William Turnbull was awarded a major retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1973. For the artist it marked something of an end-point, provoking a crisis in direction. This was an understandable reaction to both the preparation required for the show and the inevitable critical interest which accompanied it, especially as Turnbull was only 51 years old. His solution was to begin to work figuratively again, modelling with air-drying clay on a very small scale. Amanda Davidson describes Turnbull making hundreds of little figures, some resembling ‘fertility figurines’, others like ‘pre-historic tools’. 1
‘I felt up to here with my own sculpture and had a tremendous drive to start at the beginning again instead of adding on and developing pieces. So I changed the scale completely and started doing very small things. I was trying to do things as if I wasn’t thinking. Of course it’s a total illusion - you find it all comes out like you in the end’ 2
It was a return to his beginnings and a major stylistic break with the large-scale, minimalist sculptures which had preoccupied him in the 1960s. However it was not until 1979, that Turnbull began to cast some of his clay experiments in bronze and then in only relatively small numbers. In the catalogue raisonné we see illustrated, side by side, the ten little bronzes Turnbull elected to cast in 1979. It is a fascinating cross-section of motifs, which prefigure many of the forms which would preoccupy the rest of his career, the paddle shape, flattened torso and arrowhead are all present, emerging as if all at once, from what was, in fact, an extended period of experimentation. Furthermore, Turnbull had first ‘found’ a number of these forms in the mid-1950s, so this series might more accurately be considered a definitive restatement of his core forms.
The form of Arrowhead Torso, makes reference to Cycladic figurines which often have enlarged shoulders and torso, representing female fertility (Fig.1). Like others bronzes from this sequence we see evidence of the artist’s hands on its gently modelled surface, which is punctured by a sequence of tattoo-like marks on the front and five lines on the reverse signifying hair (Figs.2 & 3). There is a wide variation in the patination of each bronze in the edition as Turnbull worked closely with the foundry, to produce a distinctive range of colours – here a glorious sea-green.
In this sensitive, small bronze we see an early incarnation of Turnbull’s Metamorphic Venus series which he worked into a series of larger figures between 1979 and 1983.
1 Amanda Davidson, p62 2 The artist in conversation with Clare Lilley, February, 2005, for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park exhibition guide.
Estate of the Artist
Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore Foundation and Lund Humphries, 2005, cat no.192
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