Elisabeth Frink and the Crisis of Sculpture by Arie Hartog

English sculpture was renowned worldwide after 1945, for two reasons. Firstly, ever since the Vorticism of the years around the First World War, Great Britain had had a modern tradition which was unquestioningly blazoned at home and abroad as a national achievement. (1) Everywhere else, modern art was regarded as international – but not in England. (2) Secondly, Great Britain was making strategic use of its culture within foreign policy to convey the image of a progressive and creative country playing a leading role in the post-war order. The instrument for this policy was the British Council. (3)

Elisabeth Frink did not fit into this matrix. “Englishness” was of no significance to her art. It was never about attachment to a particular landscape, but rather, about
beings asserting themselves. When she was asked, she cited continental influences: Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) or Germaine Richier (1902–1959). In the mid-1950s, some of her works were included in two travelling exhibitions by the British Council, but these remained the exception. (4) When Frink took her sculpture in a resolutely figurative direction post-1960, while foreign policy was discovering new developments in art as instruments of “soft power”, she was left on the sidelines. Although she was developing into England’s most popular woman artist, the covert messages of tension, threat and intensity in her works rendered them unsuitable for promoting the British identity abroad.

Had Frink not been a woman, it is possible that she, along with Rosemary Young (b. 1930), might have been the youngest English artists to take part in the 1952 Venice Biennale. (5)  No women sculptors were selected. (6) Instead, Frink made progress in the slipstream of her famous male colleagues and was always compared with them quite naturally. The fact that her style and thematic interests changed around 1960 made no difference in that respect. She is regarded as a late exponent of the “Geometry of Fear”, as the internationally renowned English sculpture of the 1950s is collectively known. Herbert Read coined the term for the Biennale, imbuing it with a link between the sculptors from the generation after Henry Moore (1898– 1986) and the nuclear threat. (7) It is likely that Read was responsible for Frink’s non-selection, in part because her work did not fit the vision he sought to convey of the English national character in art. (8)

In the early 1960s, when her work was resolutely figurative, two emerging art movements in England – “Pop Art” and the abstract and colourful “New Generation” – were expressing and transporting the fresh new spirit of the “Swinging Sixties”. The bronze figure on which Frink was concentrating by then looked old in comparison.

Seen from an English perspective, Frink falls between art-historical stools. The only unifying element for the artists grouped under the “Geometry of Fear”, “Pop” and
“New Generation” banners was rejection of the traditional figure, the very direction in which she was taking her sculpture from the early 1960s onwards. From the viewpoint of European art history, things look rather different: then Elisabeth Frink is one of the sculptors born around 1930 who consciously turned to the human figure after 1960 and provided a new impulse for the tradition that otherwise tends to be written off. (9) The year 1965 is considered the dividing line between modern sculpture and the alternative concepts of spatial art for which Richard J. Williams coined the phrase “After Modern Sculpture”. (10) Frink’s oeuvre gives good cause to reflect on what preceded that watershed, and what continued in existence the other side of it.


Three Films

Even if they often make an appearance, there are not many sculptures that carry a film. (11) When Joseph Losey’s “The Damned” opened in cinemas in 1963, its use of Frink’s figures drew critical approval: they held together the complex narrative about violence and the virtuoso lighting, and enhanced the drama with an undefinable poetry. (12) The dystopia revolves around a group of children contaminated with radioactivity, who are hidden in a bunker on the English coast. Because they are expected to survive the imminent nuclear war, they are being reared to ensure the future of a Conservative England, including forenames shared with notable royals. On the cliffs over the bunker, a woman sculptor played by Viveca Lindfors lives in her studio. Like everyone who discovers the secret, she will end up dead. Losey’s film captures the sombre atmosphere of the early 1960s. As the next step, Frink’s entire oeuvre is interpreted in these terms, (13) thereby cementing the image of the late exponent of the “Geometry of Fear”. (14)  In 1962 the Cuban missile crisis had brought the world to the brink of disaster, so that the appearance of Frink’s sculptures in Losey’s film overlayers the prophecy of 1952 with the immediate reality of the early 1960s: art as a symptom of the fears of the post-war period. However, there is another possible interpretation, for which a more precise look at both the film and the development of Frink’s oeuvre is necessary. When the unreflected assumption that the artist follows the filmmaker is questioned, the picture changes.

