As People in the Wind elegantly demonstrates, however, there is very little ‘fear’ in Armitage’s work, quite the opposite. Spiky it may be, but what defines his figures is their stoicism, their sense of endurance and, above all perhaps, their warmth and spirit. People in the Wind was inspired by real life, a glimpse of a mother and her children crossing the street across from his studio window, struggling against a blustery wind. In this sculpture Armitage literally makes the figures tightly knit, thus turning them into a metaphor of family ties, proximity and protection.
It is this optimism and warmth that makes Armitage’s sculptures of this period so different from those of Reg Butler – perhaps the artist whose work is best described by the idea of a ‘Geometry of Fear’. Butler’s figures look up to a Cold War sky, watchful for the destruction that might rain down from it; they are stretched and stressed by forces seemingly out of their control. The etiolation of the figure in Armitage’s work does lend his figures a sense of fragility, but there is a strength too, so they stretch out to hold the space around them, combining their strength by forming little structures out of their limbs. As Armitage wrote in his artist’s statement for The New Decade, just one of the seminal survey shows of European art held at MoMA in the 1950s that featured his work, ‘gravity stiffens this world, we can touch and see with verticals and horizontals... we walk vertically and rest horizontally, and it is not easy to forget North, South, East, West, and up and down’.
That the large version of People in the Wind was bought by MoMA is itself a testament to how completely this image captured the zeitgeist of the times, a perfect blend of tension and optimism. Even more interesting, perhaps, is the list of buyers of this sculpture, one of two small maquettes Armitage made in advance of the large version sent to Venice: Alfred H. Barr, for his personal collection; Sir Philip Hendy, director of the National Gallery in London and the aesthete, publisher and patron E.C. (Peter) Gregory. Whoever owns the present work next will certainly be in exalted company indeed.
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