Female Figure is one of these works. As with many of the other late idols, she is a highly abstracted human figure, created from the simplest of forms. Her nose, breasts and genitals are suggested by triangles, while her navel is depicted by a circle. Long lines on her back represent hair and also indicate the spine and ribcage. However, rather than reduce the range of images and interpretations of the work, this simplification intensifies the effect. By reducing any naturalistic element to a minimum, this formal concentration focuses attention of the symbolic flexibility of the works and the archetypal nature of its shape. As with the other idols, Female Figure displays an uninhibited commitment to the tradition in modernist sculpture, which rejected the Renaissance imperative that classical Greek sculpture was to be the art’s unique paragon. It preferred to find models in various forms of archaic or primitive sculpture that seemed to evoke a human presence more directly than did sculpture that had been side-tracked into naturalism.
The surface of Female Figure is made up of three elements: texture, markings and colour. Like other late idols, the texture is flatter than the ribbed finish of some of Turnbull’s earliest works but it is not smooth or uniform. It is left interestingly varied, leading the eye over the work. The texture is firstly built up in plaster, but when cast in bronze it looks as though it belongs to stone worked to a certain level with primitive tools and weathered over time. The lines and indentations that mark the work are then applied over the texture. This initially contributes to making the work look primitive and ancient. However, on examination, the marks appear fresh and un-weathered as though applied long after the shape was created. They also draw the eye around the work not necessarily in the same directions as the underlying texture. They set up a dialogue with the texture as well as with the viewer. The final element of the surface is colour. Turnbull was a master of patination and experimented with many colours. Female Figure is beautifully mottled. Her rich brown hue changes with texture and mark.
David Sylvester has noted, ‘… it seems to me that there’s a quality in some of Turnbull’s figures which creates an expectation that, if some of them were placed in a simple well-lit building, it would become a temple’ (David Sylvester, William Turnbull Sculpture and Paintings, (exh. cat.), Serpentine Gallery, London, 1995, p.9). He believed that they derived this non-religious, sacred quality from their ‘incredible lightness of being’ (ibid., p.10). The lightness that he describes mainly belongs to the later idols.
Perhaps influenced by the industrial minimalist work Turnbull had been making during the 1970s, these figures are more slender in section than their earlier counterparts. Sylvester commented: ‘What had once had the proportions of a column, now had those of a plaque’ (David Sylvester, ibid, p.9). He continues to note that this was a challenging course to take, because a flimsy standing figure, even if it manages physically to stay erect, risks looking insubstantial and weak. There’s a well-known Turnbull quote that reads: ‘How little will suggest a head?’ (William Turnbull, 'Head Semantics', Uppercase, no. 4, 1960, unpaginated) and in making his later figures he seems to have been asking himself: How little substance can a structure have and still hold its own in space?
They are also unambiguously frontal, in the way that Archaic Greek and ancient Egyptian art is. Classical and Renaissance sculpture, indeed Henry Moore’s sculpture, is concerned with the rotating viewpoint, so that the viewer is inclined to walk around the work and discover a series of changing compositions. Turnbull was more concerned with producing an arresting, frontal image. In an article published in 1968 Turnbull remarked that ‘The work must be perceived instantly, not read in time’ (William Turnbull quoted in William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, (exh. cat.), Serpentine Gallery, London, 1995, p.34) and he remained consistent to this ideal, avoiding all suggestion of narrative.
Female Figure, like all of Turnbull’s best sculptures is faceless, ageless, and totemic. She has a wonderful poise, a vibrant balance, which matches that achieved in component works such as Aphrodite, which contain several elements stacked upon one another. The sacred quality that Sylvester observed is clear to see: dignified and composed, she dominates the space she inhabits and radiates out into it.
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