The woman sculptor character did not feature in the novel “The Children of Light” by H. L. Lawrence (15) on which the film was based, but was added to “The Damned” by Losey and his team after seeing Elisabeth Frink in a BBC documentary. (16) There are no written sources for this hypothesis but the visual motifs in the two films show striking parallels. (17) By having Lindfors say, in reply to a curious visitor to her studio, that if she could explain her work she would not have to make it, Losey indirectly defended Frink against a simplistic interpretation of her art. He himself stressed that his films were not about the narrative but about the theme, which he communicated using all the cinematic means at his disposal. (18) By analogy, the same is true of Frink as a sculptor. “The Damned” was delayed by almost two years before reaching the cinemas. Screened in 1963, it showed works by Frink up to 1961. Losey’s next film produced in England, “The Servant”, which was also premiered in 1963, again featured a figure by Frink. (19) In the house of a wealthy gentleman in which the servant is slowly reversing the balance of power, her bronze head, four drawings and one painting are the only modern artworks. Since this head originates from the destroyed “Warrior” (c. 1954), (20) which Oliver Reed had literally throttled in “The Damned”, for all the emphasis on psychology, the threat of physical violence is ever-present in these scenes. Frink’s works linked the two films and their themes, namely different variations of psychological and physical oppression in the English class system. She had told the BBC how it interested her that people and animals had to protect themselves from threats in everyday life. In saying so, she was giving an important clue for the symbolic interpretation of her work. The tension within it was never groundless.

There is another noteworthy link between the documentary film and “The Damned”. Frink was presented to the viewing public as an artist, a confident woman and
a mother moving effortlessly in worlds that were strictly separated from one another. In Losey’s film, the woman sculptor is the only person who defies the simple stereotypes of all the other roles. From that viewpoint her art is more than just apocalyptic; it is a possible redemption from a regime dominated by class labels. Only her sculptures interact with people of the utmost diversity. The typical idea at the time that an artwork acts as a symbol and is not merely a vehicle of (learned) content (21) turned the artwork into an instrument of reflection about a new society.

Most of the sculptures in “The Damned” can be identified as works by the artist dating from the 1950s. Among them is “Birdman”, a commission for Sedgehill School – founded in 1957 as one of the first co-educational state schools in Greater London – executed in 1959. It was the largest work that Frink had made up to that point: (22) being the work of a woman artist, it was a strong symbol of the co-educational schooling of boys and girls and a large, dramatic signal at the end of the film. There are hardly any known photographs, which makes “The Damned” the most important document of a work (23) that represented a crucial step in the oeuvre, since the opposition between legs and torso as purely sculptural motifs was radicalised. Until then, Frink’s figures largely had proportions based on nature; now, however, she began to exaggerate the cross-section deliberately. The legs became thinner and flatter, and the upper body (including the wings, in the case of “Birdman”,) thicker and rounder. The larger the figure, the greater the contrast. Since the client, London City Council, had insisted on having it executed in cement on the grounds of cost, the figure broke to pieces. Frink would never again work with cement,24 but maintained the sculptural direction she had found.


