From the mid-1950s, Turnbull had begun to solidify the etiolated forms of his breakthrough work of the late 40s onwards into something simpler, more archetypal, as he searched to create symbolic representations of the human form that could speak both to our past and the current human condition. For Turnbull, these were ‘the consistent themes in sculpture’ that could be seen in any great museum of world culture. The history of sculpture could itself be described as the history of archetypes: our desire and need to make three-dimensional forms, etched with patterns or daubed with feathers, animal fat, blood, both to describe and understand our presence in the world, and to be our avatars, our intermediaries between this world and the next.
It is this deep and powerful history that Turnbull’s work seeks to access. Screwhead, for example, feels uncompromisingly modern, in its rectilinear form, its overt minimalism and, of course, in the flat-head screw that stands in for that most expressive of things, the human face. But equally it feels decidedly ancient, an artefact from a time pre-dating Classical antiquity, maybe going as far back as the Willendorf Venus, a time of simplified, powerful totems that stood at the heart of holy places, wreathed in incense and smoke, or out on the sides of roads, offering protection and luck and marking boundaries between worlds. Within this overall rectilinear, minimal form, the body is delineated by blocks or areas of lightly scored geometric lines that mark the most important facets of the body: face, breast, sex. This is the female body reduced to a map of its numinous places.
As the critic David Sylvester wrote of Turnbull’s works, they are ‘hieratic’ in ‘the word’s true sense, consistent with its etymology…to do with what is priestly…with what pertains to sacred persons or functions’ (David Sylvester, 'Bronze Idols and Untitled Paintings' in William Turnbull: Sculpture and Paintings, Merrell Holberton / Serpentine Gallery, London, 1996, p.9). And yet in the unforgiving brutality of their forms and the roughness of their surfaces, where the artist's fingers can be seen to drag and work the matière, they are absolutely Modern, referencing both Brancusi and Giacometti. By being both ancient and modern, they speak to one of Modernism’s central tenets (based on the work of the psychologist Carl Jung), that of ‘universal form’: shapes, balances, relationships that describe the deep, underlying nature of human experience. For Jung (and Modernist artists) these forms were now lost to industrial Western culture but preserved and very much ‘alive’ in non-European tribal art or the artefacts from ‘primitive’ cultures. Turnbull’s work of the 1950s and the 1970s onwards (see lot 18) when he returned to sculpting in bronze, seek to access this power and recreate it for our times.
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