Manipulator is a rare male figure in Butler’s oeuvre but must be seen in dialogue with his female counterparts that largely dominate. A lone man, he is raised up, balanced on a grid of poles, and holds in his hands another grid-like construction of interlocking bars, a machine with no identifiable purpose. The upper body is draped in cloth that wrinkles and gathers around the torso, just like, as Margaret Garlake suggests, one of Henry Moore’s draped figures. Essentially an untrained artist, though an accomplished architect, Butler was Moore’s studio assistant after World War II. The head of the Manipulator is upturned – a motif seen in the Unknown Political Prisoner. As the figure is life-size, the head turned skyward is mysterious, almost totally beyond the sight of the viewer. The viewer cannot but speculate on what caused the figure to throw his head back, impeaching or imploring upon the sky, and, in speculating, think that perhaps only immense despair could be the source. Unlike with the Unknown Political Prisoner, the Manipulator does not seem controlled by the framework of bars, rods and poles but instead seems to control the machinery. Who is being manipulated? Or is performing the manipulation? The man is not physically strained or stressed, he is not deformed or malformed but rather, in body at least, neutral and passive. Garlake has argued, however, that the distinct lack of sexuality of the Manipulator suggests a certain unease with the male, perhaps ‘[embodying] the failure of creativity or the artist’s potent fear of that failure’ (Margaret Garlake, Reg Butler, Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, Much Hadham and Aldershot, 2006, p.46). Butler himself wrote of the Manipulator’s intentions as opposed to his innate nature, a contradiction that seems insurmountable: ‘[his] divine discontent, his desire to create an orderly or coherent pattern where none exists…attempt to reorganise certain aspects of his environment. In contrast you have the contented animal who seeks little if anything beyond food, rest, and from time to time, sex.’ (Reg Butler, quoted ibid).
The Manipulator can be seen as the failure of a man but this period in Butler’s work encompasses a wider questioning, a probing of the failure of mankind. As Herbert Read so famously recorded, the ‘Geometry of Fear’ sculptors presented the psychological angst in of the post-war years in physical form. The horrors of World War II were trailed by the horrors of imminent nuclear armageddon of the human race at its own hands. In the upturned head of the Manipulator, in his cry of despair, in his impotence and in his machine that might inflict pain on himself or another, we see the embodiment of a profound sense of futility. A masterwork of the aftermath of WWII, Manipulator ranks amongst Butler’s most profoundly searching and haunting sculptural statements.
Other casts of the Manipulator are held by the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y., Charles Clifton Fund; and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
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