral Close at Salisbury not far from her Dorset home. The figure was not intended as a self-portrait but when confronted with a commission for a female figure Frink involuntarily sculpted her own face. The work could be construed as a metaphor for the artist¹s life. This is no conventional, modest Madonna lurking in the security of a Cathedral alcove. She strides with singleness of purpose oblivious to the distractions of those around her. There is an integrity in her gaze, a sense of purpose and iron strength in her gaunt frame. Most importantly, she has turned her back on the sanctuary and security of the Cathedral. Choosing instead to stride out into the town to meet the world full on and grapple with the fundamental condition of mankind.
Elspeth Moncrieff, 2004
MAN IS ANIMAL AT GERHARD MARCKS – HAUS, BREMEN GERMANY
We are very pleased to announce that a major exhibition of works by Elisabeth Frink is currently on show at the Gerhard-Marcks-Haus in Bremen, Germany.
‘Man is an Animal’ will show until 7 March 2021.
‘Man is an Animal’ looks at Frink’s work in the context of a much wider sculptural tradition.
The exhibition gives European audiences an opportunity to discover Frink’s work and see many connections to European art and see how her work was strongly influenced by key artists such as Rodin and early Greek art.
Photography courtesy of the Gerhard-Marcks-Haus, Bremen, Germany and Lenders.