One, Two, Three Crises

There is a tiny detail in “The Damned” which comments on the situation of European sculpture around 1960. Bernard, a ruthless official, collects works by the woman
sculptor and his library contains books about the new abstract sculpture from the Continent, which has developed out of the figure. (25) In the grand English art-historical narrative, the return of Anthony Caro (1924–2013) from New York in 1960 marks the break with the “Geometry of Fear”, but even before that, sculptors there were aware that alternatives existed. As well as the commission for the school, Frink herself had executed a purely abstract work in 1959, and then decided to pursue the figure. A now little-known artist like John Hoskin (1921– 1990) had dropped his previously hybrid vocabulary of forms and taken the contrary route. During those years there was no European city with such a variety of sculpture on view as in London. The reason was the unique combination of a vibrant local scene and renowned positions from overseas. Frink later suggested that with the advent of Caro, an intransigence towards figurative approaches had entered the English art schools, (26) although the phenomenon she described actually applied to the whole of Western Europe. In the 1950s, diverse standpoints of representational and abstract sculpture along with various intermediate forms stood in juxtaposition. In the next decade the fantasy came to prevail that detachment from the natural model and political freedom had something to do with each other. The shift is subtle but important: sculptors who decided to represent the human figure into the early 1960s did so in the context of a way of thinking about sculpture which combined different thematic positions. The central categories were volume and space. In the course of the 1960s these disappeared from the discourse and the figurative sculptors – including Frink – were reduced solely to their themes. Frink’s oeuvre reminds us that alongside a conservative version of representational sculpture, a modern conception of figurative sculpture also existed. (27) The first-mentioned approach perpetuated traditions from the nineteenth century, adapting them modishly to contemporary taste.

The theme of the second was never the content, but the medium’s concentrated possibilities, which these artists extended to include the resonance with the living body. Volume and the influence extending into the surrounding space – two key categories of modern sculpture – attain depth and significance through the perception of correlations based on physiological experience.

Shortly after the filming of “The Damned”, the artist had a show of her more recent works at the Waddington Galleries in London. While most critics dwelt on the old
familiar iconography of bird creatures, Nevile Wallis – who had long been a sympathetic follower of her work – described a formal transition in her oeuvre: Frink’s successes and Giacometti’s fame had created a fashion for expressive modelling, which the artist countered in her new works by means of less agitated surfaces and sculpturally premeditated volumes. (28) Closer study would be required, but various English exhibition reviews around 1960 (notwithstanding Caro, whose lasting influence only began later) voice a sense of crisis in contemporary sculpture.

Three-dimensional composition was regarded as the way out. John Berger (1926–2017), a former classmate of Frink at the Chelsea School of Art and a respected art critic in the meantime, panned a retrospective of Jacob Epstein (1880–1959), the forefather of English modern sculpture since Vorticism. His line of argument was that because this art had been attacked as immoral and the discussion was restricted to its themes, no one had ever pondered whether Epstein’s famous works were actually good sculpture. Berger’s judgement was unequivocal: it was not good sculpture because it lacked formal consistency. (29) Wallis saw the problem persisting up to the present day. With reference to Robert Clatworthy (1928– 2015), another of Frink’s fellow students, he described how the politically driven search for sensational motifs of the kind made famous by English sculpture ran counter to the essence of the medium. (30)

Formally the development of Frink’s oeuvre around 1960 is defined by two, in each case seemingly oppositional, tendencies. Firstly, the figures are closer to nature but, at the same time, the sculptural contrasts are emphasised. Secondly, the surface becomes less expressive, which conversely heightens the impact of individual accents. One endorsement of this approach may have been Giacomo Manzù (1908–1991), whose work had been shown at the Tate Gallery in autumn 1960 in an extensive exhibition that travelled right across Europe and made a major impression on artists working figuratively. (31) In terms of content, the hybrid form plays an ever-declining role for Frink. Although dream forms like “Mirage” (1969) do still occur later, (32) the individual male figure and the head become her favoured subjects.

The hybrid form and the metamorphosis, themes that played such a major role in the sculpture of the 1950s, enabled a position between the extremes of representational and abstract. (33) The basic sculptural categories of volume and movement in space were never called into question. This changed after 1960, shifting the boundaries of sculptural discourse. The crucial question was no longer that of the degree of abstraction and the symbolic content. Younger artists were seeking new terms for an expanded field of sculpture and would shape the image of art history. Conversely, some older artists – Frink among them – noticeably disengaged from the question of theme and concentrated on the old-fashioned sculptural categories. Seen in that light, there are three crises in the history of modern figurative sculpture which compelled artists to make a choice. The first was when abstract art emerged and sculptors who considered themselves modern invented new concepts of figure. The second was when different forms of naturalism became the preferred language of reactionary politics and dictatorships, from which the modern figure had to differentiate itself discernibly. The third crisis can be dated to around 1960 and affects the sculptors born around 1930, who concentrated on the specific combination of figure, volume and movement. (34)


