I recently went to this exhibition with my partner as I have an interest in the head and would like to move my skills on in this area. I had another reason to visit too. I had talked to a member of SWSA , Rose Ellis , about who her favourite sculptor is. She replied that it is Emily Young. This sculptor was totally unknown to me so to an opportunity to see her work was eagerly anticipated.
The scope of the exhibition is very broad and includes the very reductionist piece : Supermodel (Kate Moss) , which is simply two gold plated steel circles , the larger placed across the top of the other and based on the Golden Ratio that the ancient Greeks’ used to calculate perfect facial beauty .(1)
I shall concentrate on the more classical representations of the head as that is my current interest. The above head by Laurance Edwards and the rest of the series are described by him as ‘Chthonic Heads’ and are in bronze. Chthonic means from the underworld. He starts off in clay , then transfers this to a wax version by way of a latex shell. I don’t think that this would my preferred style as it wouldn’t express what I would want to , and it does seem to show an ancient almost atavistic being.
The above ‘Bust of Hercules’ from the second half of the 18th century is in bronze and is called ‘Provenance’ . The hair is stylised , and some features are pronounced such as the eyebrows. This type of exact classical form perfect as it is ,is not the kind of representation that I would strive for although I can admire the workmanship.
The above head is by David Mach and is called ‘L’homme’ and is amazingly constructed of thousands of matches. It is the only obviously religious head in the exhibition and looks like the head of Christ. Mach seems attracted to unexpected mediums as there was another head present that had cleverly been made from wire coat hangers all with the hooks protruding from the head. (2) Technically this is very accomplished, but would not my preferred medium.
The above ‘Head of Juno’ from the first to second century is made of white marble, and despite the damage is exceedingly well finished such that the skin has the look of skin and the subtleness of curvature around the features. It pays homage to middle aged women To aim for this sort of standard is to aim for perfection. I am not sure that this is what I would personally strive for but can appreciate the consummate skill of the creator. The hair ,which is not the easiest thing to represent in stone ,works well as it has a movement within it which complements the smoothness of the facial features, and the ribbon restraining the hair is unusual but works well.
The above ‘Lined Head’ by John Davies in bronze certainly has a presence and I find it very accomplished . The lines on the face for me do not detract from the overall impression and add a certain tribal quality , and also raises the idea of mapping that has become popular of late. The patina has not been overdone , is subtle, and gives it a uniformity , with the light reflected providing the variations in tone and colour. Certainly ,one could learn a great deal from this very confident bronze head. John Davies also had a painted fibreglass and resin head in the exhibition. The appearance is very different and achieves a completely different effect. (3)
Ellen Christiansen’s ‘Elisa’ (above) is in bronze is an example of her work ,that uses a measuring technique derived from stone carving. She has left her measurements on the form and I do not find this detracts from the finished work. It could be said to be analogous to leaving all the lines in a pencil sketch. In some ways the marks add an extra layer of complexity just like Leonardo Da Vinci’s measurements on the human figure in the Vitruvian Man. The measuring has paid off in my view as all the features are so well formed.It’s almost as if by leaving the marks she is making the sculpture hers . The head is not over finished as there are areas where you can see how she has worked and this is certainly no detriment to the finished result.
Kevin Francis Gray’s ‘Temporal Sitter Bust’ (above) in Carara marble is a typical example of his work as a figurative sculptor who works mainly in bronze and marble to create idealised figures draped with fabric in the Neoclassical or Baroque styles. Gray uses anonymous individuals that he encounters near his studio, often people struggling with addiction. This work is very accomplished indeed and to depict two layers simultaneously takes incredible skill in my view, though of course the marble does work well for this kind of effect. From the angle of view of my photograph the nose does look prominent , though this may well be the reality of what the sculptor saw. The shine on the marble is too much for me but that is just my personal preference. It makes it look overfinished. The suggestion of features beneath the veil is enough for my imagination to do the rest ,and this also asks the question about what is the veil a metaphor for?
Dame Elizabeth Frink’s ‘Goggled Head 1’ in bronze was one of a series made in the 1960’s. They reflect a concern in her work of masculine power. In her ‘Goggle Heads’ she criticised bullish army generals of rogue states. There is no doubt that she was not a slave to exact anatomy , but this sculpture still works ,and imparts a message. The identity of the person is hidden , and the strong features exude power. The photograph depicts an asymmetrical mouth that somehow imparts an effect of uneasiness in the viewer.
