Butler returned to the subject of the female figure continuously throughout his career. From early work such as Woman Standing
(1951-52, welded bronze, brass sheet and wire) acquired for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, by legendary director Alfred Barr who had spotted it at the Venice Biennale (and sold in these rooms in 2014 for a world auction record of £146,500), to his monumental Battersea Sculpture
(1977, polyester resin) executed in the last decade of his life to mark the Silver Jubilee, the female figure provided the subject for the great majority of his oeuvre. He was fascinated by the changing image of the figure as she twisted, stretched, wrestled with a piece of clothing or, as in the present work, stood alert and upright, gazing directly at the viewer. Girl on a Round Base
was initially submitted as the maquette for a 9ft sculpture to stand outside the National Recreation Centre being built in the early 1960s at Crystal Palace, London. Although the final commission was withdrawn, the sculpture synthesized many of Butler’s concerns at the time. The figure stands upright almost pivoting on one foot whilst her face is calm and resolute, far removed from the torment of Butler’s early 1950s sculptures such as The Oracle
(1952) and Circe Head
(1952-53). Nonetheless, there is a cool detachment to the girl, armless, and balanced atop a large imposing circle of bronze which undoubtedly encourages a dislocated, Existentialist, standpoint. Butler explained this to Pierre Matisse: ‘to me the so-called base.. is a very important part of the total sculpture – it isn’t merely a base but I’m sure does things to the meaning of the whole thing’ (letter to Pierre Matisse, November 1966, quoted in Pierre Matisse and his Artists
, exh.cat., The Pierpoint Morgan Library, New York, 2002, p.128).
Butler’s interest in the writings of Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein suggests that the dichotomy between the opposing forces of sensuality and brutality in Butler’s representation of female forms noted by John Berger in 1954 would seem to have some grounds. Artistically, comparisons can be drawn with the surrealist treatment of the female figure by artists greatly admired by Butler, such as Hans Bellmer. Perhaps more revealing are connections with two artists of Butler’s own generation, Francis Bacon and Germaine Richier, both of whose work seeks to explore the boundaries at which the human form loses its human qualities. Indeed all three exhibited with the Hanover Gallery in London.
Pierre Matisse was quick to sign Reg Butler into his stable of artists after the Curt Valentin Gallery closed in 1955, although Matisse struggled to develop a close working relationship with Erica Brausen who represented Butler in London at the Hanover Gallery. In March 1956 he included Butler in an exhibition alongside prestigious and established names such as Le Corbusier, Giacometti, Marino Marini and Joan Miro (among others), but it was not until February 1959 that he was able to stage a solo exhibition. It was not only Butler’s idiosyncratic approach to form which fascinated Matisse and ensured him a place in his prestigious gallery but also the sensuality of his figures which sat very well alongside those of Balthus and Maillol, who were regular features at the gallery.