Thru 05 November 2011
When you look at any of Elisabeth Frink’s sculptures, what you see is what she made herself. You see her own touch, from start to finish. Frink’s oeuvre is vast, and includes many large-scale pieces, but she never employed assistants. Only at the very end of her life, when she was weakened by cancer, did she enlist help with her colossal Risen Christ for Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, and then she used a young architect, not a sculptor.
Personal expression used to be the sine qua non of artists, from Rembrandt to Picasso. Everything depended on the stroke of genius, the individual gesture that revealed the inner truth. This isn’t true of much art today, where the creator often hides behind someone else’s manufacture. The personal touch in art has become so unusual now that it is perhaps helpful to explain what one is actually looking at when faced with a sculpture by Frink.
Surfaces are essential to her work. A word of warning here: her sculptures are difficult to photograph. They depend for their meaning on their tactile quality. If they can’t actually be felt – though they should be – they need to be explored with the eyes, in three dimensions, not as a flat image.
You have to see Frink’s work in reality to appreciate fully the nature of the life within it. This depends on the work’s scale – always precisely judged by her – and on its presence in space, how it relates physically to you. Seeing real Frinks gives you dimensions of experience you can’t get from photographs. In this short essay, I’d like to explore just one of these – her finishes – knowing that the reader has the chance to see the sculptures which I mention in this exhibition.
Frink was a perfectionist; she knew exactly how she wanted her work to look. You might think this is too obvious to state. Art, after all, is a form of visual communication and all artists, surely, need to be fully in control of the visual messages they send. But looking at art has been so devalued of late, being supposedly secondary to thinking about art, that Frink’s obsession with finish might appear to some to be out of date and irrelevant – superficial in every sense. The exact reverse is in fact the case.
It’s not the idea behind a work of art, but its specific realisation that makes it meaningful and lasting. There’s a world of difference between a Madonna and Child by Michelangelo and a plastic figurine in a church souvenir shop. Everyone can have thoughts about the nature of life and death, and everyone does from time to time, but very few people are able to make these thoughts, and the complex feelings that accompany them, resonate in your mind in deeply meaningful, unforgettable ways, merely by manipulating what you can see. Great artists do this, unforgettably.
The wonderful thing about art is that the meaning is discovered in the making. And the making takes on momentum as the artist becomes more and more inspired, gaining energy from the excitement of seeing the meaning he or she is after become more and more apparent. This is the imaginative flight that took off, again and again, in Frink’s studio. It’s manifest in every aspect of the making and can be seen, in part, in her touch.
Frink’s handling changed throughout her career, all the way from rough and rugged to smooth and highly polished, finally becoming gently dappled at the time of her sadly premature death. This wasn’t a conscious, calculated development, still less a response to trend or fashion, but an entirely natural and spontaneous reaction to her changing feelings. These shifts were organic and gradual and happened almost imperceptibly over the years. They only become visible when one looks back on her work as a whole.
The changes in her surface textures chart above all her changing attitude towards the Second World War, which cast such a long shadow over her life. They are also informed by her feelings about her father, who was a professional soldier, about other men in her life, and males in general. Men and male bodies were always important to her. Her rendering of their skin alters as her perception of their nature changes. Her work tracks a slow journey from flesh raddled with suffering, through shining armour-plating to a warm body at rest, gently breathing. The surfaces of her art manifest the maturation of a life.
Mon-Fri 10:00-17:00:30, Sat 10:00-1:30
Beaux Arts opened in Cork Street in 1993 and over the past three decades has developed a reputation for exhibiting the best of Modern British and contemporary painters and sculptors. The gallery's focus is evenly divided between nurturing talent among the current generation of emerging artists - selected for their innovative practice as much as the aesthetic qualities of their work - and showing the work of established artists such as John Hoyland and John Bellany.