This portrait above, by Eric Kennington, is entitled T.E. Lawrence and is in painted plaster. This is an underrated medium and here he has achieved fine results. This was created in three hour long sittings, and that gives one a feel for the considerable skill of the sculptor. I can certainly get a real feel of the mass of the forehead and the whole of the cranium, the deep anatomy of the orbits, and the malaria prominence, and vert strong features that merge well into each other. The angle of the head seems to reflect a man of substance looking to the horizon. The pitted plaster just adds to the overall effect. In my experience plaster is not one of the easiest mediums to work with so this is why I included this exhibit.
This portrait above, by Glynn Williams, is called ‘Young Priest’ and is in plaster. His sculptures are ‘representational but weighted in abstraction’ (4). This giving them a surrealist feel. Certainly, he is not weighed down by the necessity to be truly representational , but I can’t help think that he probably started out from that point originally. There is no doubt that he understands anatomy but has consciously distorted to achieve the effects he desires. Almost a caricature, but with a dark sinister edge.
Above is a pair of sculptures in bronze by Keith Coventry called ‘King and Queen’.They were inspired by the theft of heads of a sculpture by Henry Moore from an estate in Scotland in 1995. Before I had even read this fact in the text I had already said to myself that they look like Henry Moore’s work. There is nothing beautiful about them, but then perhaps in abstraction the sculptor is paring down the subject to show something more primitive and basic about the human condition. I think that perhaps it is wise to start from a place of being representational and to move to abstraction from there where the artist has established a solid basis for his work, just as Henry Moore did.
‘Michelle, Nefertiti head’ by Brian Taylor in bronze (above) impressed me a great deal. The hair has been dealt with in a very lively manner and the lips are prominent, and the way that the eyes have been done creates a mysteriousness. The surface finish is interesting in that it leaves a lot of evidence of the way of working , which I like. In summary ,there is an energy here that inhabits the sculpture.
‘Ragut Kirn’ by Gavin Turk in varnished clay has caused me to wonder what the artist intended to convey. Initially I thought it was some kind of barbaric violence perpetrated on what appeared to be a male head. The title could not be located as as a person or description on a search engine, but eventually I unravelled it as being an almost complete anagram of the artists name. So it was intended to be the artist. The piece was exhibited in Paris in 2015 and the stated narrative of the exhibition was : ‘What defines masculinity these days, and how can we come up with an alternative to the figure of the dominant male in patriarchal society?’ Later on I saw that the booklet accompanying the exhibition did state that ‘Turk made a series of 72 self portrait heads in clay , and then invited the public to come and distort them. Gavin Turk is one of a number of artists who have used destruction of the sculpted head as a way of expressing fragmented identity.’
‘Character Head by Antonio Canova (above) is in terracotta. The face is very expressive .The shape of the eyebrows, widened eyes and the dropped jaw according to the guidebook is showing ‘an androgynous figure with a quizzical ,fain toy comic, pained expression. This shows how accomplished Canova was at expression emotion in his portraits.
The three photographs above depict two the exhibits that were by Emily Young, the first in the yellowish Purbeck Freestone is called ‘Purbeck Head’ and the last one in Carara marble is called ‘Laran’. According to the guidebook ‘the primary objective of Emily Young’s sculpture is to bring the natural beauty and energy of the stone to the fore.’ For me, seeing Emily Young’s work for the first time was exciting. I began to realise how she is not aiming for perfection , but uses the imperfections in the piece of stone she is using to good effect. She does not stick rigidly to conventional anatomy, but alters the features to achieve the effect that she is wanting to show. Also, for me, the brokenness of some of her sculptures could signify the human condition and our imperfection. Purists may find her lacking anatomical rigour, but I think her way of working could be very liberating, assuming one had already learnt enough anatomy to know where to make ‘adjustments’.
(1) Front cover and page 7 of Guidebook to ‘The revelation of the Head’ available from Messums Wiltshire.
(2)Above guidebook page 28.
(3)Above guidebook page 27.
(4)Above guidebook page 24.
David Newman (August 2018)