Reg Butler in his studio, sculpting Working Model for the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, c.1955, now in the collection of Tate, London. © The Estate of Reg Butler.
LONDON - The British Pavilion at the 1952 Venice Biennale was split between the ‘Master’ – Henry Moore, who had won the International Sculpture Prize at Venice in 1948 – and ‘Apprentice.’ In this case though it was ‘apprentices,’ a group of young sculptors – many of whom are in the Modern & Post-War British Art sale on 10–11 June – who at the time of Moore’s success four years earlier, were still barely out of the army and finishing their war-torn education: Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Kenneth Armitage, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull, Bernard Meadows and Geoffrey Clarke.
Yet such was the power of the group of sculptures that formed the show – entitled ‘New Aspects of British Sculpture' – that before the end of the decade, works by these young artists could be found in major public and private collections in Europe and America. They were included in ground-breaking shows of international art at MoMA in New York, alongside Alberto Giacometti and Germaine Richier, as well as De Kooning, Bacon and Pollock; and, in the case of Chadwick, in a triumphant return to Venice four years later, he matched Moore’s achievement, while beating Giacometti, to the International Prize for sculpture.
Reg Butler’s Woman Standing, 1951-52. Estimate £40,000-60,000.
The 1952 exhibition not only made overnight sensations of many of its artists, it was also the source of the description that was to define this group in the coming years – ‘the Geometry of Fear.’ This phrase is taken from the introduction to the show by curator Herbert Read: “These new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance. Here are images of flight, of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear. Their art is close to the nerves, nervous, wiry. They have seized Eliot’s image of the Hollow Men... They have peopled the Waste Land with iron waifs.”
Reg Butler’s Study for Two Watchers (Unknown Political Prisoner), 1952. Estimate £12,000-18,000.
The phrase ‘geometry of fear,’ however, doesn’t really encompass much of what these artists’ works are about: it misses Armitage’s spirit and humour or Turnbull’s interest in primitive idols and timeless archetypal forms. ‘Defiance,’ though, is certainly a strong factor in all these artists’ work and all their ‘men’ are not so ‘hollow.’ The allusion to Eliot, though, is well judged by Read, as there is certainly a shared poetic sensibility, a moving between the lightness and weight of being, that unite these artists.
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune have treated these young sculptors very differently over the years. Butler should certainly be better known: five minutes in MoMA’s storage facility makes that clear enough.