Three Figures

When Frink exhibited in the Waddington Galleries again in 1963, Edward Lucie-Smith, an author with whom she would later collaborate, (35) drew attention to her work in a short article in “The Times”. (36) He took “Meditations on a Hobby Horse”, a new book by the art historian Ernst Gombrich, as the impetus for a fundamental critique of the hard-and-fast divide between the active artist and the passive material which, in his view, dominated European reflection about art. He argued instead that an artwork must be understood as the coming together of the image (the theme of the book) and the material. As examples, he cited Indian and Thai sculptures as well as modern works by Richier and Frink: in these, the substance was laden with energy, an aspect that he believed was too little heeded. This energy had nothing to do with the reproduced image but with a synchronous perception of the represented form, the formed material and the viewer’s own body. The effect of the worked material, he wrote, is that a navel turns into this navel. With this statement, he was indicating how the here-and-now of the perception of an apparently traditional sculpture could be conceptually rethought. The integral question of presence would be taken up by younger artists in the mid-1960s and made the crux of their arguments. The fact that it was just as pressing for other sculptors was soon forgotten.

The central and largest work in the 1963 exhibition was “Judas”. Frink later recounted that she herself considered it one of her most interesting figures, and described its genesis. It started with the idea of a sturdy form fending off some form of attack, and the theme of betrayal had developed while the work was in progress. The left arm was inviting and repelling at the same time. The relative closeness to nature is a major factor in the ambivalence of the gestures in the artist’s mature work. Subtle shifts of axis and slight instability are read and interpreted via the viewer’s own body perception. A similarly ambivalent posture was demonstrated by the “Dying King” in the 1963 exhibition. (37) The artist tells several versions of how the closing scene from Laurence Olivier’s film of William Shakespeare’s “Richard III” made in 1955 inspired her to make this figure. (38) Later she added that the king had raised his left arm to defend himself against his attackers’ blows. (39) The arm position is a direct quotation from the film. After Richard’s throat has been cut in battle, he lies dying, encircled by his enemies – then rears up one last time. The interpretations by the artist herself show how ambiguous the figure’s posture is. It is neither rising up nor fending off, but both. (40) “Judas” is slightly over life-sized and the same is true of many of Frink’s major works after 1960. Although she never commented on this, it probably has to do with the experience of sculptors since the 1920s that, when viewed in space, a life-size figure always appears small.

One of the strategies for solving this problem was oversized work. The formal principle is found both in the late Giacometti and in Richier, and Frink cited their works as examples of a particular presence in space, where the figure did not merely occupy but actually dramatised and influenced the space. (41) They visually impinge on the space around them because they are large, and the implicit direction of the body structure and the movement of the formed masses are perceived. It can be contended that Frink’s sculptures do the same. The head of “Judas” calls to mind the helmets of the earlier “Birdmen”: a block in which a face becomes visible. As such, it is an echo of Frink’s hybrid language of forms of the 1950s. The sunglasses, on the other hand, point to the “Goggle Heads” that would follow in the future. (42) In 1963/64 her conception changed. She developed a bulky skull shape with a thick neck, from which her famous heads would later emerge. This prototype occurs in “Risen Christ”, a commissioned work, and in the autonomous work “First Man” (43).

By that time, Frink was a well-known sculptor and had received some high-profile public commissions. The gigantic Christ figure had been created for a new building in the Midlands designed according to the principles of the Second Vatican Council, and forms the centre of the space. The ambivalent, uncertain posture of the body, endowed with presence by its bulk and the placement of the volumes, is the means whereby the message of the Christian miracle is conveyed.

In March 1965, two large exhibitions of contemporary sculpture were held almost simultaneously in London. The Tate’s “British Sculpture in the Sixties” showed the spectrum between figuration and abstraction. And in “The New Generation: 1965”, the Whitechapel Art Gallery presented nine of Caro’s students who had taken forward his idea of sculpture: abstract, coloured and detached from nature.

