Football thugs, prominent genitalia and ruthless male potency: welcome to the world of Elisabeth Frink, review

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Elisabeth Frink with Tribute Heads, 1975 
Elisabeth Frink with Tribute Heads, 1975  Credit:  Jorge Lewinski

Elisabeth Frink was the it-girl of post-war British sculpture, a female junior partner to the so-called Geometry of Fear sculptors, whose ravaged surfaces and stark organic forms epitomised Fifties austerity and atomic bomb-era anxiety. Where male counterparts such as Lynn Chadwick and Kenneth Armitage soon fell out of fashion, Frink went from strength to strength.

Her striking, rather handsome features made her a natural for television and the new colour supplements, and at a time when cutting-edge sculpture was becoming increasingly abstruse – typified by Anthony Caro’s post-industrial abstraction – Frink’s big-jawed male figures and skeletal animal forms seemed reassuringly easy to understand.

Since her death, aged just 62, from cancer in 1993, Frink’s critical standing has slumped. Her characteristic blend of tortured textures and heroic masculine forms has come to seem rather mannered and of its time.

Elisabeth Frink's Mirage (1967) Credit: Dominic Brown

But a well-received show at Nottingham University’s Djanogly Gallery last year seemed to herald a revival in Frink’s reputation, a momentum that continues with this extensive and well-chosen selection of works from throughout her career at Hauser & Wirth’s idyllic Somerset outpost.

It begins with an array of her early works at its most uncompromising. Most arresting are a display of ravaged bronze heads. These aren’t busts or portraits, but the site of human and animal consciousness reduced to a blasted essence, chunks of waste-matter that appear dumped on the pristine white plinths. Frink’s heads lack bodies, eyes or, you feel, brains. One is clearly that of a horse, another, Fish Head, has a mouth with bared teeth: it can’t see, but it can devour.

As with all Frink’s work, there is a slight tendency towards theatrical overstatement, but the note of nihilistic desperation feels true to the spirit which underpinned much work in the late Fifties and early Sixties (the era of CND marches and post-war existential angst), represented by the best Francis Bacon’s painting of that time.

Elisabeth Frink's Riace Warriors (detail) Credit: Elisabeth Frink

A thin bird in black bronze with a dangerous knife-like head invokes Frink’s childhood in rural Sussex, amid a nature that wasn’t pretty, but ruthless and ruled by the same manners of “ripping off heads” as the beasts in Ted Hughes’s poetry collection, Crow. A selection of long-legged bird figures, explore one of Frink’s characteristic and obsessively repeated forms: the lower, “instinctual” part is attenuated in a way that appears obscurely erotic, while the upper part, site – supposedly – of the finer feelings – is reduced to a stunted, blade-like form.

Yet, when these embodiments of unthinking predatory aggression transmute into spindly-legged human form, they have an oddly hapless look. The armless Bird Man (inspired by the Frenchman Leo Valentin’s doomed attempts at flight), with his gouged and scored torso and obscured helmeted features, seems to lack the capacity to act for himself, let alone fly.

If Frink’s imagery tends to be seen as evoking a timeless, personal universe, this exhibition makes much of its connection to wider events, from Frink’s traumatic near-death experience during a German fighter raid during the Second World War to the revelations of the Holocaust. If the supposed relation of the rather prosaic Dead Hen of 1957 to images of the concentration camps feels tenuous, this political dimension becomes explicit in the late Sixties Goggled Head series of bronzes.

Elisabeth Frink with Birdman c.1960 Credit: Douglas Glass

Frink, then living in France, became obsessed with the inscrutable face of a General Oufkir, a Moroccan army officer implicated in the murder of a leftist dissident, seen frequently in newspapers at the time. In Frink’s images, Oufkir’s actual features are sublimated into a series of massive thick-necked heads, all bearing the same sinister half-smile, the officer’s dark glasses polished to a brilliant smoothness against the dark rough-hewn bronze.

In print, these images look rather comic with their enormous, galumphing jaws, but the real-life effect, seen en masse – and there are six subtly different versions here – is hypnotically compelling.

Her tendency in later years towards a cartoon-like stylisation is apparent in the works in the gallery courtyard, notably two huge white male heads from 1989. They may have been inspired by a visit by Tunisia, but the gormless staring faces are pure identikit Frink.

There’s a sense of striving for the powerful repetitions of the greatest “primitive” art, but it absolutely doesn’t work. The most dramatic works here are three of her so-called Riace figures from 1986-1989, larger than life-size bronzes, inspired by ancient Greek sculptures dredged from the Mediterranean in 1972, which impressed Frink with their appearance of thuggish aggression.

Elisabeth Frink's Riace Warriors Credit: Jonty Wilde / Yorkshire Sculpture Park

With white faces inspired by Australian aboriginal art, the three imposing figures step out over the gallery courtyard, looking around themselves like warriors arrived on an alien shore or, perhaps, a trio of football hooligans alert to the prospect of bovver. They’re typical Frink figures, male, of course – she stated many times that she had no interest in portraying women – muscular, with prominent genitalia and faces that bear a disconcerting resemblance to Frink’s own strong, “sculptural” features.

While the exhibition’s texts make much of Frink’s concerns with tolerance and compassion and her lifelong support of Amnesty International, the sculptures themselves represent a more troubled side to Frink, her pathological fascination with ruthless male potency which is obscurely bound up with her own sense of identity.

I’ve always struggled with the illustrative qualities of Frink’s work. Those Riace figures are on one level rather ludicrous – they have almost too obvious a story to tell. Yet their sheer scale and presence are impressive. Frink’s work may all have an all too recognisable stamp, but at least it doesn’t look like anyone else’s. This is an ideal place to encounter her work, not far from the Dorset studio where she ended her days.  

Until May 7. Details: 01749 814 060; hauserwirth.com

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