Stabile with Mobile Element comes to the open market for the first time in over 60 years, having lain previously unseen by art experts and the general public alike since the present owner’s late husband purchased the work in 1954, two years after its creation. In that time the only evidence of its existence was the small working sketch that is illustrated in Dennis Farr and Éva Chadwick’s excellent catalogue raisonné (Fig.1). Its current unveiling offers a fascinating new insight into Chadwick’s early forays into sculpture. Abstract and open with a wonderful lightness, it is a unique example that captures the architectural and sculptural aspects which define this formative period and paved the way for his later monumental pieces.
Having trained as an architect before serving as a pilot in the Fleet Air Army, Chadwick began working as a draughtsman with the architect Rodney Thomas in 1947. At this time Thomas was exploring the possibilities of physical balance as an architectural feature, producing constructions, some of which were kinetic. Chadwick developed Thomas's idea by suspending thin two-dimensional shapes in equilibrium. Between 1947 and 1952 Chadwick produced approximately 60 such works. Initially these mobiles were used to decorate the firm’s stands at trade exhibitions. However he soon began to view them as sculptures in their own right and in 1949 one of Chadwick's mobiles was exhibited as an autonomous artwork at Gimpel Fils, London. A year later he was given a solo show at the same gallery and exhibited fourteen similar works. By 1951 his work had attracted enough interest to win him three commissions for large mobile constructions for the Festival of Britain.
There is a mastery of material, combined with a fine sensibility for balance, movement and the harmony of form and space in these works. Chadwick made both hanging and standing mobiles, and combined static and dynamic elements. But if these works started off as linear constructions in space, abstract forms setting up patterns of movement, their appearance and the fact that they moved inevitably result in them suggesting some kind of living organism. Adverse to total abstraction as he was, Chadwick was happy with this conclusion, although he avoided committing himself too deeply to figuration. The ‘living’ element of the mobiles is enhanced in the independent movement of the individual parts, only held in check by their point of balance. The combination of both the mobile’s animated forms and the delicate existence in space is what makes them so mesmerising.
Chadwick’s mobiles can inevitably be compared with the work of Alexander Calder, as the two men developed a very similar art form at a very similar time. However the differences between their works are subtle yet significant. Herbert Read pointed out: ‘Calder’s mobiles, for all their mechanical ingenuity, are essentially tellurian. By their movement they create a special form, but it is a form seen in relation to the earth’s surface. Chadwick’s mobiles, by contrast, are aerial. Their movements are not related to trees and plants, but rather to birds and insects’ (Herbert Read quoted in Paul Levine, Chadwick: The Sculptor and his World, 1988, p.57).
The present work is a stabile, based on the ground, rather than suspended from the ceiling. Three frail and tapering legs of welded iron curve outwards to support an elegant elliptical shape which balances upon seemingly impossibly fine points of contact. There is a further mobile element within the ellipse which rotates along a horizontal axis. Hostile, long, thin spikes extend out from these curves piercing the surrounding space. They can be read as teeth or claws inside a fearful open jaw or threatening pincer. The anthropomorphic elements of Chadwick’s mobiles, was also observed by Sorrell: ‘The mobiles conjure up the forms of moths, spiders, dragonflies and grasshoppers that tread the air with astonishing beauty and as gracefully as dancers. A touch or a faint breeze set them in motion and a cine-film would be the most faithful means of reproducing their elusive additivity’ (Mary Sorrell, The Studio, September 1952, pp. 76-9).
While for Mary Sorrrell, these sculptures with their animal associations were wholly enchanting and lyrical, other contemporary critics had a different interpretation. Herbert Read considered Chadwick's work to reflect the spirit of its time or Zeitgeist. To them the post-war period was characterised by extreme technological sophistication and base human aggression. The formal and technical refinement of the work combined with its animalistic references was an expression of this pervasive spirit.
At the time of Stabile with Mobile Element's creation, Chadwick was about to gain international recognition as one of several young sculptors representing Britain at the 1952 Venice Biennale, a confident assertion that Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth would be succeeded by a talented, new generation. The artists were Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Geoffrey Clarke, Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull and of course Lynn Chadwick. Their work was characterised by spiky, alien-looking twisted and tortured figures. These were executed in pitted bronze or welded metal and vividly expressed a range of states of mind and emotions related to the anxieties and fears of the post-war period. Of their work Read wrote: ‘These new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance; and the more innocent the artist, the more effectively he transmits the collective guilt. Here are images of flight, or ragged claws "scuttling across the floors of silent seas", of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear' (Herbert Read, ‘New Aspects of British Sculpture’, The XXVI Venice Biennale: The British Pavilion, 1952).
In 1956 Chadwick’s reputation would be consolidated when he was awarded the International Sculpture prize at the Venice Biennale ahead of famed sculptors such as Alberto Giacometti. Alan Bowness wrote: 'Chadwick has been one of the revelations of the Biennale. Quite apart from the distinguished and highly original quality of his imagination, it is the beauty and sensitivity of execution that impresses. He may make use of the "creative accident", but the very sureness of his control makes most modern sculpture look simply incompetent by the side of his work. This Biennale award marks the emergence of Lynn Chadwick as a figure of international artistic importance' (Alan Bowness, 'The Venice Biennale', Observer, 24th June 1956, quoted in Lynn Chadwick, Tate, London, 2003, p.44).
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