Seen in retrospect, it marked the changing of the guard of internationally successful English sculptors. But above all, the two exhibitions provided a kaleidoscopic picture of what had emerged in England in the wake of Moore.

At the Tate, Frink showed three works, (44) including “First Man”, ostensibly taking up the most conservative stance. (45) It is worth remembering that this position, which can be summed up as presence through volume, is one that she worked up between 1957 and 1965. It was no retrograde step but the result of choices made against the backdrop of a mounting crisis of sculpture. Frink concentrated on the parameters rejected by the younger sculptors, and perfected her endeavour to transform any space by means of her sculpture.



In his review of “British Sculpture in the 60s”, “The Times” critic had described Frink’s “Plant Head” (ill. p. 11),46 a surreal hybrid figure, as indebted to the ceramics of Joan Miró (1893–1983). (47) The fact that it was first and foremost an exuberant volume pushing into the space, with the shape of a head hidden within it, went unremarked. “Plant Head” and “Soldier’s Head”, the third sculpture in the exhibition, have very different motifs but both document an outward-pushing conception of form that would characterise Frink’s future works (and was irrelevant for Miró).

Frink wrote a short reader’s letter to “The Times”, saying that she was unfamiliar with Miró’s clay sculptures and did not admire his painting; it would be nice if an artist could be allowed to come up with a similar idea to a colleague’s without immediately being accused of having purloined it from the older and more famous artist. (48) Between 1959 and 1965, Frink had evolved step by step away from the hybrid visual language of the “Geometry of Fear” and developed a genuine sculptural vocabulary of her own, in which suspense and ambivalence, the formed material and the represented theme were in interplay. From that time onward, English sculpture was moving in a different direction but she, being a woman, was still perceived as someone who followed others. That riled her. And rightly so.


