Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2005, cat no.267, illus b/w 176
At the end of the 1970s, after almost a decade engaged with minimalist sculpture, William Turnbull returned to the figurative, organic forms which had characterised his early career. He began by making numerous small works, modelled in clay, and these motifs then developed into a wide range of human-scale and larger, idols and totemic forms, which would be cast in bronze.
These later bronzes did however retain some vestiges of both Turnbull’s 1960s minimalism and his abstract paintings. While the textured surface and primitive form of Blade Venus 1, might at first consideration, seem the antithesis of a painted steel sculpture, such as No.7, 1965 (Fig.1). In fact, the tall, slim forms of the Blade Venus series, have a markedly similar physical presence when experienced first-hand. Equally, Turnbull’s post-1979 sculptures, show a preoccupation with surface-detail and colour which traces back to an intensive period of colour-field painting in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The later bronzes typically have smoother surfaces than those from the 1950s, which are then inscribed with fine lines and marks - a technique more aligned with drawing than sculpting. In the 1980s and 1990s, Turnbull experimented far more widely with the range of coloured finishes he could achieve at the foundry. By closely overseeing the production of his bronzes, each work in an edition could have its own unique patination – with colours ranging from warm browns and blue-greens through to burnt oranges (as we see here)and blue-greys.
In the catalogue raisonné of his sculpture, written in close collaboration with the artist, Amanda Davidson, explains the imagery which informs the Blade Venus series:
'The idea of metamorphosis in Turnbull's work is as its most intense in the Blade Venus series. These large sculptures suggest the shapes of Chinese knives, Japanese Samurai swords, pens, paintbrushes, leaves and goddess figures in one elegant, slightly curved form. Their form and inspiration relate them to the Zen paintings that inspired Turnbull and to the calligraphic paintings, drawings and reliefs that he produced in the 1950s. Like a single gesture, with a wide and a thin section, they combine all of the breadth of the front view with the slenderness of the side view in one perception. Part of their ambiguity, and their dynamic presence, stems from the spectator’s simultaneous ability to see both the wide element and the narrow section as the handle or the blade or tip of the tool. Although they are absolutely still they are also balanced on their sharpest point, poised to act.' 1
It is clear that the artist enjoys the multiplicity of readings suggested by this form. It is well-documented that Turnbull, who lived most of life in London, studied and borrowed from the Egyptian and Cycladic artefacts in the British Museum and the Ashmolean, Oxford. But the shapes of some of his most exquisite works were, equally, inspired by the kind of prosaic objects his sons left lying around the house, in this case their marital arts knives, in another work, Ancestral Figure, 1988, it was their skateboards. Clearly Turnbull himself did not discriminate between high and low forms, borrowing from popular culture as readily as from classical sources. The titles for many of Turnbull’s totemic figures - Queen, Venus, Aphrodite, War Goddess - refer to powerful, archetypal, and mostly female characters. It is clear that this mixing of contemporary and ancient forms is quite conscious and for Turnbull, these figures exist somewhere beyond, or outside of, current time.
This series as a whole comprises six works, each increasing in size from the last: Blade Venus I, (h. 97.8 cm); Blade Venus 2, (h. 120 cm); Blade Venus 3, (h. 141 cm); Blade Venus 4, (h. 165 cm) and Blade Venus 5, (h. 216 cm), all 1989 and cast in editions of 6, plus 1 AC; and then, finally, Large Blade Venus, 1990 (h. 317.5 cm), made in an edition of 5, plus 1 AC. It is typical of Turnbull’s later work that he should produce a sequence of sculptures, (just as he would paintings), in which subtle differences in form, especially in weight and balance, are allowed to emerge, lending each version its own unique character. Blade Venus 1 is the smallest and most delicate of the series, Blade Venus 3 is notably elongated, the silhouette more wobbly, (almost calligraphic) and, in contrast, Blade Venus 4 is thicker and stands the most upright. This fourth version appears the most robust and dynamic and so it is unsurprising that this variation appears to be the basis for the monumental version produced the following year. What is harder to appreciate from reproductions is how, by changing the scale of these sculptures, Turnbull is able to manipulate the viewer’s experience of the same basic form. Whether a figure is smaller than one’s own body, around the same size, or overwhelmingly larger, is paramount when standing directly in front of the work, and especially when the work suggests some kind of animal or human presence. Turnbull was aware of this physical confrontation and many of his sculptures are deliberately positioned just smaller, or a little larger, than human-size to maximise these possible effects.
As suggested earlier, there can be a large degree of variation in the patination of the bronzes, both across the Blade Venus series as a whole, and within each edition. Owners of his work often remark on how different this colour variation can be, noting how the change in surface colour can affect one’s understanding of the object as a whole. The same cast reads quite differently according to the tone of the bronze (light/dark), the colour temperature, and how mottled the surface is. Some of Turnbull’s bronzes are almost brick red with little obvious colour variation, others are a speckled mixture of blue/green/brown and as a result, both the surface detail and the object’s radiance are greatly affected.
Large Blade Venus (Fig.2) is included in the Tate Gallery collection and in 2006, the Art Fund purchased another edition for the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. A further, privately owned edition is permanently installed in the foyer of One Canada Square, Canary Wharf. The Estate’s cast of Large Blade Venus, was included in the exhibition Alberto Giacometti: Man in a Raincoat at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts from 23 April to 25 September 2016. This exhibition marked the 50th anniversary of Giacometti’s death and included British artists who came into contact with the artist in London and Paris.
1 Amanda Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, Henry Moore Foundation & Lund Humphries, Hertfordshire, 2005, pp72-73