The Tate installation has a historical precedent: Herbert Read placed Butler’s Woman next to Double Standing Figure by Henry Moore at the entrance to his 1952 British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the now-legendary New Aspects of British Sculpture exhibition that launched the careers of a number of young sculptors: Butler, Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Lynn Chadwick, Geoffrey Clarke, Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull. Read’s introduction to the exhibition catalogue has also become something of the stuff of legend: ‘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.’ (Herbert Read, New Aspects of British Sculpture, 1952, un-paginated). Study for Birdcage has all of the spiky angst of the ‘geometry of fear’; the long vertical reaching up, imploringly, to a threatening sky, countered by the tripod legs that scratch at the floor, attempting to gain a footing on the hard earth. Whilst not overtly figurative in the way many of his works of the period are, nevertheless Study for Birdcage does still have an anthropomorphic quality, an element of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa midway through metamorphosis, where the ball at the centre takes on the quality of an eye.
Study for Birdcage is the fully-realised prototype for the large-scale sculpture Butler created for the Festival of Britain in 1951, a government-backed attempt to inject optimism (and some desperately needed money) into the British arts scene, as the country itself still struggled to come to terms with the aftermath of the Second World War. And looking back now, as crowds continue to throng to its South Bank site, attending concerts at the Festival Hall, or skateboarding around Frank Dobson’s sculpture London Pride, this homespun jamboree of British creativity could be seen as the beginning of the wider British public’s passion (sometimes sorely tested) for art and design. The Festival itself was a huge success. Contemporary photographs show the sculptures surrounded by viewers, exhibiting all three of the ‘classic’ British reactions to contemporary art of the era: studied intrigue, outright shock and casual indifference as families use the plinths for picnics.
Unlike many of the works created for the Festival, Butler’s Birdcage remains in situ – albeit moved inside the Festival Hall for its own preservation – where it continues to catch the eye of Londoners, almost 70 years after it was created.
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