Turnbull sought to overturn the predominating art historical notions of what constituted sculpture. Turning away from what had since the Renaissance been a pre-occupation with naturalism and a reverence for the classical Greek figurative carvings in shimmering marbles, he was part of a generation of artists who, following on from the likes of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, sought to create a new notion of what sculpture was meant to be, and how viewers should interact with a work.
Beginning while a student at the Slade, he frequently visited the British Museum to study archaic and non-classical figures, as well as ancient tools and weapons uncovered through archaeological finds, drawn to the timelessness of these sacred and utilitarian forms. Together with a brief period of study in Paris where he was exposed to the work of Alberto Giacometti and Constantin Brancusi, Turnbull’s focus on primordial forms and his divergence into minimalism resulted in a pared down, refined, and lighter version of his first hieratic phase of the mid-to-late-1950s. In the early 1970s his style diverged considerably as he focused on industrial minimalist work. By the end of that decade he felt he had explored all there was to offer on the theme, and he turned his exclusive focus to painting. It was the major retrospective of his work at the Tate in 1973, including examples from the last three decades of his career, which outlined some clear and consistent themes that permeated his work, leading to his decision to redefine his earlier ideas on sculpture.
Works such as Female turn again to the idol motif that occupied him in the '50s, the ancient and tribal, with a wonderful economy of expression. Turnbull famously asked: ‘How little will suggest a head?’ (the Artist, quoted in David Sylvester, William Turnbull: Sculpture and Paintings (exh. cat.), Serpentine Gallery, London, 1995, p.10) and the present work suggests the human figure with graceful sparsity: the upright blade which swells and narrows, the functional handles as arms and head, and fingers and genitals scoured onto the surface, both designs and anatomy. The surface is rough and pockmarked suggesting both skin and the age and wear of stone. The sweep of hair is scraped and grooved, a method seen in his 50s pieces such as Standing Female Figure (1955). The markings that etch the bronze are an artificial intervention on a surface which looks both natural and timeless, recalling the markings on tribal shields and masks, and also the ancient art of tattooing, which was a particular fascination of Turnbull’s. As he stated: ‘from the very beginning of time, people have decorated their bodies. They tattoo themselves, they paint their eyes and lips.’ (William Turnbull, ‘Sculpture with a Presence,’ Straits Times, quoted in Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, Much Hadham, 2005, p.68).
Turnbull’s sculptures of this later period diverge from the 50s works partially in their slimness, in part inspired by his son’s skate and surf boards, which presents an interesting formal problem. Female manages to be an arresting presence, standing freely in space, while occupying less mass. The sculpture is allusive, never simply mimicking the human body or the ancient source material. It manages to reference the primordial and corporeal while still asserting itself as a bold statement of modern sculpture at its most avant-garde, creating a dialogue with the viewer and opening itself up to different interpretations with every encounter.
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