1 On Vorticism, cf. Mark Antliff, Scott W. Klein (eds): Vorticism. New Perspectives,
Oxford, 2013.
2 A similar attitude (with British roots) developed in the USA in the 1940s and 1950s.
3 Garlake 2001.
4 Ratuszniak 2013, p. 200.
5 Garlake 2007, p. 139. Young would go on to marry Reg Butler (1913–1981) and
abandon her own work.
6 Garlake 2007 refers to the exhibition “Young Sculptors” at the ICA, London as one
of the sources for the Biennale selection. Frink and Young later featured in a small
number of British Council exhibitions.
7 Cf. Burstow 1993, Garlake 2007 and Hulks 2007.
8 Cf. Garlake 2007 and Hulks 2007.
9 Cf. Hartog 2020.
10 Cf. Williams 2000 and Wood 2011.
11 On the theme of sculpture and film, see: Felleman 2014, Jacobs 2011,
Jacobs/Felleman 2017, Liandrat-Guigues 2002 and Wood/Christie 2019.
12 Philip French: The Age of Violence, in: The Observer, 19.5.1963, p. 27. On the
function of the figures in this film from a film studies perspective, cf. Felleman
2014, pp. 118–123.
13 Cf. Winner 2018, a worthwhile cultural-historical analysis of the oeuvre.
14 Burstow 2014, p. 53.
15 H. L. Lawrence: The Children of Light, London 1960.
16 Elisabeth Frink in Chelsea, Monitor BBC 1960 (copy in the Frink estate). It is even
rumoured that Losey asked Frink to play the role of the sculptor. She declined,
but advised Lindfors during filming.
17 The camera circles around the same sculptures and the helicopter, for example,
which is so important to the final scene, also appears as a motif in the BBC
documentary film.
18 Cf. Tom Milne: Losey on Losey, London 1967, pp. 120–146.
19 In the literature on Losey, there is mention that one painting hung in the apartment
is a sign of the protagonist’s cautious modernity. Cf. David Caute: Joseph Losey.
A Revenge on Life, London/Boston 1994, p. 10. Six works are on display, so the
main character might better be interpreted as a collector who was in the process
of arriving in the twentieth century.
20 Ratuszniak 2013, FCR28.
21 On the concept of the symbol and its role in British sculpture, cf. Hartog 1999,
Hartog 2006, Hartog 2011 and Hartog 2014.
22 Ratuszniak 2013, FCR74 specifies 213 cm; the film suggests more.
23 Evidently, few if any photographs exist, so the figure barely features in the catalogues
raisonnés (Frink 1984, n. 62 and Ratuszniak 2013, FCR74).
24 Gardiner 1998, p. 109.
25 Identifiable titles are the volumes on Hans Aeschbacher (1906–1980) and
Francesco Somaini (1926–2005) from the Edition du Griffon, Neuchâtel 1960.
26 Frink/Kent 1992, part 2, 0:22:00–0:23:08.
27 Discussed in detail in Hartog 2013.
28 Nevile Wallis: At the Galleries. The Frink World, in: The Observer, 2.7.1961, p. 23.
The artist’s estate contains a large number of newspaper cuttings (today housed
at the Dorset History Centre), which were inspected in 2013 (Hartog 2013). The
digital archives of “The Times”, Newspapers.com and the “British Newspaper
Archive” were also consulted.
29 John Berger: Epstein’s Pyrrhic Victory over the Philistines, in: The Observer,
3.9.1961, p. 21.
30 Nevile Wallis: At the Galleries: Sculptor Vanishes, in: The Observer, 16.7.1961,
p. 23.
31 Along with the way in which Manzù formed sculptural contrasts, his “Child with a
Duck” (1947) should be borne in mind as the inspiration for “Dying King” (ill. pp.
12–13, 30). The connection with Manzù was pointed out by Tancock 2017.
32 Ratuszniak 2013, FCR205 and FCR206.
33 On the theme of metamorphosis: Lichtenstern 1992.
34 Hartog 2020.
35 Cf. Lucie-Smith 1994 and Lucie-Smith/Frink 1994.
36 Edward Lucie-Smith: Things Seen. Man and the Material of Art, in: The Times,
10.12.1963, p. 15.
37 Not mentioned in Ratuszniak 2013, FCR127. The figure is named in a review:
Eric Newton: Attack, in: The Guardian, 3.12.1963, p. 7.
38 Frink/Kent 1992 part 5, 0:05:50–0:06:18.
39 Lucie-Smith/Frink 1994, p. 119.
40 Cf. Wagner 2019, who interprets “Dying King” as a succinct summary of the
film’s final scene.
41 Cf. Gardiner 1998, p. 99.
42 See the essay by Feico Hoekstra.
43 In most cases the body prototype is exclusively associated with Frink’s second
husband (Gardiner 1998, p. 222). On “First Man” see Hartog 2013.
44 Three works are mentioned in the reviews: “Soldier’s Head” 1964 (Ratuszniak 2013,
FCR136, Illustrated London News, 6.3.1965, p. 27), “Plant Head” 1963 (Ratuszniak
2013, FCR122, The Observer, 28.2.1965, p. 25) and “First Man” 1965 (Ratuszniak
2013, FCR137, Birmingham Daily Post, 1.3.1965, p. 16). The publication “British
Sculpture since 1945”, published by the Tate Gallery in 1965 (Farr 1965), records
and shows Frink’s hybrid “Harbinger Bird IV” of 1961 (Ratuszniak 2013, FCR96),
which had been purchased by the museum in 1963. Not until well into the 1980s
would the museum collect anything further by Frink, a clear sign of her position as
an outsider.
45 “First Man by Elizabeth [sic!] Frink […] is, among the humans, the only one left
untravestied”, Richard Seddon: Grotesques, Fantasies, Inventions, in: Birmingham
Daily Post, 1.3.1965, p. 16.
46 Ratuszniak 2013, FCR122.
47 British Sculptors at a Time of Adaptation, in: The Times, 25.2.1965, p. 16.
48 Elisabeth Frink: Not Derivative, in: The Times, 1.3.1965, p. 11

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