When the bristling, steel-rodded works of Lynn Chadwick were first brought before the viewing public at the 1952 Venice Biennale, it was to a reaction of visceral shock. British sculpture was more accustomed to the practice of direct carving, as exemplified by the monumental curved forms of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, who just four years earlier had been celebrated at the very same festival. But Chadwick’s cohort – Reg Butler, Kenneth Armitage, Geoffrey Clarke, and Bernard Meadows – saw themselves not as carvers but as ‘constructors’. They worked and even trained as engineers, welding and grafting, using shorn metal bars and iron sheets to create forms that, beside the glorious heft of Moore and Hepworth, seemed positively anorexic.
So stark was the contrast that, when confronted with their work, the writer Herbert Read was forced to adopt a new critical language: here were ‘New images’, he wrote, belonging ‘to the iconography of despair, or of defiance…of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear.’
Though Read’s slogan pithily connected the menacing qualities of this new sculpture with a post-war society coming to terms with the fresh threat of nuclear annihilation, in the case of Chadwick it was an oversimplification. Initially trained as an architectural draughtsman and designer, Chadwick had first begun to experiment with sculpture in the 1940s, producing metal mobiles and ‘stabiles’ independently of, but parallel to the work of Alexander Calder. By the early 1950s he was working exclusively as a sculptor, and over the subsequent four decades would develop a prolific body of angular abstract-figurative work.
These two tremendously rare maquettes characterise a major recurring theme in Chadwick’s sculpture of the human figure combining with pure form. From the late ‘60s onwards an observable vocabulary began to emerge of caped male and female figures, the former often rendered with an outsized rectangular head, the latter a slighter triangular counterpart.
Depending on the angle of placement, Chadwick found he could instil these geometric heads with human life: ‘I would call it attitude…the way that you can make something almost talk by the way the neck is bent, or the attitude of the head; you can actually make these sculptures talk, they say something according to the exact balance…’
From the crispness and clarity of their diamond heads to the austere drape of their cloaks, these two figures sit with a strong pyramidal presence. As in the constructions of Calder or the spindly forms of Giacometti, there is a paucity to the work, a desire not for fullness of form but for sharpness and line; sculpture concerned with edge and point as much as plane. Yet, far from the apocalyptic vision ascribed by Read, these later figures balance severity with delicacy, from the melancholic dip of the larger maquette’s head to the affectionately crossed legs of its miniature twin.
Chadwick’s two spheres of influence collide in these sculptures, where the structural tensions of architecture and mechanics combine with an intimate artistic tenderness. Though mere inches in size, like his colossal outdoor versions they command an extraordinary presence, a testament to his ability to fuse these two disparate worlds: to balance the technical with the tactile, the formal with the figurative, the severe with the serene and sublime.