Leaf Venus I is a striking example of Turnbull’s mature work, which builds on the Idol series he created from 1955-1957 with a refined subtlety of shape, texture and colour. Here, Turnbull explores his long-standing interest in metamorphosis and the ambiguity it provokes. Turnbull said that: ‘Ambiguity can give the image a wide frame of reference… It creates cross reference between something that looks like an object and that looks like an image. For me in making sculpture there is always that tension between the sculpture as object and the sculpture as image. I think it is quite different from the intention of naturalistic sculpture’ (William Turnbull, quoted in ‘William Turnbull in conversation with Colin Renfrew’, William Turnbull: Sculpture and Paintings, (exh. cat.), Waddington Galleries, London, 1998, p.5).
Turnbull was open about the diverse influences on his work and did not differentiate between high and low sources. He was a regular visitor to the British Museum and well versed in the museum’s collection. However, he readily acknowledged that other series of sculptures had been variously inspired by his son’s skateboards and martial arts knives and the hour-glass figure of Marilyn Monroe.
Turnbull uses metamorphosis in Leaf Venus I to construct a range of images within one work. Her form can be read as a natural object such as a leaf or pebble, as well as an ancient tool or primitive statue. Roger Bevan pointed out that some of the idols, including Leaf Venus I, are partly based on the flat, oval shape of a churinga, a totemic object of the Aboriginal tribes in Australia. These sacred objects were made from boards of wood or stone and decorated with designs that represent the sacred stories and history of that tribe. The churinga represented mythical beings and formed a connection between people and the divine. Turnbull merges this rich source of references and adds a classical dimension in the title, Venus. This also evokes the idea of the sacred feminine, which is reinforced by the sculpture’s slender elongated form with tapering curves and elegant poise and balance. The lines and dots that mark its surface also suggest that the sculpture is a figure rather than a completely abstract piece.
Amanda A. Davidson notes that the effect of this metamorphosis is to focus the attention of the audience away from any particular historical or cultural context for the reference and towards a more inclusive and flexible artistic context (Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2005, p.64). We are forced to view it in the way we might look at objects from the past, which, through the passing of time, gains resonance as an aesthetic object. Its form takes precedence over its function. Leaf Venus I is detached and unassertive. She has a sense of control and silence, which is enhanced by her gentle balance and symmetry. Rather than proclaiming a statement and imposing any values upon the viewer, she invites the viewer to invest her with whatever metaphoric symbolism they wish.
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