Catalogue entry

Reg Butler 1913-1981

T03703 Musée Imaginaire 1961-3

Thirty-nine small bronzes, height in range 27 (1 1/16) to 194 (7 5/8), in a wood display cabinet 800 x 1213 x 120 (31 1/2 x 48 1/2 x 4 3/4)
Each figure, except one, inscribed ‘RB' and ‘2/9', the odd one (the extreme left on the second shelf from the bottom) inscribed ‘RB' and ‘2a/9'
Purchased from the Galeria Freites, Caracas (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Prov: ... ; Mrs. William H. Weintraub; sold Sotheby's, New York, 13 Dec. 1981 (65, repr., as ‘Imaginary Museum: Display Case with 39 Sculptures 1964'), bt Galeria Freites
Exh: ? Reg Butler, Sculpture and Drawings, Hanover Gallery, July-Sept. 1963 (16, as ‘Series of Small Bronzes, 1963'; unspecified cast); Reg Butler: esculturas en bronce, Galeria Freites, Caracas, May-June 1983 (not in cat.); Reg Butler, Tate Gallery, Nov. 1983-Jan. 1984 (63, repr.)

This collection of thirty-nine small sculptures grouped as a single work was unique for Butler, whose subject was almost invariably a single female nude, but each of these small sculptures was made independently and is not in any narrative context. The sculpture is number 205 in the artist's record books.

The bronze figures were made during the winter of 1961-2 at the artist's studio at Berkhamsted. They were modelled in solid wax, with some heads cast and carved in plaster. All were intended to be female. Butler had already made some shelves in an alcove in his studio, and began to assemble these figures on them. At first he intended to exhibit and sell the figures separately, but eventually, before having sold any, he decided on a particular arrangement of the sculptures within the shelves, which he felt should always be followed. All nine examples in the edition of ‘Musée Imaginaire' were sold, and none of the figures was available singly.

Butler arranged the first cast, now in a private collection in America, onto new shelves made of walnut, copied from the shelves in the studio, and painted black inside with the front edges left plain. To make the figures more visible the bronzes were coated with applied gold powder. In all later editions the shelves (made professionally) were painted white, and the arrangement of bronzes copied from the first cast. Edition numbers 1 to 3 were cast by Morris Singer and numbers 4 to 9 by Valsuani. A cast belongs to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington (repr. Selected Paintings and Sculptures from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1974, p.880).

The group was first exhibited with the title ‘Series of Small Bronzes', but after reading André Malraux's ‘Le Musée Imaginaire' (1965) Butler gave it that title. The photographs in this book of primitive sculptures appealed particularly to Butler, who kept a cast of the Willendorff Venus. Several of the figures in Butler's ‘Musée Imaginaire' have two pairs of breasts, as do some neolithic sculptures. Although he was fluent in French it is likely that it was the English translation, ‘Museum without Walls' (1967), that he read.

In 1964-6 Butler made a number of standing figures of nude girls similar to those in T03703, enlarged to about 500 (20) tall (for example nos 65-8 of the 1983 Tate Gallery Catalogue). These were his last bronzes of this type before his latest nudes, which were based on studies in polyester resin. Although T03703 is a unique type of sculpture, it can be compared to Butler's studies for a sculpture of a box-like building which he made in the early 1960's. One of these, titled ‘Boffite des Fétiches' (1960-1, ‘box of Fetishes' repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat., 1983, no.59), he thought of as containing enclosed figures. Some of his drawings from this date also show a nude partly enclosed by a box.

When it was acquired by the Tate Gallery this collection lacked one bronze (at the extreme left on the second shelf from the bottom), presumably lost since the Sotheby's, New York sale of 1981, which was cast from the original plaster by Burleighfield Arts Ltd in 1983 under the supervision of Mrs Butler.

This entry is based on a conversation held with Mrs. Butler on 6 November 1987.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.500-1